George Michael, former Wham! singer turned solo artist, has died, according to the BBC. The news was confirmed by his publicist, who says Michael died at home sometime over the past few days. In a statement, the publicist said: “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. The family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage.” No cause of death was given. He was 53.
Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in North London on June 25, 1963, the son of a Greek restauranteur and an English dancer. As a teenager, he began exploring his love of music by busking on the London Underground and DJing at local schools and clubs. It was around this same time he met Andrew Ridgely, with whom Michael would find his first wave of success as a member of Wham!.
Michael and Ridgely formed Wham! as a duo in 1981; their first album, Fantastic, hit No. 1 in the U.K., but it was their second album, Make It Big, that included the international mega-hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” which reached No. 1 in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the U.S., and the U.K. They were the first Western pop music act to perform in China in 1985, a tour that was chronicled in the documentary Foreign Skies: Wham! In China, and they participated in the Band Aid recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” They also recorded the holiday classic “Last Christmas,” the profits for which were donated to charity.
While still a member of Wham!, Michael had a worldwide No. 1 hit as a solo artist with “Careless Whisper” (which also appeared on the Wham! album Make It Big), one of a handful of solo songs he released between 1984 and 1986. This led to rumors of strife within the group, and Wham! formally called in quits in the summer of 1986—but not before releasing a singles compilation, one last song, “The Edge Of Heaven,” and performing a sold-out concert at Wembley Stadium.
Michael’s next move was to record a duet with Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting,” which hit No. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K. This was the beginning of Michael’s rise to fame as one of the biggest solo pop acts of the ’80s, driven by his diamond-certified 1987 album Faith, which was a hit with critics and spawned five hit singles: “Father Figure“, “One More Try,” “Monkey,” “Faith,” and “I Want Your Sex,” which was banned on radio stations across the U.S. and U.K. and whose racy video was only played on MTV after hours.
The experience of touring and promoting Faith was a trying and lonely one for Michael, and he tried to shed his sex-symbol image and present himself as a more serious artist on its followup, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 (1990). Michael refused to do any promotions for the record, recruiting supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz, and Cindy Crawford to appear in the David Fincher-directed video for “Freedom ’90” in his stead. While five singles from Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 charted in the U.K., and “Praying For Time” reached No. 1 in the U.S. in August 1990, the album only sold about 8 million copies to Faith’s 25 million.
Increasingly frustrated and angry with his record label Sony, Michael sued to be freed from his contract in 1992, alleging that its eight-album requirement was unfair and that the label had failed to promote Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 to the best of its abilities. Amid the legal tumult surrounding the suit, plans for a followup album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2, were scrapped. Michael ultimately lost that suit in London’s High Court in June 1994, and he eventually re-signed with Sony in 2003.
The rest of the ’90s were tumultuous for Michael. He released the melancholy “Jesus To A Child,” a tribute to a dead lover, in 1994, and in 1996 released Older, a more downbeat album than any of his earlier work. Around that same time, Michael fell into a deep depression, culminating in a worldwide tabloid scandal when he was arrested at a Beverly Hills public toilet that was also a popular gay cruising spot in 1998. This prompted Michael to come out of the closet as gay, and publicly reveal his relationship with Kenny Goss, a Dallas-based businessman. (He also released a song about the incident, “Outside,” whose video featured male police officers kissing.)
2004’s Patience was a comeback album for Michael, but his ambivalence towards his own stardom and troubles with the law continued with several drug arrests throughout the remainder of the decade. In 2011, he was admitted to a hospital in Vienna with pneumonia, and nearly died. Throughout it all, his star continued to rise once again in his native England, and his 2014 album Symphonica was his seventh solo album to top the British charts. Just last month, Michael announced that he was working on a new album with producer Naughty Boy, and that he was working on a film, Freedom: George Michael, to accompany the reissue of Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1.