George Michael, who became famous in the 1980s as lead singer for the band Wham and went on to a successful solo career, has died at the age of 53, his publicist said.
Michael died at his home in Goring, England. His publicist, Cindi Berger, said he had not been ill. Michael’s manager, Michael Lippman, says the cause of death was heart failure. His 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.”
Before Lippmann’s announcement, police issued a statement calling the death “unexplained but not suspicious” and that “a post mortem will be undertaken in due course.”
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Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were the duo behind Wham, briefly known as Wham! UK to prevent confusion with an American band also known as Wham, which reached the top of the charts in the U.S. and U.K. in 1985 with their single “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
That was followed by “Careless Whisper,” written by Ridgeley and issued as a George Michael solo piece. “Careless Whisper” was the No. 1 song of the year on the Billboard charts in 1985, and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
Michael performed at Live Aid in 1985, a fundraising concert for victims of the famine in Ethiopia, singing the Elton John hit “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me” with John.
The song “Last Christmas,” released as a double-A side single with “Everything She Wants,” also came out around this time, and is a holiday classic.
Wham broke up in 1986. In 1987, Michael released his first solo album, “Faith,” which sold more than 20 million copies. The first single from that album, “I Want Your Sex,” was banned by many radio stations due to its racy lyrics; but it still made it into the top 10 in both the U.S. and the U.K.
As a solo artist, he developed 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 legends like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Luciano Pavarotti and Elton John.
During the 2000s, Michael’s output slowed; his last studio album of new songs was “Patience” in 2004. In later years, he put out individual songs as free downloads, encouraging listeners to contribute to charity. But in 2006, 25 years into his career, he could still headline stadiums worldwide.
Michael was born in London on June 25, 1963, as Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, the son of a Greek restaurateur and an English dancer. He met Ridgeley in school and formed a ska band with him. In 1981 he and Ridgeley formed Wham and in 1983 released an album, “Fantastic,” which topped the British charts. Their next album was “Make it Big,” which was No. 1 on the U.S. charts.
Michael, popular with teenaged girls for his good looks, was the subject of ongoing rumors that he was gay, which proved to be true. But in 1998, he was arrested for soliciting sex in a public restroom at a park in Beverly Hills, Calif. Michael pleaded no contest, was fined $810 and sentenced to 80 hours of community service.
A week after his arrest, Michael came out as gay in an interview with CNN.
“I don’t feel any shame. I feel stupid and I feel reckless and weak for having allowed my sexuality to be exposed this way. But I don’t feel any shame whatsoever,” he told CNN, adding, “I want to say that I have no problem with people knowing that I’m in a relationship with a man right now. I have not been in a relationship with a woman for almost 10 years.”
Long before the incident, he had told his sisters, Ridgeley and close friends about his sexuality, but said he kept it a secret from the public because he was afraid of how it would affect his mother. By then he had been involved with Kenny Goss for a few years; their relationship continued until 2011.
Michael also poked fun at himself and the Los Angeles Police Department with the hit single and video “Outside.”
In 2006 he was arrested twice, once for drug possession and once for engaging in anonymous public sex.
He was arrested in 2008 and 2010 for drug possession; on the latter occasion, he was also found to be driving while under the influence of drugs and sentenced to eight weeks in prison, a fine and a five-year ban on driving.
Michael had been out of the spotlight for the past several years, after a life-threatening bout of pneumonia in 2011. “I’m a new man,” he told the British media after he recovered, adding, “I have an amazing, amazing life, and if I wasn’t spiritual enough before the last four, five weeks then I certainly am now.”
As news of Michael’s death broke, tributes started pouring in on social media:
George Takei tweeted, “Rest with the glittering stars, George Michael. You’ve found your Freedom, your Faith. It was your Last Christmas, and we shall miss you.”
Elton John tweeted, “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 and all of his fans. @GeorgeMichael #RIP”
DuranDuran wrote, “2016 — loss of another talented soul. All our love and sympathy to @GeorgeMichael’s family.”
The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times contributed to this report.
Reactions to George Michael’s death
“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.” – Elton John, on Instagram.
“Heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend Yog. Me, his loved ones, his friends, the world of music, the world at large. 4ever loved. A xx” – Michael’s Wham! groupmate Andrew Ridgeley on Twitter. Yog stands for “Yours Only George.”
“Absolutely devastated to hear of the loss of @GeorgeMichael Truly brilliant talent #sad #sad #sad” – Martin Fry of band ABC.
“This is so crazy. I was just at his house the morning of the 23rd. So crazy.” – producer-musician Nile Rodgers.
“Can’t believe George Michael has passed … one of the greatest singers and writers the UK ever produced. I’m really saddened … a lovely man.” – singer Howard Jones.
“Other than a global pop phenom, George Michael was one of the true British soul greats. A lot of us owe him an unpayable debt. bye George xx” – producer-musician Mark Ronson on Twitter.
“I met George Michael a few times & he was ever a gentle, unassuming soul. A rare presence in a world full of self. Honest, genuine talent.” – singer-songwriter Alison Moyet on Twitter.
“It’s hard to take in. One of our most talented singer songwriters has left us. RIP George Michael. Such sad, tragic news. 2016 please end.” – pop group Simply Red on Twitter.