When news broke about the death of music icon George Michael on Christmas Day, fans around the world were shocked.
One man stunned by his passing was retired London DJ Norman Scott. He met George at the very beginning of his career.
Norman unintentionally gave the fledgling pop icon a huge confidence boost when he hosted Wham at the gay night where he worked.
George, in return, was to go on to thank Norman and the regulars at the club in a very special way, at a time when he himself was not open about his sexuality.
Early days of Wham
As fans will know, young Georgios Panayiotou was born in East Finchley in 1963. His father was a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur and his mother an English Dancer.
In his early teens, the family moved to Radlett in Hertfordshire, just north of the UK capital. At school he met Andrew Ridgley and the pair went on to form Wham in 1981.
Norman Scott, who turns 76 later this month, spent much of his life DJ’ing at venues all around London. He introduced the Beatles to the stage at an early gig at Leyton Baths in 1963, and Rod Stewart and Elton John in the early 70s at the Sundown Edmonton.
In the early 80s he had residencies at Bang at Busby’s on Charing Cross Road and Bolts, a weekend gay night at Lazer’s in Harringay, North London.
‘We’ve just signed this new group – would you like them at one of your clubs?’
By 1982, he was regularly being sent promo records and enjoyed a good relationship with the marketing staff at a number of music labels. One of these worked at CBS, later to be merged with Sony. They had just signed a new band: Wham.
‘She was called Lorraine Trent, and she phoned me up one day and said “We’ve just signed this new group – would you like them at one of your clubs?”. I said “Yes, how much?”, and she said, “Oh no, we don’t want anything – just get them a couple of drinks!”
‘So Wham came along. It was either their first PA or one of the first, and they mimed over their first single, Wham Rap.
‘I thought they were so good that I asked Lorraine if we could have them on again.
‘The second time they came down, I knew they had live mics, and it was a bit cheeky of me, but I’d had a couple of drinks and probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise, but what I did was I flipped the record over and played the dub side – the instrumental backing track.
‘The music started and they suddenly realized it wasn’t the vocal side and had to sing live. As far as I know, that was the first time they’d ever sung live in public. But they were so pleased about how it went.
‘I got an amazing letter from CBS records thanking me for doing what I did and giving George and Andrew the confidence to sing live in front of an audience.’
Norman still has the letter, from Caroline Douratsos, ‘CBS Disco Promotions’, dated September 1982.
‘Hi, what can I say except a really big thank you for Saturday night at Lasers.
‘You were really terrific, mostly for getting Wham to do a live PA … as I said it was the first one they had done, and afterwards they were so thrilled with the way it went, and the fact that you had got them to do it. Been [sic] put on the ‘spot’ like that gave Wham the confidence to now see that they can handle a live P.A … it was just fabulous, and the crowd obviously loved it.’
‘I’m surprised to see you here?’
Norman continued to promote Wham’s music to his appreciative crowd, and the band returned again to do another PA for their next single, Young Guns.
George Michael – then just aged 19 – continued to visit Bolts and the two struck up a friendship.
‘He turned up on New Year’s Eve. I said, “Oh, I’m surprised to see you here?”. He started turning up with a woman called Patty Fernandes, who was one of their backing singers and would drive him around. He wasn’t driving then.
‘On that particular night, he said “Yeah, we’ve been to Camden Palace [one of London’s trendier nightclubs at the time] but I couldn’t even go to the toilet without getting pestered. I don’t mind but there is a limit, so I came down here.”
‘He liked to come to Bolts because he didn’t get pestered like he did in other places. Him and Patty would dance together on the dancefloor.
Obviously, in hindsight, there were probably other reasons why George enjoyed visiting Bolts. He later said in interviews that he thought he might be bisexual at the time, and didn’t accept the fact he was gay until his mid-20s.
‘I didn’t know he was gay. He never let on to me’
Was he ‘out’ at all when he visited Bolts? Did Norman know he was gay?
‘He wasn’t out. People asked me about him. They even asked if I thought him and Andrew were having an affair, but Andrew only came down when they were performing. It was George that came just because he enjoyed it.
‘That New Year’s Eve, at the end of the night, we were both waiting for taxis. Patty had left, and you know what that’s like on New Year’s Eve. We ended up waiting in the restaurant area of Bolts and talking for a whole hour.
‘But no, I didn’t know he was gay. He never let on to me. I thought there was a chance that perhaps he was, but obviously because of their success, they wanted to keep it quiet.’
Outside of London, Bolts ran a regular night in Brighton, and would send a coach from London to the south coast city. Norman says George joined them on at least one occasion. He has a photo of him, George and the singer Sharon Redd, who was performing at the night.
‘Hi Norman, this is our new single, Freedom’
In early 1984, with their fame continuing to grow, George turned up at Bolts clutching a package.
‘He came up to the turntables and said, “Hi Norman, this is our new single, Freedom, we only just finished recording this afternoon, I came straight from the studios, and I put it on acetate for you.
‘“I can’t let you keep the record but you can play it. Don’t ever say we don’t appreciate what you’ve done for us. We really appreciate that you worked hard to promote us and are really grateful.”
‘I whacked a cassette in, so I was able to record it when I played it, so I was able to play it again before the record came out, but he said I was the first person to get a copy of it, so I was quite chuffed about that.’
The Bolts crowd were blown away to be treated to the first airing of a new Wham song. The evening is recalled by another regular, Adam Byrne, now a club promoter himself and long-time George Michael fan.
‘I was there the night that Freedom was first played. I knew the new single was a couple of months off, so was over the moon when Norman announced he was about to play it.
‘It was the days before internet, so no one had heard the track in advance. It was an amazing experience, especially for us Wham fans.’
It’s a special memory for Norman, but it was also to signify George’s withdrawal from the club. With their second album, Make It Big, Wham were about to break America, taking their fame to dizzying heights.
‘After Wake Me Up before You Go Go, I phoned him up to congratulate him on Wham getting into the American top ten. But after that was a hit in the US, he stopped coming down Bolts. By this stage, he was getting pestered everywhere he went.’
Norman thinks that considerations over image, and the fear of the having to possibly explain to the press why he was being spotted in gay clubs, would also have played a part.
‘I just thought there was something wrong’
George Michael has left behind an incredible back catalogue of music, and for fans, many treasured memories. This includes Norman, who remembers a young, ambitious and talented man – before the pressures of global super-stardom began to take their toll.
Norman has fond memories of Bolts, which hosted PAs from the likes of the Weather Girls, Hazell Dean and even a pre-fame Take That, before closing in the early 1990s.
Despite not speaking to him in many years, Norman says he was ‘totally devastated’ to hear of George’s death.
‘I was visiting my sister’s family over Christmas. My niece called me and said, “Have you heard the news about George Michael?”. Straight away I thought something had happened. I said, “Don’t tell me he’s died,” and she told me he had.
‘In a way, it didn’t surprise me because I just thought there was something wrong,’ he says on reflection. ‘He’s not put anything out for ages and ages. There’s been too much silence from him.
‘But I was still devastated.’