21-year-old George Michael's duet of 'Careless Whisper' with Smokey Robinson is magnificent
30 September 2020, 16:05 | Updated: 23 November 2020, 16:45
George Michael was invited to perform at the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City on May 4, 1985, dubbed 'Motown Returns to the Apollo'.
In one of his first tentative steps as a solo artist separate from Wham!, George had the honour of being one of only three white artists asked to perform, alongside Boy George and Rod Stewart, at the monumental motown gig in 1985.
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The impressive line-up of 60 entertainers included Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, James Brown, Patti LaBelle and many more, with George performing two songs 'Careless Whisper' with Smokey Robinson and 'Love’s in Need of Love Today' with Stevie Wonder.
The Motown Returns to the Apollo gig was shown as a three-hour TV special on NBC and George later said how the Motown opportunity had given him a huge confidence boost.
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“That was a bolt out of the blue, when I was offered that,” George told The San Francisco Examiner. “I felt so privileged. I did look at that as some kind of encouragement. Musicians, presumably, can recognize other musicians, as opposed to pretty boys.
"Constantly telling yourself that you’re not some kind of passing musical trend is very difficult. But it’s made a lot easier when you get to do things that are remarkable.”
Reflecting on the details of how the duets came about, George said he was so excited and 'in a daze'.
"We were contacted two weeks before it happened and I was asked if I would like to appear," he told Smash Hits magazine in the article 'A Year In The Life Of Wam!'.
"Then they phoned back and said they would like me to do ‘Careless Whisper’ with Smokey Robinson, and were there any other artists that I would like to work with from Motown? At which my eyes lit up and I said ‘Stevie Wonder’, thinking there would be no chance of doing it, and they said ‘yes’."
"It was amazing. I was there in a daze, I just couldn’t understand why they had invited me. That was great for me because it was a kind of black acceptance for Wham!. I mean the records on that label are some of the best records of all time," said George.
"To be one of three white people involved (along with Boy George and Rod Stewart) on a show like that was just amazing."
But not everyone was thrilled with the line-up. George singing 'Careless Whisper' - his own song - with Smokey Robinson had certainly ruffled some feathers.
"[Boy] George spent the whole weekend bad mouthing everybody. Especially me," George said. "I think he was a bit annoyed because he wanted to do one of his songs and they wouldn’t let him.”
Many were surprised that the 21-year-old boy band singer from Wham! had been asked to perform alongside such musical heavyweights, but as George later reflected, the North American RnB scene embraced him, no questions asked.
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Two years later his 1987 album Faith went to number one in the RnB chart, a feat that until then had never been accomplished by a white artist.
“One of the most remarkable things about my career in America was that from day one, black audiences accepted me without question as a singer, performer, and songwriter,” he told The Record in 1988.
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“They didn’t really allow the stigma that was attached to wearing the shorts and the girls screaming to get in the way of what they were actually listening to.
"I was much happier with (Faith) being the number one black album than I was when it became the number one pop album. There was much more of a sense of achievement.”
In his book Wham: George and Me, Andrew Ridgeley reflects on how 'fantastic' the concert was for George as a solo artist and that even though he'd “never sung with anybody of the stature of either of those two before [Stevie and Smokey]” he held his own.
"Suddenly it felt as if I wasn’t the only one who truly understood the scale of George’s talent," Andrew says.
"Everybody could see it … As the crowd rose to their feet for a standing ovation... there was little doubt that we were in the presence of greatness."