Singular Voices: George Michael

Tuesday, January 31, 2017 - 10:26 AM

British singer George Michael performs at a concert to raise money for AIDS charity Sidaction in Paris, France, 2012. (Francois Mori / Associated Press)

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.

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Comments [26]

VKS from USA

Beautiful tribute - thank you. Does anyone know if George Michael had vocal training or what he did to protect his marvelous voice? It seems like he continued to get better and better...will miss him but will always appreciate him.

Mar. 10 2017 01:10 AM
Julie M Grwe from Quincy, IL

Thank you for your wonderful article focusing on the man, the talent and not on exploiting him as so many articles have. George Michael was in my opinion unreachable in his music, he has touched so many. A beautiful life taken too soon. Will also remember the man who gave so much, loved so deeply and suffered so terribly.

Mar. 05 2017 01:29 PM
Kazue from Japan

Thank you for your singular article.

Feb. 05 2017 02:03 AM
Alice from Mtn View, CA

Thank you for this wonderful tribute. Another terrific live performance of Freedom 90 was at the Concert Of Hope in 93.

Feb. 03 2017 12:46 AM
Audrey from Virginia

I love opera, and I love George Michael, but until I read your beautiful tribute, I had never met someone who loved both and could give this underappreciated artist his due. Thank you for making me appreciate both things I love even more.

Also, my favorite George Michael legacy is his bravery and honesty about his very private struggles with love and sexuality. When I see a drag king perform one of his songs live and embody his spirit, it is one of the most inspiring things in the WORLD.

Feb. 02 2017 05:16 PM
Angela = from USA

Very well stated.....

Feb. 02 2017 01:48 PM
Jacqueline Wilton from British in Turkey...

Thank-you for the beautiful tribute, regarding a beautiful man...and to reiterate what you have written its exactly what my late father said, who was a singer in many choirs, barbershop choirs, sang all over the country, also with Vera Lynn at Hyde park years ago, and loved opera, hated pop music or "That noise" as he used to call it, also commented that pop singers couldn't sing just used to shout..as dads of that generation did...lol......but he loved George Micheal's voice, said he was very clear and when he was singing live was somewhat of a musical Genius to sound so good....x

Feb. 02 2017 09:21 AM
Alessia

Thank you....in the name of George <3

Feb. 01 2017 03:21 PM
Mary Kay from Pennsylvania

Thank you for this beautiful tribute to one of the most talented, truly gifted voices, songwriters our time has ever seen. George was so underrated and never given the proper respect her so well deserved. I can only hope now with articles such as yours that the future generations can come to see the immense talent and the voice that literally spoke the your soul and reached in so you could feel whatever emotion he was feeling. I have never had a singer do that to me and I am incredibly grateful to have experienced growing up with George Michael since his very first Wham album in the USA. I am going to miss this man beyond belief and knowing that he is no longer here to make new music is heartbreaking. He always had a way of helping me through just with his soothing voice. I loved how you mention he could make any song his own. He had a way of just singing from his soul and he felt everything he sang. I especially loved Killer/Papa Was a Rolling Stone as well, and his version of Stevie Wonders You and I is so beautiful as is Wild is the Wind and Can't Make You Love Me. I have never felt a celebrity death as much as of George's. I am truly grieving and am forever going to miss his beautiful soul and voice. I can only hope he found happiness and is with his Lovely mother Leslie. Thank you for this beautifully written tribute that absolutely captured all that George Michael was. May his voice live on forever. 💜

Feb. 01 2017 10:19 AM
janet gray from Kent

Thank you so much for this lovely written tribute to George Michael and his work. It is heartwarming to know that others appreciate his talents. It is such a shame that he did not get to read this because I am sure it would have meant so much to him. I am a lifelong fan and this means a great deal to me, so once again, thank you.

Feb. 01 2017 08:08 AM
Svetlana from Russia

The right words must speeak at the right time , when George was alive ...
Now it only words ...
Irreplaceable loss in the world of music !

Feb. 01 2017 06:41 AM
kiria from London

What a wonderful tribute to a most gracious and talented man, he would have been so flattered to have read this article. He so deserved these wonderful words, thank you. There has been far too much focus on negativity surrounding his passing, and its so refreshing to hear that he was understood as an artist, and his unique ability which we have all lost in a way, since he is no longer with us, we still have a glimpse of the man who rocked the world with his personality, his graciousness and his kindness to others, his music, his voice. So very missed!! Thank you for saying it like it is, he would have been so proud.... :)

Feb. 01 2017 04:34 AM
Tina Hindsbo from Denmark

Fred Plotkin, thank you for this wonderful article. Beautifully written and so true. So much s* has been and is continually being written about GM, so it's a relief and a pleasure to finally read a great piece from someone who knows what he is talking about and who cares. Such a pity it was published after his untimely death, because you would have made his day (decade?).

