Michael, George (originally, Panayiotous, Georgios Kryiacos)
Michael, George (originally, Panayiotous, Georgios Kryiacos)
Michael, George (originally, Panayiotous, Georgios Kryiacos) , 1980s teen idol whose career subsequently fizzled; (b. Bushey, England, June 25, 1963). The son of a Greek restaurateur and his English wife, Georgios Panayiotous soaked up the sounds of Motown, ska, and classic British pop that he heard in his neighborhood. He met Andrew Ridgeley, who shared his musical tastes, while they were still in grade school. When both were 18, they formed a band called the Executive, which enjoyed limited success playing in a ska style. When the band broke up, Ridgeley and Michael (as he was now known) renamed themselves Wham!, combining soulful melodies with their perky arrangements. They recorded some demo tracks in Ridgeley’s basement and sent them to various record companies. They were signed to Innervision Records, which released “Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do)” to moderate acclaim. Their second single, “Young Guns (Go for It),” went into the U.K. Top Ten. When their debut album Fantastic came out, it topped the U.K. charts, but was only a Brit-pop curiosity in the U.S.
Wham!’s sophomore effort, 1984’s Make It Big, became one of the biggest hits of the 1980s. The album was propelled up the charts by its infectious pop singles like the #1 platinum “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” and “Careless Whisper.” They topped the chart a third time with the gold “Everything She Wanted” and went to #3 with “Freedom.” The album topped the charts for three weeks and went sextuple platinum. It didn’t hurt that MTV was at its peak influence and both Ridgeley and Michael were extremely videogenic. Michael became the youngest person ever to win the Igor Norvello Songwriter of the Year award. In presenting the award, one of Michael’s musical heroes, Elton John, proclaimed Michael “the greatest songwriter of his generation.”
By 1985, Michael was already inching towards a solo career. He appeared without Ridgeley on the 50th Anniversary special for the Apollo Theater, performing “Careless Whisper” with Smokey Robinson. After the mania that surrounded Make It Big, Wham’s 1986 folio wup, Music from the Edge of Heaven, proved something of a letdown. Although it had three Top Ten singles, including the #3 “I’m Your Man,” the #10 title track, and the Michael solo “A Different Corner,” which went to #7, the album only managed to go platinum. Michael and Ridgeley decided to split up while they were still on top, playing a final concert at London’s Wembley Stadium for 80,000 people.
Ridgeley dropped out of the music scene in favor of race-car driving and acting. Michael tried to break out of the teen-pop bag he and Ridgeley had occupied as Wham! and create something that might appeal to a broader audience. His first step was becoming the first white male to record a duet with Aretha Franklin. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” topped the pop charts in 1987, helping to set the stage for Michael’s solo debut.
Michael wrote and produced Faith, a varied, sexy record. The first single from the album originally was heard on the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack, “I Want Your Sex,” a bit of Latin funk pillow talk that was too hot for many radio stations. About one-third of U.S. radio stations refused to air it, and it could only be heard on British radio after dark. The accompanying video became an MTV sensation. The limited radio play kept the song out of the #1 position on the charts, where it topped out at #2, going platinum. The album’s title track, a bit of acoustic latter-day rockabilly, topped the charts for four weeks, going gold. Michael’s hip-wriggling video for the song was no doubt a big boost to its success. The ballad “Father Figure” topped the charts for two weeks, and the gold “One More Try” was #1 on the pop, R&B, and adultcontemporary charts. “Monkey” topped the charts for two weeks and “Kissing a Fool” rose to #5. “Hard Day” wasn’t even released as a single, but went to the R&B Top 30 as an album track. The album spent a dozen weeks at the top of the charts, and went ten times platinum, winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. However, when he toured to support the album, Michael was upset by the teenybopper audiences who screamed so loud that he couldn’t hear himself sing. He wanted to be taken more seriously as an artist.
Michael made his case for himself as a serious performer three years after Faith when he released Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 1. Proclaiming his serious intentions, he stated he would not tour or appear in any videos to support the album; instead, he would devote his time to songwriting and improving his craft. The lead-off single “Praying for Time” topped the charts anyway. For “Freedom (90)”—a different tune than the Wham! Track—Michael’s record label Columbia hired models Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, and Linda Evangelista to lip synch the song on video. Several R-rated frames of Crawford had to be edited before it was shown on MTV. The single went gold and rose to #8. The final single, “Waiting for the Day,” hit only #27 and the album went double platinum. Michael felt that Columbia would only promote him as a teen sex symbol; his label felt that he was doing little or nothing to help them market his music. Frustrated by the poor showing of the album that he felt represented his artistic maturation, Michael sued the label to be released from his contract. This effectively put his career on hold for four years. He could afford this, however: in 1992, the London Times proclaimed him one of the richest men in the U.K.
Meanwhile, Michael recorded some benefit projects, like 1991’s gold, chart-topping live duet with Elton John on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” 1992’s gold #10 “Too Funky” from the AIDS benefit Red Hot and Dance and the live #30 track from 1993, “Somebody to Love” with Michael fronting Queen for another AIDS related benefit. In 1994, he lost the case to Columbia, and rather than appealling, he bought his way out of his contract. Michael became the first artist signed to the new Steven Speilberg/David Katzenbaum/David Gef-fen label Dream works. Six years after his last release, the 1996 album, Older, went only platinum, though it spawned two gold singles, “Jesus to a Child” and “Fast Love.”
In 1998, Michael was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a men’s room in a Beverly Hills public park. He pleaded no contest to the charges, paid the $810 fine, and did 80 hours of community service. Michael had effectively outed himself, a process he finished on CNN in the wake of the incident. The arresting officer then sued Michael for damages, saying the artist had defamed him in the video for “Outside,” a new track recorded for his 1998 double CD greatest hits record. The officer lost.
Michael signed with Virgin Records in 1999, releasing an album of covers produced by Phil Ramone. The songs ran from the Police’s “Roxanne” to the Bono/Luciano Pavarotti duet “Miss Sarajevo.” His solo career has been a slippery slope after a fast start, and it will be interesting to see if he can regain his footing.
With T. Parsons, Naked (London, 1990).
wham!Fantastic! (1983); Make It Big (1984); Music from the Edge of Heaven (1986). george michael:Faith (1987); Listen without Prejudice, Vol.1 (1990); Older (1996); Songs from the Last Century (1999).