Engineer Chris Porter on the Genius of George Michael

Like many, engineer Chris Porter initially held the view that George Michael was nothing more than a disposable pop star. However, after working with Michael first in the duo Wham! and later as a solo artist, Porter realized that Michael was a significant artist who could stand on his own as a singer, songwriter and producer.

Porter first began working with Michael in 1981 on the single “Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do),” back when the singer was one-half of the pop duo. In an interview originally conducted for The Billboard Book on Number One Albums, Porter admitted that he initially didn’t think Michael — or his Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley — had much of a future beyond temporary stardom. “I thought they were just a teen band,” Porter said.

However, a few years later, while working on the B-side of the “Club Tropicana” single, “Blue,” Porter began to note a change. “I started to get the sense that there was more depth to George Michael than perhaps people had seen before,” he said.

When Porter regrouped with Wham! to record “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” the first song cut for the group’s second album, Make It Big, Porter once again noticed changes in Michael. “In that period between 1981 and 1984, he had definitely learned an awful lot about music and the music business,” he said.

The single was released in the U.K. in the summer of 1984, where it went straight to No. 1. “That was a good feeling, but to a certain extent it also put a lot of pressure on us to make a comparable album, and stylistically an album that was of that vein,” Porter said. “There were a lot of ’60s-sounding tracks on there.”

In an attempt to get an authentic ’60s feel, Michael originally cut the ballad “Careless Whisper” with legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler at the Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama. “When I got a call saying we were going to do some work on ‘Careless Whisper,’ I couldn’t believe it,” said Porter, “because I knew that Jerry Wexler just worked on it. I thought, ‘There really can’t be much to do on it,'” Porter says.

Surprisingly, Porter added, Wexler’s version sounded “European” and didn’t have “quite as much of the soul I expected.”

By the time “Careless Whisper” was recorded, it was clear that Wham! had essentially become George Michael. “He was taking a really big role in every part of the production,” Porter said. “Andrew was still involved in being a pop star and thinking about other ways he wanted to enjoy himself, while George had his head down in the music.”

Following the release of Make It Big in the fall of 1984, Wham! finally found success in America. “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” the first U.S. single from the album, reached No. 1 on Nov. 17, 1984. Wham!’s reign continued in 1985, when “Careless Whisper,” which was credited to “Wham! Featuring George Michael,” hit number one on Feb. 16. With “Careless Whisper” still in the top portion, Make It Big reached No. 1 three weeks later in its 17th week on the chart.

“Everything She Wants” became the third No. 1 single from Make It Big on May 25, 1985, making Wham! the first group to score three chart-toppers from an album since the Bee Gees had done it with Spirits Having Flown in 1979.

Wham! would soon be no more. The group’s last album, 1986’s Music from the Edge of Heaven, peaked at number 10. However, Michael’s career was just beginning and Porter was there when he hit it big as a solo artist.

After Wham! split, Michael began to establish himself as a solo artist in 1987, recording “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” a duet with R&B legend Aretha Franklin. The single topped the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K., giving Michael adequate momentum for the release of his first solo album later that year.

Much of Michael’s first solo album, Faith, was recorded at Puk Studios in Denmark and Porter was once again on hand to serve as engineer. He recalled how the album’s hit title track evolved. “George wanted to do this acoustic guitar thing, but the only acoustic guitar that was around with this horrible aluminum-body guitar that [British punk group] the Damned had left there.”

A phone call was made to have another acoustic guitar delivered to the studio, but by the time it turned up, the track had already been recorded. “So that’s what you hear, and it became the signature sound of the record,” Porter recalled. “He said he wanted a Bo Diddley kind of rhythm and he wanted everything stark and dry.”

Also recorded during the same sessions was “I Want Your Sex.” The squelching synthesizer heard throughout the track was the result of a happy accident. “We were experimenting, trying to tie a bunch of machines together, and when we started the sequencer, this strange squelching sound came out.” The song’s lyrics, however, were quite deliberate. “Since the AIDS issue was looming large, George felt it was important to say it was about monogamy,” Porter said. To drive that point home, the word “Monogamy” was spelled out on the back of Michael’s then-girlfriend Kathy Jeung.

While working on Faith, Porter continued to notice Michael’s transformation from disposable teen pop star to a legitimate artist. “I was completely knocked out by the vocal on ‘One More Try,'” Porter said. “I really started to see what a good soul singer he was becoming. I think that track had a lot to do with the album’s success on the R&B charts, rather than a lot of the poppier stuff.”

The dominance on the pop charts also continued. “I Want Your Sex” was issued prior to the album on the soundtrack of Beverly Hills Cop II. It peaked at No. 2 on the singles chart and “Faith” did even better. On Dec. 12, 1987, the song became Michael’s first number one solo single. A little more than a month later, the album that spawned it also hit number one. It would also yield three more chart-toppers — “Father Figure,” “One More Try” and “Monkey” — and establish Michael as a superstar.

“We had no idea the album would sell as well as it did,” Porter said, “but we did know that it would make people see him in a different light.”