LONDON—George Michael, who rocketed to stardom with WHAM! and went on to enjoy a long and celebrated solo career lined with controversies, has died, his publicist said Sunday. He was 53.
Michael died at his home in Goring, England. His publicist, Cindi Berger, said he had not been ill. No other details were released.
He enjoyed immense popularity early in his career as a teenybopper idol, delivering a series of hits such as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Young Guns (Go For It),” and “Freedom.” 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.
Michael, with startling good looks and an easy stage manner, formed the boy band WHAM! with his school friend Andrew Ridgeley in the early 1980s. Helped by MTV, which was an emerging music industry force at the time, the cheerful duo easily crossed the Atlantic to become popular in the United States with Michael, as lead singer, usually the focal point.
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.
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.
Michael was an admitted user of marijuana and prescription sedatives and several times was found slumped over his car’s steering wheel after using both at the same time.
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 apologize to his fans and promise to get his life in order.
He also offered an apology to “everybody else, just for boring them.”
A year earlier, he had told a television interviewer that his problems stemmed from a self-destructive streak and his attention-seeking nature.
He said at a press conference in 2011 that he felt he had let young people down with his misbehavior and had made it easier for others to denigrate homosexuals.
Despite these personal setbacks, Michael’s musical performances remained strong even as his material moved farther from the teen tunes that first brought him to stardom.
The Telegraph newspaper in 2011 described a London concert appearance as an impressive event, calling his voice, “A rich, soulful instrument, it’s capable of serious emotional heft, expertly matching the confessional tone of his own material.”
Michael, with strong Greek-Cypriot roots, was born Georgios Panayiotou in England. He and schoolmate Ridgeley formed a ska band called the Executive when they were just 16 before moving on to form WHAM!
“I wanted to be loved,” said Michael of his start in the music field. “It was an ego satisfaction thing.”