I got a text from a friend yesterday morning. She’s young, beautiful and talented, so young that she was really a baby when George Michael rose to prominence. She wanted me to know that she thought he was corny in a New Kids On The Block kinda way. She had no idea how hurtful she was being. When a true Soul Man dies all of us in the community feel the loss. She knows a lot about music so her opinions are usually informed, but in this case, she just hasn’t been around long enough to know that George Michael was one of the most special artists who broke through during the MTV era. Michael benefitted from the star making power of MTV and along with Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Duran Duran, Culture Club and a few others, he became a poster boy for the music channel’s ability to make household names out of pop stars.
My friends Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson and Q-Tip all shared their condolences and shock over the superstar’s loss through social media. My old collaborators from the New Jack Swing days, Al B.Sure! and Keith Sweat paid tribute on their Facebook and Instagram accounts as well. Because you see, George Michael was a Black Thing.
I first heard George Michael’s music in 1984. Well, truthfully, I’d heard him just a bit before, but I started to pay attention in 1984 when Michael was fronting kiddie pop duo Wham. At that time, his appearance was more important than his sound, but Wham’s second album featured an anthemic slice of slick working class pop funk called “Everything She Wants”. Michael’s gruff pleading with a girlfriend who wanted more than the narrator could give had an appeal to a twenty something kid on the hustle with, two jobs, a demanding girlfriend, and an ambition to rise to the heights of the music industry. I loved that track.
Soul Music had taken a hit that year. In the spring, Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed, and I was walking around in a daze, but I kept pushing on. I was working in a small but important independent record shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. Vinyl Mania was the name of the store, and it did a brisk business in imported, independent and domestic major label dance music that was driven, mostly, by what underground overlord Larry Levan was spinning at The Garage, the Village hotspot that influenced two subsequent generations of dance club culture around the world. That was my part time job. For a day job, I worked at ASCAP identifying songs and their uses. The import 12″ single on “Everything She Wants” was a hot seller for us. On WBLS, the heritage Black FM outlet owned and controlled by the Inner City Broadcasting Group, “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker had a grip on progressive Black listeners, but a threat arose to his dominance as 98.7 Kiss FM began to reach out for Frankie’s younger listeners by playing early hits from the fledgling Hip Hop industry. Frankie rocked “Everything She Wants”.
Ed Koch was the mayor of NYC, and he’d let the police run amok; they’d killed an unarmed Black graffiti artist named Michael Stewart, and a Black grandmother named Elanor Bumpers was shotgunned to death in her own apartment. Ronald Regan was in the White House, and he oversaw sinful deregulation of the financial and banking sectors that resulted in the Savings and Loan industry being gutted, and he ignored the rising body count from AIDS until it was almost too late. Funding for programs to help the poor, the vulnerable and the victims of AIDS was slowing to a trickle that never quite made it as far down as it had been advertised to reach.
It was with all of this as a backdrop that young George Michael – a working class kid from Margaret Thatcher’s England and a proud son of disco – began his assent in the game. Yes, disco: the derivative of funk and soul that sprouted up out of New York’s Black, Latin and Gay underground and became the music of the outsider looking for a way in. This often derided music was perfect for Michael’s worldview, because he was an unabashed celebrant of Black Music and his funkiness was obscured by his looks, his glibness and a uniquely potent gift for pop song craft.
While Michael was experiencing the peak of his success he was never fully appreciated. Much like the early Beatles – Wham/Michael was dismissed as a disposable pop group for young girls, but “Everything She Wants” sent a signal to the R&B and Black Pop markets that this kid was coming to get his and that he would be disruptive while doing it. Later, when his song writing became more introspective, he ran afoul of corporate politics, and he rebelled against the big money string pullers who would have had him release the same formulaic ditties that made him a phenomenon. Michael was thought to be too pretty and too slick with his writing to be taken seriously and his deep connection to the Black Music tradition was overlooked.
Before the tabloid headlines, the police entrapment, the forced outing, the near death accidents and trials with addiction, George Michael suffered the burden of the beautiful when he split with Andrew Ridgeley, his Wham bandmate, and embarked on an historic run as a solo artist with the release of the title track from “Faith” a rockabilly workout that smashed around the globe. If you only saw the video or didn’t get the album you may have missed “Monkey” or “Hard Day” the two funk joints on the album, or the subtle and soulful begging on “Father Figure”.
But I was in the Black Music business that George Michael was a factor in, and I witnessed this: Grandmaster Flash destroying a dance floor at the original location for The China Club – when it was a hangout for the best session players in The City – by cutting up the bass line from “Freedom 90” back and forth. Regional representatives from two major labels (one of whom had gotten Madonna’s “Material Girl” added to rotation) arguing with the PD from Kiss FM on the merits of adding Jam and Lewis’ remix of Michael’s “Monkey” to the station’s playlist, and the PD ignoring their objections to put the fifth or sixth single from “Faith” on the Urban powerhouse’s airwaves. The dance floor of The Garage packed and getting busy to Wham’s “Everything She Wants”. Stevie Wonder crooning a duet with Michael from the stage of the “World Famous” Apollo Theater. George Michael performing all covers including McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” backed by The Sounds of Blackness at Madison Square Garden.
Yes, George Michael with the Patrice Rushen loops, the Gap Band interpolations, the James Brown samples, the Aretha Franklin duet, the Mary J. Bilge duet, the Stevie Wonder covers and big churchy choruses that screamed freedom out of radios and televisions was a Black Thing. The older he got the blacker he sounded. He became an avatar for Gay Pride and a vessel for those who remembered when Soul Music was a means for protest. He used the fashion business to promote his sound by casting Christy Turlington, Eva Herzigova, Tatijana Patitz, Linda Evangelista, Beverly Peele, and Hip Hop’s favorite dinner date, Naomi Campbell in his videos. He shone a bright light on the AIDS crisis and gave away tons of money to charitable causes. He kept it funky while doing it all and reminded us to listen without prejudice. I loved his music. I do not think that his dying exactly ten years to the day that we lost James Brown was coincidental. He’s probably somewhere trying to show James how to rock one of those slick Italian suits that he used to wear. He made a mighty contribution to this thing of ours. For this I am grateful.