By now everyone has heard the news…. and, my first reaction was “No… not George!” We have lost so many greats as of late and all have impacted me, but quite possibly none more than George Michael. Let me tell you why.
I was 13 years old when I got my Tascam 4 track recorder in my garage. I was multi track recording with a sequencer, splicing tape… I didn’t know what I was doing except for the fact that I was making music as I heard it in my head. I’m not sure if I knew what the word “producer” meant at the time. Then, along came Wham!
I will never forget the day I got home from school and turned on MTV and there it was. “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” quite possibly THE catchiest pop song I had EVER heard! As a pop fan and a budding songwriter, I was beyond inspired. I announced to my family I had a new favorite group. The posters went up on my garage studio wall. And, as I struggled to write what I felt were “hits,” my Mom sited “Careless Whisper” as an example of a writing realm I had not yet ventured into. Suddenly, my own song was emerging with the minor key and haunting melody, epic sax solo, and even the concept of the title not being the obvious hook, but a phrase pulled from the middle of the song. As kids, we are directly influenced by whatever is going on in pop culture and George was among a short list of artists, which also included Madonna and a handful of others, who I was directly emulating in my formative years.
A lot of my friends made fun of me for liking Wham! A boy I liked walked into school one day and gave me all of his Wham! records and memorabilia because he was now into Depeche Mode saying they were far cooler than Wham! My love for Wham!, but namely the talents of George Michael, never wavered. When I saw “Written and Produced by…” on those records, it was the very thing that let me know that it was possible for me to do the same. I knew that he was channeling music without any outside interference and that notion captivated me. A man, his keyboards, a microphone… In my vision of George Michael in the studio, there wasn’t even an engineer present (though I am sure there was, which is a testament to how unadulterated and intimate the music was.) I knew he did not run these songs by a committee of execs who weighed in on his every note and nuance. I just knew. And, I respected the heck out of him for it. I wanted to be like him. He was the marker for me in my own musical compromise meter. I learned to be musically pure from George Michael.
George did not share details of his personal preferences in his early career. And what did that matter anyway? We were all in love with his essence and his voice. His voice had that tone that was so unique to him that if you were driving by another car on the freeway blasting his music out the window at 90 MPH you would know that TONE. The late great Ahmet Ertegun once cited that as the very thing that made so many of the greats great… To have a tone that is absolutely one of a kind that it pierces your soul leaving a mark forever… that you knew anywhere. His rich and resonant tone had that unmistakable “thing.”
At 14 years old, before I was signed to Atlantic Records, I called into WPLJ in NYC to try to win tickets to see Wham! in Philadelphia. I was a die-hard pop radio and music FAN. Lo and behold I was the 95th caller, and my sister Karen and I were off on the “Whamtrack to Philly!” En route, it was all Wham! all the way. Music, contests, t-shirt giveaways… I was in Wham! heaven! We were on the stadium floor amongst the masses, but I made my way to a spot in the stadium where I could call to George in the wings and I got a wave from him! It was all I talked about for ages. The concert was amazing. His presence was at once cool, magnetic and powerful! His voice soared. Chaka Khan was the opening act. Who could have followed her vocally? George Michael. Just three short years later, I would be whisked off on the Westwood One Radio Jet to visit with George backstage before one of his concerts. My “Momager” Diane and my younger sister Denise were with me at the time. I was already becoming known to the pop audience, but in that moment I was a teenaged girl… one who won tickets to see her idol and was about to meet him. I mean I had his posters on my wall! I was freaking out! He was super gracious and invited me to sit with him backstage in the catering hall to eat dinner before his performance. I could barely function. I was SO nervous, though he was super down to earth – albeit introverted – and, did everything within his power to set me and my family at ease.
I would continue to follow his career and draw on his productions and arrangements for inspiration. I had another opportunity to hang out with him after one of his big concerts in LA. His managers Michael and Terry Lippman hosted the after party and I was invited. It was at a house and then something happened to the stereo system. I remember finding myself assisting George in re-wiring the system to try and get the music going again. My friend and longtime dancer/choreographer Buddy Casimano was there and was recently saying that it was a night he would never forget. I never have and I never will. We were laughing and trying to figure out the wiring but could not get the music going. Turns out the plug had fallen out of the socket. My musical producing hero was human! That and a spot of tea in the kitchen with George made for the best Hollywood party I ever went to!
But at the heart of it all is the MUSIC. I know how devastated we all are that such an incredible talent and person has left us so soon, but there is such beauty in art and in the fact that he bared his soul and dared to be an innovator and dared to take a lot of heat for being who he was both personally and musically. He was SO crafty and wrote SUCH unforgettable hooks that it annoyed a lot of people. I love that he kept on writing those hooks and kept on coming at us with his physical and vocal perfection. “Faith” and the music that followed were his “Told ya so” to the critics who once made fun of him. With the integrity and sophistication of the post Wham! music, the critics had no choice but to shut up and sing his praises. I have always been proud to say I was never on the post Wham! bandwagon. I was a fan from note one. I know many of you reading this share that same experience. For those with eyes and ears that saw and heard beyond the confines of a 3 minute 45 second snapshot of someone’s talents and a pin up picture in Smash Hits, the soul of a timeless genius awaited. We Listened Without Prejudice to the future of music. He was always a step ahead.
RIP George Michael. We will all mourn the loss of your presence here on earth and what you would have done next as we celebrate your incomparable talents and the grooves you cut in our hearts that are forever a part of the soundtrack of our lives.