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Remembering George Michael, from teen idol to mercurial pop icon

George Michael, the British pop superstar who reached early fame with WHAM! and went on to a solo career lined with controversies and chart-topping hits that blended soul and dance music with social commentary, has died, his publicist said Sunday. He was 53.

Michael passed away at his home in Goring, England. According to a statement to Billboard magazine, manager Michael Lippman said he died of “heart failure.”

Michael’s publicist, Cindi Berger, said he had not been ill. Michael’s family issued a statement through Thames Valley Police saying that he “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.”

Police issued a statement calling the death “unexplained but not suspicious” and that “a post mortem will be undertaken in due course”.

Reactions from Michael’s peers on social media has been swift.

“I am in deep shock. I have lost a beloved friend — the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist. My heart goes out to his family, friends and all of his fans,” said Elton John.

“Very sad to hear that George Michael passed. He was a very talented musician and singer. Love & mercy to his family, friends and fans,” posted Brian Wilson.

Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas added: “RIP George Michael. Mari and I and our family are gutted. He was a true gentleman, one of the most talented people on earth and the soundtrack to our youth. An absolute legend. We were proud to be able to call him a friend and will miss that beautiful smile terribly. Sending love to all of his family on this sad Christmas.”

Born Georgios Panayiotou in England with strong Greek-Cypriot roots, Michaels and schoolmate Andrew Ridgeley formed a ska band called the Executive when they were just 16 before moving on to form WHAM!

The duo enjoyed immense popularity early career as teen idols, delivering a series of hits such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Young Guns (Go For It) and Freedom.

Helped by MTV, which was an emerging music industry force at the time, they easily crossed the Atlantic to become popular in the United States with Michael, as lead singer, usually the focal point.

“I wanted to be loved,” said Michael of his start career. “It was an ego satisfaction thing.”

He started his solo career shortly before WHAM! split, with the release of the megahit single Careless Whisper, making a seamless transition. Critics generally viewed his WHAM! songs as catchy but disposable pop and gave his solo efforts far higher marks.

Michaels used his solo career to develop into a more serious singer and songwriter, lauded by critics for his tremendous vocal range. He sold well over 100 million albums globally, earned numerous Grammy and American Music Awards, and recorded duets with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Luciano Pavarotti and Elton John among others.

His first solo album, 1987’s Faith, sold more 20 million copies, and he enjoyed several hit singles including the gospel tinged title track and the confessional, both songs were helped immeasurably by a series of evocative videos that received wide air play on MTV.

The success however was tempered with Michael’s tendency for risky behaviour, displayed in both risky music videos and his personal life.

It all came to a head in 1998 when he was arrested for lewd conduct in a public toilet in Los Angeles after being spotted by a male undercover police officer.

The arrest received international media attention, and seemed for a brief time to jeopardise Michael’s stature as a top recording artist.

But instead of making excuses for his behaviour, he went on to release a single and video, Outside, that made light of the charges against him and mocked the Los Angeles police who had arrested him.

Like all of his efforts at the time, it sold in prodigious numbers, helping him put the incident behind him.

These years represented the height of Michael’s commercial success, which at times was marred by a protracted legal dispute with his record company Sony.

He remained a strong musical force throughout his career, releasing dozens of records and touring to adoring crowds despite a growing number of run-ins with police, many of them stemming from a series of driving-under-the-influence-of-drugs incidents, including several crashes.

His driver’s license was finally revoked for five years in 2010 after Michael drove his Land Rover into the side of a Snappy Snap photo shop with so much force that his vehicle dented the wall.

A passer-by remembering Michael’s early career wrote the word WHAM on the spot his SUV had hit.

He was also arrested a second time in public toilets — this time in North London in 2008 for drug use, an incident that prompted him to apologise to his fans and promise to get his life in order.

He also offered an apology to “everybody else, just for boring them”.

Michael’s determination to get his act together resulted in his short-lived decision to curtail his live performances, his December 1 date at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sports City was announced as his last.

“The design of the show is as campy and over-the-top as you could wish: glitterballs and lightning bolts flash on the video screens behind the stage. The band contains at least two drummers and is split over two floors, Jailhouse Rock-style, with soloists occasionally venturing out into the spotlit,” said our review of the performance.

“Yet when Michael sings Father Figure, he fits the part rather better than is comfortable these days: the Athena icon of the Faith video has given way to a stocky, salt-and-pepper-bearded bloke in a baggy suit. Nevertheless, the voice — that unmistakable croon, at once preppy and soulful — remains intact.”

The retirement didn’t last long, with Michael’s continuing to perform until 2012 with his last official date in October 17 of that year at London’s Earls Court.

Michael was active in a number of charities and helped raise money to combat Aids and help needy children.

* Associated Press

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