Feb. 01 2017 03:56 AM
Annick Van Steenbergen from Belgium

These are such kind and true words...I wish George could have read it. He was one of a kind, the most beautiful voice ever and so so talented. I'm also an opera lover, I admire beautiful voices and George was the best. I'm a fan since I was eleven and never stopped admiring him. He was not only a great singer but also a great man with a very big heart. He will be missed ♡

Feb. 01 2017 02:23 AM
IndianFan

You captured the essence of what George Michael was all about. I dont think any of the pop stars of the 1980s had as devoted a fan following as he did. Hope he finally finds the peace and tranquility that eluded him in his lifetime.

Jan. 31 2017 11:50 PM
Petrice Ussia from PA

Dear Mr Plotkin,
Your George Michael article is fantastic and really
captures and validates the true essence of him as a legendary iconic pop artist with his magnetic soulful angelic voice.
George seemed to have that genuine personality that everyone admired, so much that everyone misses him so much already and his passion for pop music.
Watching him sing " Marvin Gaye' s Sexual Healing at the Free Mandela Concert and Chaka Khans " Ain't Nobody " at Rock in Rio Concert makes me appreciate the true performer he was because he pulls you into those performances so magically.
I'm hooked on " I'm Your Man "from the Marquee stage show and I will always love " Faith " anytime anywhere.
I will always live him unconditionally...
Thanks so much,
Petrice

Jan. 31 2017 11:46 PM
Angela from Ny

This man was more than just a hit song. He was a part of our lives with his genuine spirit, and soulful voice, leading us to become more in tune with our own emotions and it obviously reached depths within himself. He allowed us to feel his pain, his sorrow, his joy, with each of his genius blend of lyrics and sound. I will be forever grateful for knowing I am blessed to have been alive to appreciate his gift and to have grown and wept and rejoiced; while all the while feeling connected to a man I never met but admired..

Jan. 31 2017 10:09 PM
Missy from KY

Awesome!! Just Awesome!! George was, is an inspiration to many. Been a big fan for years. He will be truly missed here in Kenutcky. His music will live on forever.

Jan. 31 2017 09:12 PM
Tricia from PA

I never before felt a need to respond to an article, but this is such a touching tribute to a uniquely talented artist and equally wonderful, from all accounts, human being. His honesty, depth and artistry will be greatly missed. Thank you for recognizing the incredible gift he shared with this world.

Jan. 31 2017 08:44 PM
Alessandra from Italy

Thanks from Italy. Not so many have been able to give him the right tribute. Your writing is great. George would be proud. He was e great man, singer and soul. God bless him

Jan. 31 2017 07:34 PM
Mimi from Uk

A lovely tribute to a truly beautiful (inside and out!) man. His voice was so beautiful it took my breath away. I have loved him since I was 14. A LONG time and am devastated he has gone. His songs, lyrics and music never fail to move me even after all this time.
Thank you George I will love you till the end of time x

Jan. 31 2017 07:09 PM
donna murphy from Dublin Ireland

Thank you for your sincere and fitting tribute to the rare talent that was George Micheal.The dignity that was in his voice was incomparable. Georges voice had the ability to connect with the joy and isolation at the core of the human condition. A truly beautiful star very much loved.

Jan. 31 2017 05:14 PM
claire woods from Norfolk, UK

'He never sounded like he was covering a song by someone else, but made it his own'. I agree with this comment. I never felt that he did a poor cover version of any song. Usually I don't like it when artists sing a song by someone else but I always loved what George did with these songs.

'He had a glorious voice'. There is not many with a voice like his.

'I am sad that George Michael suffered so much' So am I. I wish he could've found his peace, made more music for us and been happy. I will miss him so much.

Jan. 31 2017 04:41 PM
Jill J from Dallas, TX

Thank you for writing this lovely tribute to one of the world's most gifted talents that ever walked the Earth.....My only correction I need to make is that George wrote Careless Whisper when he was 17, not 21. :-) pretty astounding, eh?

Jan. 31 2017 04:27 PM
Ornella from Italy

You wrote so beautifully of George!Thank you so much! It means a lot to me.

Jan. 31 2017 03:42 PM
Laurie from NYC

The most unique, perceptive, and respectful tribute I've seen yet. Thank you so much for appreciating his otherworldly talent, genuine artistry, and profound sincerity. I will never stop missing this beautiful, gifted person who has meant so much to me for so many decades... and I also have great difficulty using the past tense.

Thanks again for this.

Jan. 31 2017 12:54 PM

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