Things happen fast in the UAE. Careless whispers (ahem) soon become rumours, which in turn become vague fact, only to miraculously materialise as deadline day stories. Case in point: while each artist received individual mentions in dispatches for a good week beforehand, the date for George Michael’s and Alicia Keys’ pre-National Day (December 1) concert at the 30,000-capacity Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium seemingly emerged from nowhere.
It is all the more surprising given that this will be the first time the pair will have appeared on the same bill, or in the UAE – George Michael only announced his retirement from touring this August (surely the shortest retirement ever). So what do the two have in common? We take a trip down memory lane to find out…
It’s 1981, MTV goes on the air for the first time; the introduction of IBM’s mass-produced personal computer sets Bill Gates on the road to his first billion. These were the headlines; but behind them, a myriad other tales are to be told. One such story occurs in the room of a North London home where a young Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, the son of a Greek restaurant owner, decides to form a band with his childhood friend, Andrew Ridgeley. On the other side of the Atlantic, in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen, another barely recorded event sees the birth of a baby girl to an Irish-Italian part-time actress and a Jamaican flight attendant – they name her Alicia J Augelli-Cook.
In 1982, the still teenage Georgios (now known as George Michael) releases a first single with Wham! – ‘Wham Rap’. It doesn’t chart, and neither does its follow-up, ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’, until a fluke appearance on UK chart show Top Of The Pops introduces the public to their mixture of good time pop, easy style and ’80s charms. ‘Young Guns’ then peaks at number three and the rest is pretty much the story of the ’80s: Live Aid; ‘Choose Life’ T-shirts, designer stubble, ‘Jitterbug!’, er Pepsi & Shirley… until Wham! go their separate ways in 1986.
A year before their demise in Harlem, New York, a precocious young Alicia Cook makes a brief credited appearance on US comedy sitcom The Cosby Show. Shortly after, aged just seven, she begins learning the piano, before later going on to graduate from Manhattan’s prestigious Professional Performing Arts School; a testing ground for such alumni as singer Britney Spears and actress Claire Danes.
Then 1987 sees the release of Faith, Michael’s first solo album. Controversial lead single ‘I Want Your Sex’ kickstarts an album and a solo career that veers between sublime soul (he was the first white man ever to duet with Aretha Franklin) and outright controversy. In the early ’90s, a prolonged dispute with record company Sony saw him refuse to appear in the video for his single ‘Freedom 90’; instead recruiting a number of supermodels to lip sync to it – 17 years later, Keys covers the same song at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards.
And to 1994, which ushers in a successful comeback for Michael with hit album Older. While, over the next few years, revelations about his personal life tend to overshadow events, in 2008 the singer announces his retirement from live performing after a hugely successful farewell tour.
Back in 1996, still aged just 16, pianist, singer, cellist and composer Alicia J Augelli-Cook becomes Alicia Keys (although she preferred Wilde). Keys signs a demo deal with So So Def Records, who are distributed by Columbia (the same company handling Wham! in America), appearing on the soundtrack to Men In Black aged only 17. However, she soon becomes disillusioned and arranges to be bought out of her recording contract in order to go elsewhere.
Five years later, Keys releases Songs In A Minor, becoming the best-selling artist of that year and winning five Grammy Awards in the process (George Michael has two), before following this up with three more albums and six more Grammys – as well as an appearance at international awareness-raising concert, Live 8, where George Michael also sings, alongside Paul McCartney. More recently she also duets on the phenomenal (in our opinion) theme song for the new Bond movie, Quantum Of Solace, with the White Stripes’ Jack White, and wins a starring role in the upcoming film The Secret Life of Bees – based on the Oprah-backed bestselling book. In short: Keys arrives in the UAE as one of the world’s biggest female recording artist.
And so we find ourselves in the present. Humble 1981 beginnings, name changes, early stardom and record company disputes unite the pair; but all this is beside the point. What will appear on stage in December is the biggest music event Abu Dhabi has ever seen. And we can’t wait.
Alicia Keys and George Michael, Sheikh Zayed Sports Stadium, Abu Dhabi, December 1. Tickets Dhs195-Dhs995, available from www.timeouttickets.com.