Pop singer George Michael, an acclaimed singer and songwriter who became one of the most successful and influential artists of his time with his band, Wham! and later as a solo artist, has died. He was 53. No cause of death was provided offically, though his manager has stated he died of heart failure.
“It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beloved son, brother and friend George passed away peacefully at home over the Christmas period,” his publicist said in a statement provided to tbe BBC. The statement added that Michael’s family have requested privacy and will not be making further statements at this time.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in 1963 North London to a Greek Cypriot father and an English mother, Michael first achieved fame alongside his friend Andrew Ridgeley in 1981 as the pop duo Wham!. The band’s first album, “Fantastic” was a major hit in Britain, but it was “Make it Big”, the duo’s 1984 follow up that catapulted them to worldwide fame. The album would spawn five hit singles and eventually sell more than six million copies in the United States alone, turning Michael, lead singer and lead songwriter, into a global icon.
Wham! would sell over 25 million records during their tenure, which ended with the group’s 1986 split amidst Michael’s increasing prominence in the band’s image, and his desire to break way from the clean cut, teen pop idol image associated with the duo. Michael would achieve that desire and even greater success as a solo artist with his 1987 solo debut, “Faith”.
An immediate worldwide success, “Faith” sold more than 25 million copies and produced six hit singles including the title track and the notorious “I Want Your Sex”. Though tame by modern standards, “I Want Your Sex” was enormously controversial, particularly in the United States which was at the time in the throes of a national panic about the content of popular music. Many radio stations, especially across the South, refused to play the song, and it became one of the earliest pop songs to see both edited and unedited versions of the song released.
The success of “Faith” and the grueling, multi-year tour in support of it coincided with Michael’s growing questions about his own sexuality. As such, he became disillusioned with and soured on life in the public eye, sentiments that led directly to the creation of his 1990 follow up, “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1”. A deeply personal record drawing deeply from Michael’s influences, it was perhaps the most critically acclaimed album of his career. However, it failed to reach the sales heights of “Faith”.
It still went platinum in multiple countries, but Michael blamed the less than stellar sales on Sony’s failure to support him as an artist. Michael engaged in a lengthy lawsuit against Sony, eventually scrapping plans for a “Vol. 2”. Songs written for the project would be donated to compilations raising money for AIDS charities, a cause Michael would support for the rest of his life.
By the mid 90s, Michael’s personal life began to overshadow his career somewhat. Having realized he was gay in his late 20s, Michael kept his sexuality private for years, but that changed in 1998 when he was arrested in a Beverly Hills park bathroom after making a pass at an undercover policeman. The event forced Michael out of the closet, and he became open about it from that point forward. He would later admit in a 2007 interview that the psychological stress of publicly living in the closet had taken a heavy toll on him, particularly exacerbating his depression, and that he considered the 1998 incident was “a subconsciously deliberate” act.
Michael also had several other brushes with the law over his drug use. He was arrested at one point for posession of cannibis, which he admitted to smoking regularly. He was later arrested for driving under the influence and served four weeks in jail.
But of course he was more than his headlines, publicly and privately politically active. He was involved not only in AIDS activism but also anti-war and anti-hunger and poverty efforts throughout his career, among other charities. Throughout it all, he continued to release hit songs, many of them, particularly from his Wham! days, becoming staples of television and film. Most recently, his songs “Freedom ’90” and “Father Figure” was featured in key scenes in the Key & Peele film Keanu, and the Wham! song “Careless Whisper” was featured in Deadpool.