FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Singular Voices: George Michael
Tuesday, January 31, 2017 - 10:26 AM
When I began an occasional series called “Singular Voices” to identify rare and remarkable singers whose artistry is unique, George Michael was on my short list. After writing about Barbra Streisand and Charles Aznavour, I was at work on a piece about Michael when news came of his death on Christmas at age 53. On that day, millions were listening to his now-classic ”Last Christmas." I put that article aside as I did not want it to seem like an obituary. His artistry deserves recognition on its own terms. I am just sorry to be discussing it in the past tense.
I know many readers think of me primarily in terms of opera, which is understandable, but I admire great singers of all types and Michael was one of them. Since his death, several people who did not know his work have told me they know opera lovers who were particularly saddened because they thought of Michael as someone with an opera singer’s rare gifts.
He had a glorious voice that contained so many colors and shadings that were used to marvelous effect. He was a superb singer, intensely musical but always spontaneous in live performance. Rather than sing a hit song the same way each time, he sang it to connect with how he felt at the moment he was singing. Unlike so many pop singers, his live performances were not intended to replicate the recorded versions purchased by millions of fans.
You understood every word he sang. He had beautiful diction and a Lieder singer's ability to inflect a word and infuse it with more meaning. For the sheer gorgeousness of the singing, one of my favorite Michael performances was "One More Try”.
It is no secret that Michael had famous brushes with police and struggles with recording companies and addiction. He battled depression and you can hear it in songs such as "Father Figure" with its sad lyrics. "That's all I wanted, something special, something sacred ... " He began as a pop star but always had intense artistry that he cultivated. One of his earliest hits, “Careless Whisper,” was written and performed when he was 21 but seems the work of someone much more mature.
He knew how to strike a popular chord but also had strong political and social sensibilities. His music and words were deeply personal without being narcissistic. You listened and were moved because there was so much to identify with. Few people knew his version of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" in which he took a song from the Great Depression and made it relevant to the sufferings of millions today.
Michael was a marvelous singer live and not just in studios, where knobs and dials can be tweaked. On the few occasions I heard him, he was unerring musically and dramatically and the voice was gorgeous. He was shy and would have been happier to not sing often in public — he was sensitive to the comments of reviewers. Once, during a concert in New York, he lamented about what a critic had just written about him. Michael was not being a prima donna but seemed genuinely hurt.
He was a wonderful collaborator with other great artists. The first time I heard him live was in the Apollo Theater in Harlem with none other than Aretha Franklin. She is a phenomenon unto herself and most of the time when she sang with colleagues (apart from Ray Charles and very few other artists), she outshone them. But Michael lit her up with his musicianship and you could tell that she was inspired.
Michael was not only a great singer of his own music but did marvelous versions of songs associated with others. He never sounded like he was covering a song by someone else, but made it his own. Very few singers could do that: Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Bennett, Franklin and only a handful of others. But unlike most of these artists, Michael also wrote sensational songs that he performed better than anyone else.
He was his own producer on most of his albums. He recorded much of the instrumental music himself so that he could sing to it. This was not a crutch meant to cover up shortcomings, but a fuller expression of the meaning and sounds of the words, which he wrote himself. In this regard he was like the best opera composers but he also sang what he wrote. There are many so-called singer-songwriters but few are equally gifted as composers, lyricists and performers. Stevie Wonder comes to mind but there are few others.
To give you a sense of how Michael could sing another artist’s song and make it a different experience, consider “As" by Wonder, who sang the song himself with a choir. Michael decided to sing it with Mary J. Blige as well as a choir, changing the song from a vibrant ballad to a passionate love duet. Blige is properly funky and soulful while Michael is romantic and equally soulful.
One of his greatest live performances was "Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone" from 1991. In it, he channeled Motown greats but brought his own funk and magnificent dramatic instincts.
"Freedom" might be my favorite George Michael song, so I will present it twice. Here it is in an unplugged version with Michael surrounded by talented singers. His eyes are mostly closed in this intensely musical performance in which we focus on the song.
For contrast, consider a live version before a huge crowd at Wembley Arena in London, where he was always at his best before his hometown crowd. Watch the dynamism of his performance, but note that there is no musical compromise whatever, as happens with even the greatest performers in stadium concerts. I am sad that George Michael suffered so much even as he found love and acceptance by millions. His music is his magnificent legacy.