“On Christmas Day, George Michael passed away, which is one of the saddest moments of my career because I’d known George more or less from the start of Wham! and got to know him very well. Played with him, recorded with him, played on the last Wham! show at Wembley Stadium. It was the most awful news because he was on the road back, supposedly, to good health. But apart from the music, which is outstanding, and for those of you who don’t know his music go and listen to it. It stands up so brilliantly. What a singer. What a songwriter. But more than anything, as a human being, he was one of the kindest, sweetest, most generous people I’ve ever met. He gave so much money to so many great causes without telling anybody. He was constantly trying to help people. And the saddest thing is he couldn’t help himself. So I’m going to dedicate this song…and I just wish he was here to sing it with me.”
Elton and singer George Michael were admirers of each other’s work who grew to establish a close friendship and professional relationship that lasted for over two decades. Starting in 1985 the pair collaborated on a number of songs, most notably a live version of Elton’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, which was released as a single that reached #1 in multiple countries in early 1992.
An admittedly obsessed fan of Elton from the beginning, George studied his songs and vocal performances while listening to his records as a youth in North London, later crediting Elton’s early work as a major influence on his own style. George’s personal album collection actually began when he bought Elton’s Caribou, the 1974 release containing, ironically (or perhaps not), Elton’s original version of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.
The two first met in the South of France in 1984 while George’s band Wham! was recording their second album, Make It Big. Elton soon joined the rest of the music-listening world in becoming addicted to that album’s hit singles Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Careless Whisper.
On March 13, 1985, Elton presented George with his first major solo accolade – the Ivor Novello Award for Songwriter of the Year. “George is the greatest songwriter of his generation,” Elton said at the ceremony. “He deserves to win this award and I’d like to work with him in the future.”
Music fans did not have to wait very long for that to happen; George contributed vocals to two songs on Elton’s fall 1985 album, Ice On Fire: Nikita and Wrap Her Up. Both songs were released as singles from the album, with Nikita placing in the Top 10 in the US and UK. The promotional video for Wrap Her Up included footage of George performing on stage with Elton and his band.
On July 13, 1985, Elton handed the mic over to George for the next-to-last song of his Live Aid set, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me. “He’s a superb talent and also a great voice – sheesh!” Elton said backstage.
Even while promoting his own albums Elton would rarely let an opportunity go by without extolling the songwriting virtues of the Wham! frontman. “He’s only 21 – he’s been writing songs for two years and he writes Careless Whisper??” Elton said in a 1986 interview. “He is already a great songwriter…but he’s only just starting.”
Elton once again introduced and then accompanied George on the piano when he and Paul Young sang Every Time You Go Away at the Prince’s Trust Benefit Concert in June 1986 at Wembley Arena.
That same week, Wham! released their farewell single, The Edge Of Heaven, on which Elton provided a guest piano part. Then on June 28, Elton was a surprise performer at “The Final” Wham! Concert at Wembley Stadium. Dressed in Ronald McDonald make-up and costume, he played piano during that song as well as George singing Elton’s 1973 hit Candle In The Wind (a song, George told the crowd, he could have been heard busking, “If you happened to be passing through Leicester Square Station about seven years ago.”) before joining on the encore of I’m Your Man.
George sang two Elton songs during his Cover to Cover tour in 1991. He chose the relatively obscure song Tonight (from 1976’s Blue Moves; George’s live version can be heard on the 1991 tribute album Two Rooms) as well as Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me. Elton sang duet with George during two surprise appearances on the tour: on March 23, 1991 at Wembley Arena, the recording of which would eventually become the single, and then again at the Rosemont Horizon arena near Chicago on October 20, during which concert footage was shot for the single’s video. The pair had also previously run through the song a couple of times in Burbank, CA during George’s rehearsals for the tour. Portions of this can also be seen in the video.
In fact, Elton was not in favour of George releasing the duet as a single. He felt that the singer’s career would be hindered by releasing a live version of someone else’s song, and said as much on George’s answering machine in the weeks leading up to the single’s release on November 30, 1991. But not to worry – the song spent two weeks at #1 on the UK Singles Chart, one week at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and two weeks atop Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. All in all it reached #1 in eight countries and placed in the top five in six more territories. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me now holds the distinction of being the last #1 single George achieved in the US during his lifetime. It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
George was himself a guest performer during Elton’s October 11, 1992 concert at Madison Square Garden. The evening was a benefit for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, with Elton doing an abbreviated version of the set he had performed at the venue for six previous shows, followed by three songs each by Bruce Hornsby, Lionel Richie, and George Michael. George chose three Elton songs for his set. In addition to Candle In The Wind and Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, he covered Ticking, the epic seven-and-a-half minute track that closes Caribou. George would occasionally include this song in his concerts in later years.
Continuing the run of these and other concerts that the two shared through the years, George joined Elton at his Hollywood Bowl stop on the Made In England tour on September 22, 1995. Elton surprised the audience by introducing George (by his nickname “Bubble”) part-way through the concert and the two brought the crowd to its feet with Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.
George continued to cover Elton songs throughout his tours. He once again chose a lesser-known John/Taupin composition from Blue Moves when he sang Idol on his 25 Live tour in 2007 and again in 2011-2012 on the orchestral tour Symphonica. In 2011, George performed at Elton’s annual White Tie and Tiara Ball to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation, of which George had been a patron since its inception in 1992.
Following George Michael’s death, Elton posted on his Instagram: "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, friends and all of his fans."
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