George Michael, the British singer, musician and founding member of Wham!, died over the Christmas holiday, his publicist confirms to USA TODAY. He was 53.
“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,” read a statement sent to USA TODAY by Michael’s London-based publicist, Connie Filippello. “The family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage.”
The musician died in Goring, England.
The BBC was the first to report Michael’s death. The cause of death was heart failure, according to Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter.
The pop star’s death stunned the entertainment community. His U.S. publicist, Cindi Berger, told the Associated Press he had not been ill.
“I am in deep shock,” Elton John wrote on Instagram. “I have lost a beloved friend — the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist. My heart goes out to his family and all of his fans.”
Michael sold more than 100 million albums globally, earned numerous Grammy Awards, and recorded duets with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Luciano Pavarotti and John, among others.
Few teen idols have made critics eat their words more handily than Michael did back in his late-’80s heyday, when the former Wham! frontman emerged as one of the most successful and admired singer/songwriters of that decade. But in the years that followed, Michael made news more frequently for his professional struggles and personal scandal, even as he continued to record and tour profitably and inspire younger acts.
Born Georgios Panayiotou in North London — his father was a Greek immigrant — Michael met another aspiring musician, Andrew Ridgeley, while both were attending secondary school in Hertfordshire. By 1982, they were recording together as the bubble-gum duo Wham!, and within two years they would be among the world’s most popular acts, with bouncy hits such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Freedom becoming staples of the early MTV era.
One song from Wham!’s American breakthrough album, Make It Big, was credited to Michael as a solo artist when it was released as a single: the lovelorn ballad Careless Whisper, which reached No. 1 in the U.K., the USA and various other countries. That feat, and subsequent well-received solo turns, including a duet with Aretha Franklin (1987’s I Knew You Were Waiting for Me), led many to suspect that Wham!’s frontman had abilities and ambitions beyond making little girls scream.
Michael’s first solo album, 1987’s Faith, confirmed that. With six top-five singles — among them the title track, the then-controversial smash I Want Your Sex and the rhapsodic Father Figure — Faith dominated the charts for much of 1988, and has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide to date.
But Michael’s solo debut, which earned a Grammy Award in 1989 for album of the year, was more than a commercial milestone. Faith’s artful blend of pop, funk and blue-eyed-soul textures made it the first album by a Caucasian artist to reach the top position on Billboard’s R&B chart. Michael’s intense creative involvement — he wrote all the songs, most independently, and also produced — helped reshape the template for pop acts. Even Michael Jackson hadn’t been quite so autonomous, collaborating heavily with Quincy Jones and others on his ’80s megahits.
If Faith clearly demanded a new level of respect, some viewed Michael’s behavior in its wake as self-defeating. He refused to actively promote his much-anticipated follow-up album, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, and didn’t appear in its music videos; for the hit single Freedom! ’90, he memorably tapped a bevy of supermodels, among them Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, to lip-sync the lyrics. Listen yielded other hits, notably the chart-topping first single Praying for Time, but didn’t approach the massive success of its predecessor. Michael wound up suing his label, Sony Music, for insufficiently supporting him, and a Vol. 2 was abandoned amid legal battles.
He continued to release albums — Michael’s last studio effort, the aptly titled Patience, came out in 2004, and his final album was 2014’s live Symphonica — but his music career would be overshadowed by his tabloid exploits. Longstanding questions about Michael’s sexual orientation came to the fore in 1998, when he was arrested for lewd behavior after revealing himself to another man, who turned out to be a police officer, in a public restroom in Beverly Hills.
Michael would later make light of the incident, and became more open about his homosexuality. Having lost a partner, Brazilian designer Anselmo Feleppa, to a cerebral hemorrhage in 1993, Michael began a long-term relationship a few years later, with Texas-born businessman Kenny Goss; they split in 2009. The singer, whose charity work dates back to his participation in the 1984 Band Aid single Do They Know It’s Christmas?, also raised money for AIDS research and terminally ill children.
There would be other run-ins with the law for Michael, who between 2006 and 2010 was arrested several times in London for possession of drugs and driving under the influence. Michael was hospitalized in November 2011 in Austria for pneumonia after postponing a series of concerts.
In 2004, the Radio Academy declared that his music had been played on British radio more than that of any artist between 1984 and 2004.
That year, Michael told USA TODAY that he “was kind of glad that my success level went down in America. I got more of a life, got to enjoy being in America, with less attention than I was used to in Europe. But now I’m strong again. I feel ready to take on the world.”