Meetings that made entertainment history… When George Michael met Aretha Franklin

When George Michael met Aretha Franklin, the resulting combination of two of the greatest soul voices in the music industry produced a Grammy Award-winning number one song.

Their hit single, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), was number one in eight different charts across the world, including in the UK and the US Billboard Hot 100. In the UK alone, it achieved gold status, selling half a million copies.

Franklin and Michael won the 1987 Grammy Award for the best R&B performance by a duo or group. It also took Franklin back to the top of the charts – a position she had last held 20 years earlier, with Respect.

Song writing duo Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan wrote the track and initially, it wasn’t meant to be a duet. It was the third song they had written together and they had offered it to Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and the head of Arista Records, Clive Davis.

It was Davis’s idea that it would make a great duet between Franklin and George Michael, who admitted later he felt nervous beforehand, as Franklin was one of his all-time idols. This was his first venture after leaving Wham, the pop band he had formed with Andrew Ridgeley in 1981.

Franklin had heard Michael performing with Wham and said she liked their music. She said Wham had a unique sound, so when Davis suggested she worked with Michael, she agreed. Aged 45 at the time, she had enjoyed a hugely successful career, with her first single, Never Grow Old, being released in 1956, when she was just 14.

Arriving at the recording studio, Michael, who was 24, said he realised there was no point trying to copy Franklin’s style, as her voice was unique and nobody could emulate her vocals. Narada Michael Walden produced the track, after previously working with Franklin on her album, Who’s Zoomin’ Who.

Michael had produced much of his own music and had also produced Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. Despite being in awe of Franklin, he didn’t let his nerves get the better of him.
Describing how they had a “super time” in the recording studio, Franklin said Michael was “calling most of the shots”, but that he was “friendly, personable and easy to talk to.” She said she enjoyed working with him and was pleased with the result, as I Knew You Were Waiting was a song which didn’t grow old.

Michael said he and Franklin recorded the song together, adding ad-libs separately at a later date. He praised Walden for his brilliance, especially the way he had created a good atmosphere in the studio. Michael said he kept his own vocals simple and understated in comparison with Franklin’s performance.

Later life
Sadly, Michael died in December 2016, at the age of 53, after a hugely successful solo recording career. Franklin paid tribute to the late star in an interview in Entertainment Weekly in 2017. She said working with him had reminded her of working with Jerry Wexler, the former music journalist who went on to become a music producer.

She found Michael very easy-going – and like Wexler, he had a relaxed attitude towards the recording. If they were happy with what they had recorded, he would suggest seeing if they felt the same way the next day. If they did, then he would say, “Maybe we have a hit.”

Following Franklin’s death on 16th August 2018, at the age of 76, I Knew You Were Waiting remains a wonderful tribute to two great artists, sounding as fresh today as it did when it was first recorded 31 years ago.

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