I’m realizing that the songs that should be easiest to write about are often the hardest to write about. I keep asking myself, how can I do justice to a song that means so much to me? I’ll word-vomit this one and see what comes up. Well, it’s not exactly a word vomit because I’ve been thinking about this for a few hours. Anyway…
“Careless Whisper” is arguably the most well-known ballad of the ‘80s. Weirdly, for such an instantly recognizable song, the title is buried in the middle of the second verse and never uttered again. George Michael had a habit of doing this.
I can distinctly remember a day in early 1985 when I discovered who George Michael was. I already knew who Wham! was. Actually, I discovered Wham! before most of America did, courtesy of the “Bad Boys” video airing on New York Hot Tracks in 1983 and the theme of rebellion embedding itself into my brain. I had no idea who the individual members of the duo were, though. So when my friend Omari showed me the 45 of “Careless Whisper”, I was like “who is George Michael?” Of course, I already knew that a “featuring” credit on a song usually signifies that someone who is not the lead artist (or part of the lead group, in this case) appears on the song. A few months later, I was very, very familiar with the name “George Michael”.
It’s hard to believe that George Michael wrote this song AS A TEENAGER. “Careless Whisper” is a fairly sophisticated love song. No way in hell I could write a song like this at 41, much less being able to express the experience and pain of lost love that permeates the lyrics and the vocal performance as a 17 year old.
There’s a famous story about George traveling to Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama to work on “Careless Whisper” with Jerry Wexler. Wexler famously produced a ton of Atlantic Records sides in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including almost all of the hits of that era sung by future George Michael duet partner Aretha Franklin. George was unhappy with the results, and ended up producing the song himself. The Wexler-produced version eventually made its way onto the internet, and I have to say George’s instincts were 100% right. There was a point a couple of years ago when I wondered whether I liked Wexler’s version less just because it was unfamiliar and different. Nah, George’s version is better.
“Careless Whisper”’s album version begins with a long, synth-spiked intro in which George sings the part more commonly known as the second verse of the single version. Then that drum fill and the motherfucking MOST RECOGNIZABLE SAX SOLO IN HISTORY kicks in and I still get chills, thirty-three years later.
And if you haven’t heard El DeBarge (featuring Kamasi Washington) kick the shit out of “Careless Whisper” during his BET Awards tribute to George last year, allow me to present you with this. A much better tribute than Adele or Coldplay was able to muster.
“but nooowwwwww who’s gonna dance with me? PLEASE stay!” uggghhhhhhh…it gets me every single time. Sam Smith couldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole.