by Jeff Fiedler
Back in August, we did a Discog Fever feature here on The Great Albums' website in which we took a look at the entire George Michael catalog, both his solo work and his earliest albums as one-half of the duo Wham! In light of the sad news of his passing away this Christmas Day, we thought we’d pay tribute to him by taking a look at some of his other credits. Michael very, very rarely popped up on another artist’s studio album, but when he did, the results were typically glorious, as you’ll see from these five albums we’ve featured below in chronological order. Very rarely will you run into any of these songs on one of Michael’s own best-of packages or compilations, and even some of the biggest hits we’ve mentioned below have all but disappeared from American radio in recent decades, so these are overlooked gems, indeed!
Ice on Fire, Elton John (1985, Geffen)
Michael was a huge Elton fan growing up – in fact, he and Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley had first bonded when they realized they both owned and were rabid fans of Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album – so it had to have been a dream come true when Elton invited Michael to appear on this album, George appearing not on just one but two of the Top 40 hits from this album, singing the distinctive background vocals on “Nikita” and even sharing lead vocals – in a call-and-response fashion – with Elton on the enormously underrated and wildly fun single “Wrap Her Up,” a tribute to famous pin-up girls of the past and present, the song ending with Elton and George playfully taking turns name-dropping their favorite models. (Elton would return the favor shortly after by providing the piano work on one of Wham!'s final singles, "The Edge of Heaven.")
Aretha, Aretha Franklin (1986, Arista)
The Queen of Soul’s follow-up to her massive comeback album Who’s Zoomin’ Who tends to be awfully overlooked these days – but then, most critics have a tendency to overlook or greatly underrate most of her work on the Arista label – but it’s bursting with great cuts, from an electrifying cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” featuring the legendary Keith Richards himself to wildly underrated slices of soul like the dramatic “Jimmy Lee.” But the album’s undeniable highlight is Aretha’s duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” penned by the songwriting team of Simon Climie (formerly of the duo Climie Fisher of “Love Changes (Everything)” fame) and Dennis Morgan (who’d co-written an abundance of excellent country hits, including Sylvia’s “Nobody” and Ronnie Milsap’s “Smoky Mountain Rain.”) George wisely doesn’t try to upstage his duet partner – not like anyone could upstage Aretha, anyway! – and instead downplays the power of his voice and focuses instead on injecting as much soul and grit as he can into the delivery of his lines, not unlike his vocal performance on the yet-to-be-released rockabilly of “Faith,” and the two create some serious magic together, resulting in a major Number One hit.
Jody Watley, Jody Watley (1987, MCA)
This self-titled solo debut from Watley, a former member of Shalamar (“The Second Time Around”), spun off a string of Top Ten hits, including the snappy dance-pop of “Don’t You Want Me,” “Looking for a New Love” and “Some Kind of Lover,” and won Watley the 1988 Grammy for Best New Artist (beating a very competitive field that included such talents as Swing Out Sister, Terence Trent D’arby, Cutting Crew, and Breakfast Club). Strangely enough, the album’s closing cut, “Learn to Say No,” wasn’t released as a single at all, in spite of featuring the then-red-hot George Michael as both co-writer and Watley’s duet partner. It doesn’t quite reach the same magical heights of the George/Aretha duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” but it’s very catchy and packs a real punch to it – not surprising, perhaps, when you consider that the cut was produced by former Chic co-founder Bernard Edwards, who also plays bass, while his Chic bandmate Tony Thompson provides the muscular drum work on the cut.
Spell, Deon Estus (1989, Mika/Polydor)
It was perhaps only natural that Michael would be asked to appear on this album: Estus had actually got his start as the bass player for Wham! and continued to work with Michael on the superstar’s earliest solo albums. Michael just pops up once on this album, but the cut is a show-stealer: Michael produces, co-writes, and sings background vocals on “Heaven Help Me,” a gorgeous and very atmospheric slice of adult-contemporary soul-pop that surrounds a gentle R&B groove with such unexpected instrumentation as a Spanish guitar and a trumpet that’s cleverly mixed in such a way to sound distant, almost as if it was coming from a jazz club down the street. The resulting mood is so sultry that you can’t possibly imagine the song without those added bits of instrumentation. The 45 managed to hit the Top Five, giving Estus his one and only Top 40 hit, but it’s sadly been long-forgotten since then, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find this one on an American radio station these days. It’s easily one of the greatest hidden gems in all of Michael’s body of work, though, and Sony would be really, really smart to try to license this one away from Polydor to include on a best-of package one of these days.
Mary, Mary J. Blige (1999, MCA)
In what was a sheer stroke of genius, Blige not only teams up with George Michael on one of the tracks here, which proves to be a real musical match made in heaven, but they team up on a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life wildly underrated epic “As,” at that! George has always sounded nothing short of phenomenal covering Stevie Wonder songs – just check out his cover of Fulfillingness’ First Finale’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” on Listen without Prejudice, Vol. 1 or the live covers of “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” and “Love’s in Need of Love Today” that crop up on the B-sides of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and the international release of “Father Figure,” respectively – so he’s a perfectly ideal duet partner for Blige on the cut. The cover turned out to be a massive hit internationally, but it strangely got left off the American edition of the album, and consequently few U.S. listeners have ever heard this gem of a duet.