How George Michael proved himself to be Freddie Mercury's one true heir

George Michael onstage with Brian May
(Image credit: Duncan Raban/Popperfoto)

Queen have been without Freddie Mercury for more than thirty years, a full decade longer than his time in the band. And while they may have added that '+' symbol to their name whenever they've worked with other singers, to signal a respectful distance from the Mercury era, his shoes have never truly been filled. 

The album Queen made with Paul Rodgers, 2008's The Cosmos Rocks, now feels like the least consequential recording of the band's career, and while Adam Lambert's introduction has reintroduced some of Mercury's showmanship to the stage, attempts to make it work in the studio have failed

“Paul has one of the greatest rock voices, but it’s more blues and soul orientated,” Roger Taylor admitted in 2014. “With all due respect, Adam is more suited to a lot of our material. We had great tours with Paul – but I think Adam is more naturally at home with us.”

That might be true. Lambert's a freakishly gifted singer, albeit one with a voice that can sound shrill in the upper registers in a way that Mercury's never did, and he lacks Freddie's gift for grit and growl, but he does fit. 

If there's one singer who checked every box, it's the late George Michael. And he proved it back in 1992, at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at London's Wembley Stadium. 

Michael had long been a fan. He used to busk his favourite Queen song, Brian May's 39, on the London Underground before he got famous with Wham!, and leapt at the chance to pay tribute. He led the band through three songs – 39, These Are The Days Of Our Lives (joined onstage by pop singer Lisa Stansfield), and a towering version of Somebody To Love – bringing a semblance of musical normality to proceedings after Davie Bowie had baffled many by leading the crowd through an impromptu version of The Lords Prayer

It was Somebody To Love that convinced many that Michael was Freddie's natural successor. It's a tour de force performance, capturing all the emotional impact of Mercury's original as well as nailing the song's terrifying climax.

"On television, I would never have the guts to go for that high note," said Michael. "Live, to however millions of people that was, that was probably the bravest note I ever hit. 

"I rehearsed for a week. It was like I was at school the week before, with Brian and John [Deacon] and Roger, and I literally there every day for a week. I was not going to get this wrong." 

The Wembley footage may be bettered by film shot at the rehearsal, where Michael can be seen performing Somebody To Love as David Bowie and Seal look on. It's remarkable: he looks like he's been singing the song his whole life. 

The Tribute Concert was an unqualified success, raising millions of pounds for AIDS research, and Somebody To Love was released a year later on the Five Live EP, credited to George Michael and Queen with Lisa Stansfield. The rumour mill started to spin, especially when the band revealed that there was enough unreleased material in the vaults for at least two more Queen albums. Surely only one man could front such a project.  

“I remember hearing the rumours, but it wouldn't have suited us,” Roger Taylor told Classic Rock in 2021. “George wasn't really used to working with a live band. When he heard the power he had behind him in rehearsal, he couldn’t believe it. He thought he was on Concorde or something.”

"It was probably the proudest moment of my career," said Michael. "Because it was me living out a childhood fantasy: to sing one of Freddie’s songs in front of 80,000 people."

Later, in the film 2017 Freedom, Michael revealed there was much more powering his performance than his childhood fantasies, and that his then-partner, Anselmo Feleppa, had been diagnosed with AIDS – the same disease that had killed Mercury – shortly before the concert.

“I went out there knowing I had to honour Freddie Mercury and I had to pray for Anselmo,” Michael said. “I just wanted to die inside. I was so overwhelmed by singing the songs of this man I had worshiped as a child, who had passed away in the same manner my first living partner was going to experience."

A final word on the Tribute Concert, and the multitude of stars who'd gathered to sing Freddie Mercury's songs, comes from late Foo Fighters drummer and Queen superfan Taylor Hawkins.

"All those brilliant singers, and not one was able to do everything he could," he told Classic Rock in 2006. "That’s why I think that Queen should have gotten both Paul Rodgers and George Michael in the band... between them they could cover most of what Freddie did on his own!"

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.