The Story of... 'Careless Whisper' by George Michael
23 July 2019, 16:28 | Updated: 23 July 2019, 16:31
It was his first solo single, and it remains one of the greatest love songs of all time.
George Michael transformed himself overnight from a boyband member to a leading pop icon with this 1980s ballad.
But what is 'Careless Whisper' about and how was it made? Here are all the facts you need to know:
Who wrote 'Careless Whisper'?
George Michael co-wrote 'Careless Whisper' with his Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley.
The pair had written it together while developing as artists in 1981 in Watford, when they were aged just 17.
George said in his autobiography Bare: "I was on my way to DJ at the Bel Air when I wrote 'Careless Whisper'. I have always written on buses, trains and in cars. It always happens on journeys.
With 'Careless Whisper' I remember EXACTLY where it first came to me, where I came up with the sax line. I can remember very vaguely where I was when I wrote things after Wham! got off the ground, but with 'Careless Whisper' I remember exactly the time and place.
"I know it sounds really weird and a kind of romantic thing to say, but I remember exactly where it happened, where I was sitting on the bus, how I continued and everything. I remember I was handing the money over to the guy on the bus and I got this line, the sax line: der-der-der-der, der-der-der-der.
"Then he moved away and I continued writing it in my head. I wrote it totally in my head. I worked on it for about three months in my head."
'Careless Whisper' meaning: What was the inspiration behind the song?
George and Andrew took inspiration from stories from George's early romantic moments. George explained that much of the song's content is based on events from his childhood.
The song was mainly inspired by two different girls named Jane and Helen:
"When I was twelve, thirteen, I used to have to chaperone my sister, who was two years older, to an ice rink at Queensway in London. There was a girl there with long blond hair whose name was Jane.
"I was a fat boy in glasses and I had a big crush on her -though I didn't stand a chance. My sister used to go and do what she wanted when we got to the skating rink and I would spend the afternoon swooning over this girl Jane.
"A few years later, when I was sixteen, I had my first relationship with a girl called Helen. It had just started to cool off a bit when I discovered that the blonde girl from Queensway had moved in just around the corner from my school.
"She had moved in right next to where I used to stand and wait for my next-door neighbour, who used to give me a lift home from school. And one day I saw her walk down the path next to me and I thought – now where did SHE come from? She didn't know it was me.
"It was a few years later and I looked a lot different. Then we played a school disco with [his band] The Executive and she saw me singing and decided she fancied me. By this time she was that much older and a big buxom thing – and eventually I started seeing her. She invited me in one day when I was waiting for my lift and I was...in heaven."
Explaining that after he stopped wearing glasses, he began getting invited to parties, he continued: "And the girl who didn't even see me when I was twelve invited me in. So I went out with her for a couple of months but I didn't stop seeing Helen. I thought I was being smart – I had gone from being a total loser to being a two-timer.
"And I remember my sisters used to give me a hard time because they found out and they really liked the first girl. The whole idea of 'Careless Whisper' was the first girl finding out about the second – which she never did.
"But I started another relationship with a girl called Alexis without finishing the one with Jane. It all got a bit complicated. Jane found out about her and got rid of me... The whole time I thought I was being cool, being this two-timer, but there really wasn't that much emotion involved. I did feel guilty about the first girl – and I have seen her since – and the idea of the song was about her.
"'Careless Whisper' was us dancing, because we danced a lot, and the idea was – we are dancing...but she knows...and it's finished."
George wasn't happy with the original version
The song went through at least two attempts at production.
The first was during a trip George made to the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, where he worked with producer Jerry Wexler.
However, George was unhappy with the version that was originally produced by Wexler, and he decided to re-record and produce the song himself, which ended up being the version that was released.
After Wexler booked the top saxophone player from Los Angeles to do the famous solo: "He arrived at eleven and should have been gone by twelve," said Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell. "Instead, after two hours, he was still there while everyone in the studio shuddered with embarrassment. He just couldn't play the opening riff the way George wanted it, the way it had been on the demo. But that had been made two years earlier by a friend of George's who lived round the corner and played sax for fun in the pub."
