George Michael, the English singer, songwriter, and producer who became one of the biggest global pop idols in the 1980s as half of Wham! before going on to carve out a hugely successful solo career, died at his home in Oxfordshire, England. Michael, who sold more than 100 million albums throughout his four-decade-long career, died of heart failure at his home on Christmas Day. “It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beloved son, brother and friend George passed away peacefully at home over the Christmas period,” his publicist said in a statement. “The family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage.” Police described Michael’s death as “unexplained but not suspicious.”
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, Michael found fame when he formed Wham! with his friend Andrew Ridgeley in 1981. They would eventually become one of the most successful pop duos in history as the pair created some of the most memorable hits of the 1980s, including “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper,” and “Last Christmas.” The group split in 1986 and released a farewell single, “Edge of Heaven.”
Michael was eager to move beyond Wham! and its catchy teen pop songs and truly catapulted to global stardom with his first solo album, Faith, which sold more than 20 million copies with more mature, and often daringly provocative, songs. Its first single, “I Want Your Sex,” was banned by many radio stations but was a huge hit as its video got lots of MTV airtime. He went on to release a series of hits, including “Father Figure,” “Monkey,” “One More Try,” and a duet with Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me.”
Michael then released Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, which included a few hits but was largely considered a commercial letdown after the huge success of Faith. That sparked a legal fight over his contract with Sony Music that ended up taking a deep toll in his career and didn’t allow him to release another album until 1996. Michael was then forced out of the closed when he was arrested in 1998 for lewd conduct in a public toilet in Los Angeles. Rather than hide, Michael turned the whole thing into a single and video, “Outside,” that made fun of the arrest. “I feel stupid and reckless and weak for letting my sexuality be exposed that way,” Michael told CNN at the time. “But I do not feel shame [about my sexuality], neither do I think I should.”
Even though some singles still enjoyed success and he had a devoted following that could pack arenas, Michael struggled to regain the same level of success he enjoyed early in his career. His last studio album, Patience, was released in 2004 and as his hits became less massive, his name started appearing on headlines more frequently because of his health woes and brushes with the law than his music. And then in 2014, he released Symphonica, a collection of his own songs recorded on a 2010-11 tour.
There was some buzz about Michael earlier this year when his music—and even one of his videos—had a starring role in the Key & Peele film Keanu. And it seemed Michael was once again making recording plans as producer and songwriter Naughty Boy said a few weeks ago he was working with Michael on a new album. “I can’t wait. I don’t know what to expect. And, to be honest, he’s more mysterious than anyone else so I’m actually excited,” Naughty Boy told the BBC. Michael was also set to release a documentary in 2017.
Big names from the entertainment world quickly paid tribute to Michael after news of his death seemed to be the final stroke of a horrific year in which the music industry lost several icons, including Prince, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen.
Andrew Ridgeley, Michael’s partner in Wham!, took to Twitter to say he was “heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend,” who he referred to by his family nickname of “Yog.”
Elton John posted a photograph on Instagram of himself with Michael, writing: “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.”
Madonna also took to Twitter to say “farewell” to her friend and make reference to the tragic year: “Can 2016 fuck off now?”
Duran Duran, the band that was 1980s contemporaries of Wham!, also paid tribute to Michael on their official Twitter account.
Fans also gathered outside Michael’s London home to pay tribute to the star.