George Michael dead: From Teen heartthrob to legendary songwriter

STUFF.CO.NZ

80s pop star George Michael has passed away peacefully aged 53.

George Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday. He was 53.

Michael died at his home in Goring, England. His publicist, Cindi Berger, said he had not been ill. No other details were released.

He enjoyed immense popularity early in his career as a teenybopper idol, delivering a series of hits such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Young Guns (Go For It) and Freedom.

George Michael at a news conference at the Royal Opera House in 2011.
STEFAN WERMUTH

George Michael at a news conference at the Royal Opera House in 2011.

 As a solo artist, he developed into a more serious singer and songwriter, lauded by critics for his tremendous vocal range. He sold well over 100 million albums globally, earned numerous Grammy and American Music Awards, and recorded duets with legends like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Luciano Pavarotti and Elton John.

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KIWI HITS

George Michael & Andrew Ridgely  at the Hammer smith Odeon in the early 80s.
Peter Still/Getty Images

George Michael & Andrew Ridgely at the Hammer smith Odeon in the early 80s.

George Michael's fan base extended to our corner of the world, where the pop icon's singles appeared on New Zealand charts throughout the 80s and early 90s.

In 1986, when Michael was one half of the musical duo Wham!, I'm Your Man enjoyed 12 weeks at number one, bested the following year by Michael's debut solo album's title track, Faith, which spent 15 weeks in the top spot according to charts.org.nz.

RISKY LIFE

Throughout his career, his drug use and taste for risky sex brought him into frequent brushes with the law, most famously in 1998 when he was arrested for public lewdness in Los Angeles.

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Yet, he managed to turn the incident into fodder for a popular song that poked fun at his behaviour, and his acknowledgment of his homosexuality at that time made him even more popular with his fans.

Michael, with startling good looks and an easy stage manner, formed the boy band WHAM! with his school friend Andrew Ridgely in the early 1980s. Helped by MTV, which was an emerging music industry force at the time, the cheerful duo easily crossed the Atlantic to become popular in the United States with Michael, as lead singer, usually the focal point.

Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael of Wham performing on stage in 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael of Wham performing on stage in 1985.

He started his solo career shortly before WHAM! split, with the release of the megahit single Careless Whisper, making a seamless transition. Critics generally viewed his WHAM! songs as catchy but disposable pop and gave his solo efforts far higher marks.

His first solo album, 1987's Faith, sold more 20 million copies, and he enjoyed several hit singles including the raunchy I Want Your Sex, which was helped immeasurably by a provocative video that received wide air play on MTV.

The song was controversial not only because of its explicit nature, but also because it was seen as encouraging casual sex and promiscuity at a time when the AIDS epidemic was deepening. Michael and his management tried to tamp down this point of view by having the singer write Explore Monogamy on the leg and back of a model in the video.

British singer George Michael performs on the first night of the British leg of his tour at the MEN Arena in Manchester, ...
PHIL NOBLE

British singer George Michael performs on the first night of the British leg of his tour at the MEN Arena in Manchester, in 2006.

At the time, Michael had not disclosed his homosexuality, and much of his chart success was based on his sex appeal to young women. His look was raw and provocative, with tight jeans, tight T-shirts, black leather jackets and designer stubble, and his videos pushed the accepted limits with many lingerie-clad models vying for Michael's attentions on screen.

ARREST

But Michael's situation changed abruptly in 1998 when he was arrested for lewd conduct in a public toilet in Los Angeles after being spotted by a male undercover police officer.

George Michael at Highbury Magistrates Court in 2010 to face charges of driving under the influence of cannabis when he ...
Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

George Michael at Highbury Magistrates Court in 2010 to face charges of driving under the influence of cannabis when he crashed his car into a north London shop.

The arrest received international media attention, and seemed for a brief time to jeopardise Michael's stature as a top recording artist.

But instead of making excuses for his behaviour, he went on to release a single and video, Outside, that made light of the charges against him and mocked the Los Angeles police who had arrested him.

Like all of his efforts at the time, it sold in prodigious numbers, helping him put the incident behind him. The arrest also prompted him to speak openly about his sexual orientation.

George Michael performs at the Royal Albert Hall on September 29, 2012.
Samir Hussein

George Michael performs at the Royal Albert Hall on September 29, 2012.

These years represented the height of Michael's commercial success, which at times was marred by a protracted legal dispute with his record company Sony.

MUSICAL FORCE

He remained a strong musical force throughout his career, releasing dozens of records and touring to adoring crowds despite a growing number of run-ins with police, many of them stemming from a series of driving-under-the-influence-of-drugs incidents, including several crashes.

George Michael departs from the High Court by car June 21, after hearing the court rule that the 30-year-old singer's ...

George Michael departs from the High Court by car June 21, after hearing the court rule that the 30-year-old singer's 1988 contract with Sony was not unenforceable.

Michael was an admitted user of marijuana and prescription sedatives and several times was found slumped over his car's steering wheel after using both at the same time.

His driver's license was finally revoked for five years in 2010 after Michael drove his Land Rover into the side of a Snappy Snap photo shop with so much force that his vehicle dented the wall.

A passer-by remembering Michael's early career wrote the word WHAM on the spot his SUV had hit.

George Michael performs Amazing for German TV in 2004.
Pascal Lauener/Reuters

George Michael performs Amazing for German TV in 2004.

He was also arrested a second time in public toilets - this time in North London in 2008 for drug use, an incident that prompted him to apologise to his fans and promise to get his life in order.

He also offered an apology to "everybody else, just for boring them.''

