Even when Wham! were in their pomp and George was contributing to his friend and sparring partner Elton John’s ‘Nikita’ and ‘Wrap Her Up’, it was plain that George’s destiny was solo. His new, more mature songs were too worldly, too adult to fit into the format of a good-time duo. He’d already dipped a toe in solo waters in 1984 with a song he’d written as a 17-year-old (“a very precocious lyric!” he quipped) while riding the number 32 bus home as a teenager. ‘Careless Whisper’ not only introduced one of the great lines in popular music, “guilty feet have got no rhythm”, but it showed that there was more to George than the instant joy of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’. ‘Careless Whisper’ charged to Number 1 in America, where it was credited to Wham! Featuring George Michael, and topped the charts in Australia, Canada, France, Holland, Italy, Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland and the UK, amongst others.
Just to prove ‘Careless Whisper’ was no fluke, before Wham!’s final hurrah, George’s second solo single, ‘A Different Corner’ topped the British charts and went Top 10 in the US, Australia, Austria, Germany, Holland, Ireland and Switzerland. As someone once almost said, you didn’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing.
His first post-Wham! offering wasn’t even a solo effort. Instead, hot on the heels of duetting with Stevie Wonder on a glorious ‘Love’s In Need Of Love Today’ at the world’s leading soul venue, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, George became the first white male vocalist to duet with Aretha Franklin, whom he described as “the best female soul singer in the world”. The magical, life-affirming, Grammy-winning ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ swept its way to Number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, Australia, Ireland and Holland.
Then, shortly after George contributed vocals to ex-Shalamar chanteuse Jody Watley’s self-titled album, came the iconic, ground-breaking ‘Faith’. It would eventually top charts in the UK, US, Australia, Ireland and Holland before going 10X Platinum in the US and 5X Platinum in the UK. Released in October 1987 and recorded earlier that year at Puk, in Jutland, somewhere in the Danish countryside (it was a tax year thing; but George just yearned for home) and Sarm West Studio 2 in West London, it surprised anyone who suspected that Wham!’s obvious style and swagger, meant George Michael’s songwriting lacked real depth.
‘Faith’ is the one written (except for his childhood friend David Austin’s sterling contribution to ‘Look At Your Hands’), produced and arranged by George himself. It’s the one which stayed atop the American charts for 12 weeks and the one which spawned four of his six number one US singles: ‘Faith’ itself, ‘Father Figure’, ‘One More Try’ and ‘Monkey’.
Widely acclaimed as the British ‘Thriller’, ‘Faith’ sold over 10 million copies in the US alone (it’s found its way into almost 25 million homes worldwide), it transformed George Michael from global teen idol to global adult superstar – in the process coining one of his least favourite phrases “doing a George Michael” – and it paved the way for the extraordinary delights to come.
‘Faith’ made the Michael mantelpiece sag with awards: a Grammy for Album Of The Year; three American Music Awards: Favourite Album (Soul/R&B); Favourite Male Vocalist (Soul/R&B) and Favourite Male Vocalist (Pop/Rock). There was an MTV Award for ‘Father Figure’ (Best Direction) and Ivor Novello Awards for Songwriter Of The Year and International Hit Of The Year.
There was storm-in-a-teacup controversy vis-a-vis his ode to monogamy, ‘I Want Your Sex’ (“I expected the BBC to ban it,” George admitted, “I became the antichrist for a couple of weeks”); there was funk in the clattering drug abuse saga ‘Monkey’; there was the horror of spousal battery in ‘Look At Your Hands’ and there was glistening beauty in both ‘Father Figure’, the Canadian Number 1 ‘Kissing A Fool’ and the Irish Number 1, ‘One More Try’, which was George’s pick of a remarkable bunch. There was even an anti-Margaret Thatcher political aspect to ‘Hand To Mouth’. Amazing as it seemed then, amazing as it seems now, he was still only 24. Not that he was especially happy: “one of the reasons the record was so successful,” he mused in 2010, “was that people can recognise the loneliness.”
The success of the ‘Faith’ album enabled the legendary Faith tour, where George played Wham! and solo material, plus the occasional cover. It encompassed 137 dates in 19 countries from February 1988 to June 1989; it was choreographed by Paula Abdul and it included a three-song covers set at the Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert at Wembley Stadium. The magnificent live spectacle helped ensure that nobody would sell more records than George in the United States in 1988. “I never met anyone who was a reluctant star,” he admitted, just as enthusiastically as he admitted to his insatiable ambition. The prestigious Best British Male Brit Award was his and he contributed to both his bassist Deon Estus’s album ‘Spell’ and the mysterious Boogie Box High.