Elton John was one of the first stars to recognise George Michael’s budding talent. After they met and became friends, and following a massively popular collaboration at Live Aid, it seemed the pair were destined for decades of duets and tours together.
But their friendship crumbled when they fought over George Michael’s drug use, and soon a very public war of words ensued, with each hurling insults at the other’s music. What was the tipping point for this rocky friendship, and why did the pair ultimately reunite?
1970s: George Michael becomes an Elton superfan
As a child, George Michael adored Elton John. Born in London in 1963, the son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur, Michael was passionate about music and decorated his bedroom with posters of his Rocket Man hero.
When he first met his future Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley at Bushey Meads School, the pair became friends due to their shared love of Elton John (along with Queen, David Bowie and The Beatles).
1985: John gives Michael an Ivor Novello Award
When Wham! rose to fame and Michael was to receive an Ivor Novello Award, he was ecstatic to learn that Elton John himself would be presenting him with the prestigious honour.
“After accepting his award from one of his own heroes…George was quite overcome,” Ridgeley later recalled. “He found it impossible to hold back the tears in his acceptance speech.”
1986: They perform together at Live Aid
Impressed by the younger talent, Elton John invited Michael to perform alongside him at Live Aid later that year. He introduced Michael to the audience as “a friend of mine… and this guy I admire very much, for his musical talent more than anything else.”
Together, they performed Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me, and Michael’s stage presence and vocal abilities stuck with Elton.
1986: Elton becomes Michael’s fan
In the following years, the pair developed a solid friendship, and publicly praised one another. John often promoted Michael in the press, remarking in a 1986 interview, “He’s only 21 – he’s been writing songs for two years and he writes Careless Whisper? He is already a great songwriter…but he’s only just starting.”
In June 1986, John played piano for George and Paul Young’s duet, Every Time You Go Away, at the Prince’s Trust Benefit Concert. Later that week, John featured in Wham’s final single, The Edge of Heaven. For Wham’s final concert, John turned up as a surprise guest, playing Candle in the Wind while dressed up as Ronald McDonald.
1987: Elton’s addiction treatment
Just as the friendship between Elton and George was blossoming, Elton was forced into an isolating personal crisis. John had long suffered from addiction issues, which came to a climax in the mid-80s, and he spent three years attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well as a stint in a Chicago hospital in 1990.
1991: The pair reach number one with a joint single
When John recovered, one of his first live performances was with George Michael, who invited him to play Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me at Wembley Arena. “It felt great,” John later wrote. “The audience went insane when my name was announced.” This live recording was then released as a single that took the number one spot in both the UK and USA. This success emboldened John to record his hugely successful 1992 album The One.
John’s recovery was a triumph, and in the years since he has supported other stars who struggle with addiction. He encouraged Rufus Wainwright to receive treatment and he even became Eminem’s AA sponsor. However, when George Michael later fell into drug addiction, he resented John’s efforts to help him.
1993: Michael grieves his boyfriend
Originally, Michael was candid about his opinions on substance abuse. “I wouldn’t say I’m anti-drugs,” he said in a 1987 interview. “I’d say I’m anti-certain drugs. They’re a very destructive thing to most people… [but] there are some people I’ve seen handle drugs perfectly well in a moderate amount.”
In 1993, Michael was left devastated when his boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa died from AIDS complications. Michael’s mother, Leslie Angold, passed away four years later. This grief, combined with the stress of concealing his sexual orientation from his family and the public, reportedly sent him spiralling into addiction.
1997: Princess Diana’s funeral
Another tragedy would bring George Michael and Elton John together in 1997. They were both close friends with Diana, Princess of Wales, and when she died, the two decided to attend the funeral together, along with John’s partner David Furnish.
“He had rung up and asked if we could go to the funeral together,” John recalled. “On the car journey there, we just sat in silence: George was too upset to speak, there was no conversation, nothing.” John was not yet aware of Michael’s drug addiction and personal issues, which would soon become much more public.
1998: Michael gets outed by the press
In 1998, an undercover police officer reported Michael for having sex with a man in a public bathroom in Los Angeles, outing the star to the press and landing him a £500 fine and 80 hours of community service work. Michael later parodied this event in his music video for Outside.
“I felt almost like I was cursed,” Michael would say of this era, noting that he suffered from severe depression. When Elton John heard of Michael’s subsequent struggles with drug use, he advised him to try AA.