A year earlier, he had told a television interviewer that his problems stemmed from a self-destructive streak and his attention-seeking nature.

Peter Still/Getty Images Hulton Archive/Getty Images Michael Putland/Getty Images Michael Putland/Getty Images Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket Michael Putland/Getty Images Michael Putland/Getty Images Michael Putland/Getty Images Michael Putland/Getty Images Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic Pascal Lauener/Reuters Sean Gallup/Getty Images Mick Hutson Junko Kimura/Getty Images Paul Kane/Getty Images Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters Henning Bagger/Reuters Neil Mockford/Getty Images Jon Furniss/WireImage Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images HEINZ-PETER BADER

GEORGE MICHAEL: A LIFE IN PICTURES

English pop stars Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael of WHAM! at the 1984 film premiere of Dune.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of WHAM! performing in Japan, January 1985.

Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael of Wham performing on stage in 1985.

Popstar Elton John (right) congratulates George Michael on winning the Ivor Novello Songwriter of the Year Award at London's Grosvenor House Hotel, on March 13, 1985.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley pictured at the Great Wall of China on April 7, 1985. Wham! was the first-ever Western pop band to play in China.

Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael of Wham! at their farewell concert at London's Wembley Stadium on June 28, 1986.

Singers George Michael and Boy George perform on stage at an Aids awareness concert in London, April 1987.

George Michael lights up the stage in Japan during the Faith World Tour, his first solo world tour in March 1988.

George Michael pictured with former girlfriend Kathy Yeung on a train in Japan, March 1988.

George Michael won the Video Vanguard Award in the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, California.

George Michael and Stevie Wonder performing at the 1997 VH1 Honors in Los Angeles, California.

George Michael performs his song Amazing on a Swiss television show, March 27, 2004.

George Michael signs autographs for fans at the world premiere of his film George Michael – A Different Story during the 55th annual Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, Feb 2005.

George Michael and Paul McCartney on stage at the LIVE 8 concert in Hyde Park, England, July 2, 2005.

George Michael and then-partner Kenny Goss at the Japanese premiere of his film A Different Story on Dec 15, 2005 in Tokyo.

George Michael on the first night of his George Michael Live Australian tour at the Burswood Dome, Perth, on Feb 20, 2010.

George Michael at Highbury Magistrates Court in London on Sept 14, 2010. He was sentenced to eight weeks in jail on Tuesday for driving under the influence of cannabis when he crashed his car into a north London shop in July.

George Michael on stage in Denmark during his European Orchestral tour, on Aug 29, 2011.

George Michael clutches flowers from well-wishers at a press conference outside his North London home on Dec 23, 2011. The singer spoke to the media about his recent illness, which forced him to cancel dates on his tour.

British singer Adele receives the award for best British Album from George Michael during The BRIT Awards 2012 at the O2 Arena, London, on Feb 21, 2012.

George Michael on stage at the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, August 12, 2012.

George Michael in Vienna performing as part of his Symphonica tour concert, Sept 4, 2012. The tour had been interrupted for months after the British singer contracted severe pneumonia. He credited the Vienna medical team for bringing him back from the brink of death in the 2011 health scare.

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He said at a press conference in 2011 that he felt he had let young people down with his misbehaviour and had made it easier for others to denigrate homosexuals.

STRONG PERFORMER

Despite these personal setbacks, Michael's musical performances remained strong even as his material moved farther from the teen tunes that first brought him to stardom.

The Telegraph newspaper in 2011 described a London concert appearance as an impressive event, calling his voice, "A rich, soulful instrument, it's capable of serious emotional heft, expertly matching the confessional tone of his own material.''

Michael, with strong Greek-Cypriot roots, was born Georgios Panayiotou in England. He and schoolmate Ridgley formed a ska band called the Executive when they were just 16 before moving on to form WHAM!

"I wanted to be loved,'' said Michael of his start in the music field. "It was an ego satisfaction thing.''

Michael was active in a number of charities and helped raise money to combat AIDS, help needy children, and support gay rights. He had a long-term relationship with Kenny Goss, but announced onstage in August 2011 that the two had broken up.

CHAMPION OF GOOD CAUSES

George Michael used his talent and influence to raise funds and awareness for causes close to his heart - such as HIV/Aids awareness and LGBTQI rights, with charity singles and concerts sprinkled liberally throughout his career.

In 1984, he joined forces with other members of musical royalty from the United Kingdom and Ireland to form the all-star ensemble Band Aid, whose record-smashing single Do They Know It's Christmas? sold 3.75 million copies, with proceeds going to Ethiopian famine relief.

The single was number one on the UK charts that Christmas, nudging out Wham!'s Last Christmas, which came in at number two. Michael donated the royalties from the Wham! song to the Band Aid campaign, too.

Michael also enjoyed success with a 1985 duet of Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, with Elton John at the Live Aid concert. When the song was released as a single, proceeds were donated to to the Aids hospice London Lighthouse and the UK children's charity, Rainbow Trust .

In 1993, Michael recorded an EP Five Live. Proceeds went to the Mercury Phoenix Trust, established following the Queen frontman's death from Aids two years earlier, to support sufferers of the disease.

At the time, The Independent reported Michael's message of Aids awareness: "For God's sake, for Freddie's sake, for your own sake, please be careful."

Later that year, Michael headlined the late Diana, Princess Of Wales's Concert Of Hope at Wembley Arena.

In 2011, Michael performed a special Symphonica charity show at London's Royal Opera House for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

The audience included John himself alongside celebrities Kylie Minogue, Rupert Everett, and David Walliams, among others. The evening raised over £987,000 (NZ $1.8m) for the charity.

 - AP

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