Few could have guessed the transition from teenybopper idol to serious singer/songwriter would go as smoothly as it did for George Michael, who became famous as half of the British pop duo Wham! before ascending to pop superstardom with his solo debut, Faith. Whereas in Wham! Michael used his cherubic good looks and uncanny knack for a melodic hook to create ingratiating but disposable pop, his solo work reveals an earnest effort to achieve deeper musical and emotional resonance. His radiant ballads, insidious dance tracks, and blue-eyed soul singing established him as a top international artist.
Michael's popularity never waned in the U.K. — all of his albums have reached either Number One or Number Two on the album charts there — but subsequent efforts have been able to match his early solo successes in the U.S. Michael's first post-Wham! outing was "I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)," a duet with Aretha Franklin that hit Number One in 1987 and earned Michael a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo. Shortly afterward, Michael released the funky first single off Faith, "I Want Your Sex," which, bolstered by a sexy video, quickly soared to Number Two. The album would eventually spin off four Number One hits: "Faith" (1987), the shimmering "Father Figure" (1988), the romantic ballad "One More Try" (1988), and "Monkey" (1988). "Kissing a Fool" hit Number Five, further boosting the 14 million–selling Faith. 1988's smash album and Grammy winner for Album of the Year.
In his videos and media appearances, Michael cultivated a sex-symbol image, albeit a more rugged — leather, chin stubble, sneer — and mature one than he had nurtured in Wham! But with the release of his second solo effort, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, in 1990, Michael surprised fans and industry insiders by shunning the press and saying that he wouldn't make videos. The album peaked at Number Two nonetheless, and there was a chart-topping hit, the somber "Praying for Time" (Number One, 1990). The danceable second single, "Freedom 90" — whose lyrics spelled out Michael's decision to abandon his rock-star persona — went to Number Eight (1990) and was made into a video, albeit without Michael's presence. (Instead, a bevy of supermodels lip-synched his vocals.) In late 1991 Michael was back on the charts with a Number One version of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," recorded live with John.
A year later, Michael announced that he would take legal action to terminate his contract with Sony Music, the corporation that took over his label, Columbia Records. He charged that Sony, still wishing to package Michael as a sex symbol, lacked respect for his artistic expression and that it only halfheartedly supported his projects benefiting AIDS research and prevention, among them his duet with Elton John and his three-track contribution to a compilation album called Red Hot + Dance. In 1993, Sony grudgingly granted Hollywood Records permission to release Five Live, an EP of two cover songs performed by Michael on his 1991–92 tour and three from his appearance at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992, during which he sang Queen songs with surviving members of that band. All proceeds from the record went to the Phoenix Trust, an AIDS charity set up in Mercury's memory.
In June 1994 a London court rejected Michael's claim that his contract with Sony amounted to "restraint of trade" and upheld the $12 million contract the singer had signed with the company in 1988. At the time, Michael owed the label six more albums on a contract that could run to 2003. Two months later, Michael filed an appeal of the verdict. As the legal battle continued, Michael was unable to release new product. Under a special arrangement, however, Michael performed his song "Jesus to a Child" on television as part of an annual appeal to raise funds for needy children. After hearing the six-minute song, listeners pledged $32,000 to the charity.
In 1995, though Michael lost the appeal he filed, he signed new contracts with DreamWorks in the U.S. and Virgin in the rest of the world. He released his first album of new material in six years, Older, in 1996 (Number Six), featuring "Jesus to a Child" (Number Seven) and the dance track "Fastlove" (Number Eight), but the release sold just 900,000 copies in the U.S.
Michael's profile was heightened again in 1998, but for a more notorious reason: In April of that year, he was arrested for lewd conduct in the men's room of a public park in Beverly Hills. Michael subsequently outted himself on CNN, and though the court fined him and ordered him to perform community service, he seemed somewhat relieved to reveal the truth to the media and his fans. That fall, he even set the scene for his video for "Outside" (one of two new songs from Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael) in a public restroom; it featured dancing men dressed in leather and male actors portraying police officers kissing. Unfortunately, this was no joke to Michael's real-life arresting officer, who filed a lawsuit against him, claiming slander; the judge dismissed the case.
In late 1999 Michael put the embarrassing events of the previous year behind him with the release of Songs From the Last Century, an album of cover songs co-produced by Phil Ramone that ran the gamut from the Depression-era "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" to the Police's "Roxanne." In 2000 Michael participated in Equality Rocks, a concert in Washington, DC, organized by the Human Rights Campaign that highlighted the issue of gay rights.
Michael's next studio album, Patience (Number 12, 2004), achieved mild chart success overseas, but achieved its greatest notoriety in the U.S. with the inclusion of "Shoot the Dog," a tepid dance track whose video poked fun at Tony Blair and George H.W. Bush. A double-disc best-of, Twenty Five, followed in 2006. That same year, Michael launched an extensive European tour, his first in fifteen years. In September of 2008 Michael was again arrested in a public lavatory in London's Hampstead Heath area for drug possession. In a statement, an embarrassed Michael said: "I want to apologize to my fans for screwing up again, and to promise them I'll sort myself out. And to say sorry to everybody else, just for boring them."
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).