“George Michael really didn’t want to know,” John wrote in his autobiography. “I nagged at him because he was worried and because mutual friends kept contacting me, asking if I could do anything.”
2004: The Heat magazine feud
Michael’s resentment over being ‘nagged’ by John turned into a major fight. John was “very upset” by Michael’s response, according to a mutual friend. In 2004, John would give a press interview about Michael that veered into open hostility.
“George is in a strange place,” he told Heat magazine. “It upsets me because he won’t perform live. He’s quite happy just being at home all the time and I think that’s a waste of talent. But it’s his life, not mine.”
“There seems to be a deep-rooted unhappiness in his life and it shows on the album,” John said in reference to Patience, Michael’s final studio album release.
“I thought Patience was good, but considering it’s been so long in the making it was a bit disappointing,” John added. “He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met and certainly one of the best singers I’ve ever heard. I love him as a friend, so I have to be careful what I say. So all I would say to George is: you should get out more.”
2004: Michael retaliates
The Heat statement from John infuriated Michael. He promptly unleashed a tirade to the same magazine, writing, “Elton John knows very little about George Michael and that’s a fact. Contrary to the public’s impression, we have spoken rarely in the last 10 years and what would probably surprise most people is that we have never discussed my private life. Ever.”
Michael went on to defend his more solitary lifestyle: “[John] knows I don’t like to tour, I smoke too much pot and my albums still have a habit of going to number one. In other words, he knows as much as most of my fans.”
“What he doesn’t know is I have rarely been as happy and confident as I am today, thanks to my partner Kenny and the continued support of my fans,” Michael added. “… At 41, I think I have earned the right to a quiet life, which I truly love, and maybe Elton just can’t relate to that.”
Michael then criticised John’s gossipy friendship group: “Sadly, I was always aware that Elton’s circle of friends was the busiest rumour mill in town and that respect for my private life was not exactly guaranteed.”
“So, we never became genuinely close, which is very sad,” Michael went on. “And to this day, most of what Elton thinks he knows about my life is pretty much limited to the gossip he hears on the ‘gay grapevine’ which is, as you can imagine, lovely stuff.”
In a final, parting jibe, Michael criticised John’s artistry in return: “He makes millions playing those old classics day in and day out, whereas my drive and passion is still about the future and the songs I have yet to write for the public.”
2004-6: Two years apart
John received the message loud and clear. When recalling this passionate statement from Michael, he later noted: “He [told] me, at considerable length, to f*** off and mind my own business.”
Given time to think about the root cause of Michael’s anger and apparent unhappiness, John began to suspect that Michael was also lashing out after years of repressed sexuality. “He was so uncomfortable in his skin about being gay, even though he said he wasn’t,” John later summarized.
John had come out as bisexual in 1976, before coming out as gay in 1992. Michael, on the other hand, struggled for decades with his sexuality.
There was tension between Michael and other gay pop stars who felt he ought to out himself. Michael previously came under fire from fellow gay icon Boy George, who kept hinting to the press that the Wham! star was in the closet.
2006: John and Michael reunite
Although Michael’s Heat letter deepened the rift between them, it also gave John food for thought. It appears that he took on board the Wham! star’s words about gossip and the “rumour mill” – and by 2006, the pair had apparently made amends.
In an ITV interview with Michael Parkinson, John said: “George and I are fine. He came and stayed down my house last year. We’re fine.” When pressed on their feud, John appeared to have learned his lesson about discussing Michael’s private life. “I’d rather keep my mouth shut,” he said. “… It’s up to him what he does with his life really and I don’t really want to get into that anymore.”
Sure enough, the pair restored their relationship and became friends and colleagues for the rest of Michael’s life. George covered Elton’s songs on international tours and performed at John’s White Tie and Tiara Ball in 2011, to support the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Long before he was outed as gay, Michael had donated vast sums of money to AIDS charities, and fundraising was a lifelong bonding point for the two stars.
2016: George Michael’s death
Michael died on Christmas Day in 2016, at the age of 53, due to heart and liver disease. In the wake of Michael’s death, John paid tribute to “a beloved friend.”
“Some people you can’t help,” John later opined on George Michael’s addiction issues. “… I wish we hadn’t fallen out. But more than that, I wish he was still alive. I loved George. He was ludicrously talented, and he went through a lot, but he was the sweetest, kindest, most generous man. I miss him so much.”