Updated: Nov 29, 2019
It was Monday, April 20th 1992 when George Michael took to the stage at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium. What was to follow was one of his greatest performances, and in his own mind the proudest moment of his career. Dressed in a bright red jacket looking like a refugee from the TV show Miami Vice, George Michael took command of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” and delivered a version that to most would rival, if not equal that of Freddie himself.
“It’s ridiculous” said George of the song in Is This The Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. “One minute it’s up here, one minute it’s down there…”. Queen were impressed with his performance in front of the 80,000 crowd and an audience which to this date holds the record for being the largest gathered in tribute to a deceased musician. “George Michael was the best,” Brian May declared. “There’s a certain note in his voice when he did ‘Somebody to Love’ that was pure Freddie.”
Rolling Stone credited George’s performance as the biggest thing to come out of the concert. “But the biggest thing to come out of the show…was a collection of George Michael’s performances with Queen”. German publication Deutsche Welle said “George Michael undeniably offered the best performance of the evening. With his version of Somebody To Love, he captivated fans just like Freddie had during his peak.”
What isn’t well known is the sadness, pain and agony that surrounded this seminal George Michael performance. Only 4 months earlier, George and his first love, described at times as the love of his life Anselmo Feleppa were tested for AIDS and awaiting what would be at the time, if confirmed, a terminal diagnosis. George said of Anselmo in Freedom “He was my saviour — It’s still very hard for me to explain how finding a companion at that stage in my life changed me.” George would go on to pay homage to Anselmo in the single “Jesus to a Child,” which he describes as “the best, most healing piece of music.”
With Anselmo at home in Brazil, George waited for the HIV test results alone in the UK at Christmas with his family, who knew nothing of his relationship let alone the turmoil and pain he was suffering. His family, like the world would have to wait 7 years until 1998 to learn of George’s homosexuality when he came out during an interview with CNN. Such was the secrecy that George insisted on maintaining, no-one knew of Anselmo’s relationship with George, the love they shared or the possible death sentence that either one, or both, may soon be given with a positive HIV diagnosis. Alone and isolated, fearing for his partner as well as himself, George was further rocked by not just the death of Freddie Mercury, but the cause from an AIDS related illness.
When Queen Manager Jim Beach and guitarist Brian May asked George to join the concert and perform, he was overwhelmed with the emotion of it all. By April 1992 and the day of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Anselmo’s HIV diagnosis was confirmed. He would die the next year in 1993 of an AIDS related illness.
“My subconscious knew this was very probably the most important performance of my life…. So I went for five days to rehearse. Everyone else went for an afternoon. I went for five days because it had to be perfect. I think it’s probably my most famous performance.” (George Michael, The Red Line Interviews)
Of his performance on the night, George once remarked “It was the proudest moment of my career, but mixed with real sadness.” George also said in the 2017 released documentary Freedom “Anselmo was in the crowd (that night) and I went out there knowing that I had to honour Freddie Mercury and I had to pray for Anselmo. But I just wanted to die inside…it was so much to me all in that one performance. I was so overwhelmed by the sadness of singing the songs of this man that I’d absolutely worshipped as a child who had passed away in the same manner that my first living partner was going to experience. It was just overwhelming to me.”
Perhaps the most ironic feature of the day and period was the song Queen asked George to sing. Without knowing his circumstances and what he and Anselmo were enduring, of all the Queen catalogue of songs, they chose for him Somebody to Love released originally in 1976 on the album A Day At The Races. George’s performance that night with Queen would be released in 1993 on an EP called Fast Five and debut in the UK singles charts directly at number one.
“This was the loudest prayer of my life. And it’s not an accident … it’s not an accident that the performance, probably most well-known in my career, was sung to my lover who was dying. That will hopefully never happen again. The fact that it happened that way … I mean, my God, talk about destiny.” (George Michael, The Red Line Interviews)
And so it was on the night of April 20, 1992 George Michael took to the stage with a mixture of emotions that would cripple many, if not most people. Consumed with thoughts of his own mortality saved through passing the same HIV test that his first and dearly loved partner himself had failed, and Anselmo’s inevitable death in circumstances likely to be the same, if not similar to Freddie Mercury, to whom they were gathered together for that night in tribute.
The weight of such emotive pressure would be sufficient to crush the most well supported person surrounded by friends and family displaying love and support. And yet George Michael didn’t even have that. To many, maybe most of us the chorus from our inner demons would be deafening. The temptation to succumb to those demons, to retreat and to cower and to withdraw would be too great. Yet the choir of George Michael’s better Angels, singing to him of fierce determination and unconditional love emboldened and empowered him to rise above his inner demons and deliver a performance of a lifetime — a great performance to an observer on its own even if the sadness of the back story wasn’t known.
“Ooh, each morning I get up I die a little Can barely stand on my feet (Take a look at yourself) Take a look in the mirror and cry (and cry) Lord, what you’re doing to me (yeah yeah) I have spent all my years in believing you But I just can’t get no relief, Lord! Somebody (somebody) ooh somebody (somebody) Can anybody find me somebody to love?” (Freddie Mercury, Copyright Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)
Call it better Angels, or simply extraordinary courage in extraordinary circumstances, both the performance itself along with its back story is an inspiration that gives heart and hope to anyone facing tough times and a battle between their inner demons and their better Angels.
About the author: Allan Evans is Founder and CEO of The Solution Engine, with a keen interest in leadership and organisational culture, design and effectiveness. The Solution Engine is a business advisory, consulting and solutions agency helping clients across Australia to create or unlock value in their enterprise with offices in Sydney and Newcastle, Australia.