George apparently told the saxophonist: "No, it's still not right, you see... It has to twitch upwards a little just there! See...? And not too much."
When Napier-Bell asked Wexler if George's dispute with the sax sound was correct, Wexler replied: "Definitely! I've seen things like this before. There's some tiny nuance that the sax player is somehow not getting right. Although you and I can’t hear what it is, it may be the very thing that will make the record a hit. The success of pop records is so ephemeral, so unbelievably unpredictable, we just can’t take the risk of being impatient. But this sax player's not going to get it, is he!"
The original version was released later in the year, as a B-side 'Special Version' on 12" in the UK and Japan. Listen to it above.
Who played the saxophone on 'Careless Whisper'?
George went back to London's Sarm West's Studio 2 to re-record the track.
Jazz musician Dan Forshaw later revealed that saxophonist Steve Gregory had got a call to re-record the song's sax solo, and he was the 11th saxophone player to record the solo as George wanted to get the sound he hoped for.
"Session musicians do not have much idea what they are going to be recording until they arrive, and this was the case for Steve and another saxophonist who was ahead of him in the (queue)," Forshaw said.
"As usual there was a lot of waiting around and the guy in front of Steve threw in the towel saying, 'it's only going to be some crappy B side anyway so I'm off'. Steve waited and then discovered that the solo wasn’t that easy to play in the written key, as his old Selmer Mark VI tenor didn’t have a top F# key. So, the engineer slowed the tape down so that Steve could record the solo a semitone lower than intended.
"Once the tape was put back to the normal speed, a 'unnatural' saxophone sound was created that sounded a bit like an Alto in the Paul Desmond vibe, but lacking a bit more depth and darkness to the sound. George Michael had just arrived at the studio and said 'that’s the one, that’s the sax solo I want'. This could be down to that whole 80s synth concept where sounds became increasingly 'manufactured', or just that George never recognized it was 'wrong'."
How did it perform in the charts?
The single was released in August 1984, and reached number one in the UK, ending a nine-week run at the top for 'Two Tribes' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
It stayed at number one for three weeks, and was the fifth best-selling single of 1984.
It also topped the charts in 25 other countries, including the US in February 1985 under the credit 'Wham! featuring George Michael'. It was later named Billboard's number-one song of 1985.
'Careless Whisper' was released while Wham! were still a group, but was credited to George on his own in the UK. However, it was included on Wham!'s album Make it Big.
George wasn't a huge fan of the song
He said in 1991 that it "was not an integral part of my emotional development...it disappoints me that you can write a lyric very flippantly—and not a particularly good lyric—and it can mean so much to so many people. That's disillusioning for a writer."
He later told the Big Issue in 2009: "I'm still a bit puzzled why it's made such an impression on people... Is it because so many people have cheated on their partners? Is that why they connect with it?
"I have no idea, but it's ironic that this song - which has come to define me in some way - should have been written right at the beginning of my career when I was still so young. I was only 17 and didn't really know much about anything - and certainly nothing much about relationships."
'Careless Whisper' music video: Where was it shot?
The music video follows George playing a man showing guilt over an affair, and his acknowledgement that his partner (played by Lisa Stahl) is going to find out.
It was filmed on location in Miami, Florida, in 1984 and features places such as as Coconut Grove and Watson Island. The final shot of the video shows Michael leaning out of a balcony at the last floor of Miami's Grove Towers.
The original version of the video was edited with the Jerry Wexler 1983 version, and also featured Andrew Ridgeley in a cameo, handing over a letter to a dark-haired George.
According to producer Jon Roseman, the video was "a f*****g disaster". According to co-star Lisa Stahl, "They lost footage of our kissing scene so we had to reshoot it, which I didn't complain about... Then George decided he didn't like his hair so he flew his sister over from England to cut it and we had to reshoot more scenes."
As the band felt they had "screwed up" the video, further footage of George singing on-stage was later shot at the Lyceum Theatre in London.
Who has covered it?
Various artists, including:
- Seether (see above)
- Gloria Gaynor
- The Shadows
- Kenny G
It featured in Deadpool
The Marvel superhero movie ended with a fantastic burst of 'Careless Whisper', complete with an animated Deadpool playing sax.