Fans mourn loss of pop icon George Michael

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London (AP) — Grieving fans this week mourned the death of British singer-songwriter George Michael as charities also revealed that the pop star had secretly been a major behind-the-scenes donor who gave his time and money to support cherished causes.

Singer George Michael is shown in this June 25, 2008 file photo. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Singer George Michael is shown in this June 25, 2008 file photo. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

The man with the reputation for self-indulgence had actually given millions of pounds to charities involved with helping children, cancer victims and AIDS sufferers.

Former Beatle Paul McCartney posted a statement on his website praising Michael’s “sweet soul music,” which he said will live on.

Michael, whose death from heart failure at 53 was announced last Sunday, struggled in his later years, fighting health issues and substance abuse problems.  His voice remained golden — at times it seemed there was almost no limit to his range —but his behavior in public became ever more erratic.

At the start of his music career in the 1980’s he used his sensual good looks and an exquisite voice to become first a teenybopper heart-throb and then a mature solo artist with videos that played up his considerable appeal.  He kept his own sexual orientation private, until he was arrested in 1998 for lewd conduct in a public toilet in Los Angeles after being spotted by a male undercover police officer.

In an earlier era, that might have doomed his career.  Instead of retreating, however, he made a single and video — “Outside” — that ridiculed the charges against him and mocked the Los Angeles police officers who busted him.

Michael shot to stardom in the teen duo WHAM! and moved smoothly into a solo career.  It was a classic showbiz story — a lad named Georgios Panayiotou with strong Greek Cypriot roots takes the name George Michael and forms a band with Andrew Ridgeley that brings him wealth and worldwide fame.

He became that rare artist who enjoys both chart success and tremendous respect from his peers.  He sold well over 100 million albums, walked away from awards dinners weighed down with trophies, and recorded duets with the giants in his field.

The long list of people who recorded with Michael includes all-time greats: Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Luciano Pavarotti and Elton John, for starters.  Their willingness to share the spotlight was a sure sign of the way Michael’s talents were appreciated by fellow musicians.

Critics generally viewed his WHAM! songs as catchy but disposable pop and gave his solo efforts far higher marks.  His first solo album, 1987’s “Faith,” sold more than 20 million copies, and he enjoyed several hit singles.  His career was peaking, but a protracted legal dispute with his record company, Sony, took a toll and as the hits slowed he became better known for health scares and brushes with the police.

Despite his great talent, Michael never found a niche for himself as a senior statesman of the rock world.  His fans stuck with him despite it all though, and many expected one more comeback.  People rooted for him, even as they felt he was slipping away, giving in to his torment.

In more recent years he became more open about wayward lifestyle, insecurities and the reasons for first starting a ska band with Ridgeley and later forming WHAM!.

“I wanted to be loved,” he said.  “It was just an ego satisfaction thing.”