George Michael was the biggest British pop star of the 1980s, spinning a series of infectiously catchy pop singles into global stardom that saw him sell over 100 million albums worldwide. Blessed with a fine voice and a knack for writing engaging melodies that worked well with dance-friendly rhythms, Michael became the rare teen sensation who matured into a respected star as an adult.
Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on June 25, 1963 in the North London suburb of East Finchley; his father was a Greek Cypriot restaurant owner who changed his name from Kyriacos Panayiotou to Jack Michael when he immigrated to England in the 1950s. Michael's family relocated to Bushey, Hertfordshire when he was in his early teens, and he struck up a friendship with one of his new schoolmates, Andrew Ridgeley. Both Michael and Ridgeley were interested in music, and in 1979 they formed a ska band called the Executive; the group didn't go far, but it gave them a taste for the spotlight, so they took what they learned and in 1981 formed a pop duo called Wham! The early Wham! demos impressed executives at Innervision, an independent record label that signed the group to a contract. By 1982, Wham! had hit the U.K. pop charts with "Wham Rap" and "Young Guns (Go for It),"
Michael and Ridgeley soon discovered how unfavorable their deal with Innervision was, though, and they opted out of their contract by forfeiting all future royalties on material from their first album, Fantastic, to sign with Sony worldwide. The choice proved to be shrewd; Wham!'s second album, 1984's Make It Big, transformed them from British hitmakers to a genuine international sensation, as "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Everything She Wants," "Careless Whisper," and "Freedom" became wildly successful in the U.K., Europe, and the United States. Wham! soon became one of the biggest new acts of the era, and in 1985 they became the first Western pop group to tour the People's Republic of China.
But Michael displayed an ambition that went beyond Wham!'s new success, and the "Careless Whisper" single was released with the credit "Wham! Featuring George Michael," setting the stage for him to strike out on his own. In 1986, after Michael had released a proper solo single, "A Different Corner," announced their breakup and said farewell to their fans with a sold-out concert at London's Wembley Stadium.
Michael wasted no time making his mark, releasing his first solo album, Faith, in 1987. He produced and arranged the album, as well as writing the songs, and it managed to top Wham!'s phenomenal success, spawning a series of major hit singles (including "I Want Your Sex," "Father Figure," "Kissing a Fool," and the title track) and selling over 20.
However, Michael felt reined in by his image as a pop singer, and after taking a break, he released Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 in 1990, a set that was noticeably more somber, sophisticated, and personal than his previous work. Presumably to put the focus on his music rather than his image, Michael refused to appear in any music videos for the album and declined to tour in support; the album fared well commercially, but not as well as Faith, and Michael began expressing dissatisfaction with Sony, declaring his contract was financially inequitable and creatively stifling. Michael sued Sony to end his contract, leading to a long and costly legal battle that ended in 1995, with Michael signing to the newly launched DreamWorks Records label in the United States and Virgin in the rest of the world. (During the interim, Michael released a live EP that included material he performed with the surviving members of Queen at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.)
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