George Michael took his first tentative step away from Wham! when he was invited to perform alongside 60 entertainers for the grand reopening and 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City. Billed as the “Motown Returns to the Apollo,” the show featured a wide spectrum of pop, soul, and jazz representing the best Motown talent and pop luminaries over the last 50 years.
The show was taped on May 4, 1985, and aired as a 3-hour television special on the NBC network on May 19. It was double-billed as a benefit, as the top price seats went for as much as $1,000, with proceeds going to Afri-Care, a group dedicated to feeding the hungry in Ethiopia.
How George Got Invited to the Show
The star-studded roster of Apollo alumni and Motown greats performed at the show, including Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, among others. Bill Crosby served as master host for the show. The young George Michael (described as “newcomer” in some press reports) was one of the three white artists who were invited, alongside Rod Stewart and Boy George. Producer-director Don Mischer explained their participation:
“Basically we wanted to have some white artists that were influenced by the music of the Apollo and Motown.”Austin American Statesman newspaper, May 19, 1985, page 275.
He sang two songs: “Careless Whisper” with Smokey Robinson, and “Love’s in Need of Love Today” with Stevie Wonder.
In the article “A Year in the Life of Wham! As Told by George Michael” (Smash Hits Yearbook, 1986), George explained how he got invited:
We were contacted two weeks before it happened and I was asked if I would like to appear, and 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’. And then there was backwards and forwards talk about what numbers we should do and I very tentatively put forward an old Stevie Wonder song called ‘Love’s In Need Of Love Today’ and he said he was delighted that I’d chosen that one. In fact, when we actually did it he worked this whole speech around it and it became the finale to the show. 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. To be one of three white people involved (along with Boy George and Rod Stewart) on a show like that was just amazing. George spent the whole weekend bad mouthing everybody. Especially me. I think he was a bit annoyed because he wanted to do one of his songs and they wouldn’t let him.”SOURCE: A Year in the Life of Wham! as Told by George Michael (Smash Hits Yearbook, 1986)
Michael’s rendition of the Wonder ballad “Love’s in Need of Love Today” was powerful and moving and helped change more than a few opinions of him. At that time, George was considered a “lightweight” teenage heartthrob as part of Wham! and it won’t be a surprise that some wondered what he was doing at the Apollo Theater in the company of such heavyweights.
While many smirked at Wham!’s whole image – those shorts, the toothpaste smiles, the bottled tans – they certainly cranked out some soul classics. And, interestingly enough, the only North Americans seriously able to accept the twosome were members of the R&B scene. According to George:
“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 said. “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.”George Michael Reveals His Musical Gifts (The Record, 1988)
The opportunity was a “bolt out of the blue.” As George said,
“That was a bolt out of the blue, when I was offered that,” says Michael. “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, even for the status we’ve achieved, like doing that thing with Stevie Wonder.”SOURCE: Wham!: This Pair Has a Right to be a Little Cocky (1985)
George’s participation in the Motown showed that major black artists actually opened their arms to him. He had gotten respect from black audiences — and he was stunned at the opportunity. In his interview with the Musician magazine in January 1988, George said of the Motown show:
“That was stunning for me. I couldn’t believe I was there.” When he arrived at the Apollo, Patti LaBelle was rehearsing onstage. “It was before she made her comeback, so I wasn’t sure who the f— she was. But she was singing her ass off. I said to myself, ‘Listen to this woman. I’m going home now.”SOURCE: George Michael: Artist or Airhead? (Musician, 1988)
“The Smokey thing was a bit of a disappointment to me, simply because… Well. I wouldn’t like to go into it. The Stevie thing was either going to make me scared s—less and I was going to sing like crap, or it would bring something out of me – and it did. I sang as well as I ever had, live.”SOURCE: George Michael: Artist or Airhead? (Musician, 1988)
As New York Times said about George in a 1988 article:
An avid student of American pop-soul music, he possesses a strong enough white soul voice to have held his own in a duet with Aretha Franklin (the No. 1 single ”I Knew You Were Waiting”) and to deliver a Stevie Wonder ballad (”Love’s in Need of Love Today” on the television special ”Motown Returns to the Apollo”) with compelling clout.George Michael: He’ll Last (New York Times, 1988)
Andrew Ridgeley’s Perspective
In his book Wham: George and Me, Andrew Ridgeley wrote that George was a huge revelation at the Apollo Theater show. George — who was then just 21 years old — was “fantastic,” according to Andrew.
George performed with Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, and the line up in that 6-hour show included the top artists of the day. According to Andrew,
“The list of singers taking part in the gala show reads like a Who’s Who: Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Little Richard, Al Green, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and many more … with proceeds from the event going to the Ethiopian famine relief.”
Despite the fact that George hadn’t “ever sung with anybody of the stature of either of those two before,” he held his own:
“George performed flawlessly, lacing Stevie Wonder’s classic ‘Love’s In Need of Love Today’ with his own distinctive style and character. As he traded vocal lines with the great man himself, George confirmed my strongly held belief that he was every bit the equal of the people he was sharing the stage with that night.”
Andrew wrote that George’s performance at the Apollo seemed like a huge unveiling of George’s immense talents:
Suddenly it felt as if I wasn’t the only one who truly understood the scale of George’s talent. Everybody could see it … As the crowd rose to their feet for a standing ovation following his epic, gospe-infused duet with Stevie Wonder, there was little doubt that we were in the presence of greatness.
- George Michael Controversy After Winning the Favorite Male R&B Award
- George Michael: Artist or Airhead? (Musician, 1988)
- List of Duets and Backup Vocals
- A Year in the Life of Wham! as Told by George Michael (Smash Hits Yearbook, 1986)
- ‘George Michael, Seriously’ from Rolling Stone Magazine (1988)