"Careless Whisper": How George Michael's "Flippantly" Written Song Became a Career-Defining Hit That Still Endures
Technically, the British national anthem is “God Save the Queen” (or “King,” depending on who’s commanding the throne), but that 18th century standard leaves little room for pillowy synths or sensual saxophone. No wonder the public prefers George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.”
For the fifth year in a row, Michael’s 1984 smash has been crowned the UK’s favorite song. That ranking is based on a Smooth Radio poll that drew 32,000 votes, and those who cast ballots clearly love George Michael. The late English superstar’s 1986 ballad “A Different Corner” ranked No. 3 on the 500-song list, right behind runner-up “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.
It’s easy to see why “Careless Whisper” remains so wildly popular. (The music video recently passed a billion views on YouTube.) With its satiny sax and endlessly hummable chorus, the song is the definition of easy listening. And given that one in five Brits admit they’ve cheated on their partners, there are probably a lot of folks in the UK who can relate to the song’s guilt-ridden lyrics about infidelity.
A Song Is Born
Although “Careless Whisper” became arguably his biggest and most enduring hit, Michael wasn’t a huge fan of the song. “‘Careless Whisper’ was not an integral part of my emotional development,” Michael wrote in his 1991 memoir Bare. “It’s sad because that song means so much to so many people. 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.”
Michael was being hard on himself, but even if you think the lyrics aren’t great, consider this: He wrote “Careless Whisper” when he was just a teenager and working as a DJ in a restaurant. The sax melody popped into his head one day while he was getting the bus to work, and he promptly started writing the song in his head. He tinkered for a few months, basing the lyrics on his real-life experiences with two different girls.
As revealed in Bare, Michael was dating a girl named Helen when he was 16. At the same time, he started romancing another girl named Jane, his unrequited crush from several years earlier. Michael had been something of an ugly duckling—a “fat boy in glasses,” in his words—but he was blossoming into some version of the heartthrob he’d become. That gave him options.
“I had gone from being a total loser to being a two-timer,” Michael wrote. “The whole idea of ‘Careless Whisper’ was the first girl finding out about the second—which she never did.” (This was many years before Michael came out as gay in 1998.)
“Careless Whisper” Take Two
In terms of songwriting, “Careless Whisper” is actually credited to Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, then George’s partner in the pop group Wham! The version of the song everyone knows isn’t the first one Michael recorded. He took an initial pass with legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama. Michael was so nervous that he got drunk before the session, and the end results weren’t up to snuff. Michael ended up re-recording the song at Sarm West Studios in London a few weeks later with his usual backing musicians, and it came out much better.
The band of session players at Sarm West included saxophonist Steve Gregory, whose impressive resume includes playing with the likes of Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, Fela Kuti, and Maxi Priest. As engineer Chris Porter told Sound on Sound, they went through 11 sax players before finding one—Gregory—who could play the song’s iconic lead phrase in one breath.
“Careless Whisper” appeared on Wham!’s second and final studio album, 1984’s Make It Big. However, the UK single version of “Careless Whisper” was credited to Michael solo. In North America and elsewhere, it was credited to Wham! featuring George Michael. Regardless of what the sleeve said, the record flew off shelves: “Careless Whisper” reached No. 1 in at least 10 countries, including the U.S. and the UK, and sold some 6 million copies.
Michael would go on to score many, many more hits on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world before dying in December 2016 at age 53. He’s a topic of conversation every holiday season, when Wham!’s “Last Christmas” starts making the rounds, and fans still celebrate the likes of “Faith,” “Father Figure,” and “Freedom! ‘90,” to name but a few. And yet if Smooth Radio’s poll is any indication, “Careless Whisper” may be the song that defines his legacy forever.