Veteran musician Deon Estus, who played bass with George Michael throughout his Wham! years and on through much of the singer’s solo career, can vividly recall how the Faith tour opened. With hues of blue blasting like headlights from above, “There was a cage onstage that would open up and you would hear the organ play,” the musician tells Billboard of the album’s instrumental opening sequence. “I still remember the buzz. It was fantastic. Every night, I looked forward to ‘Father Figure.’ Once we got there, we were on fire.”
Estus, a Detroit native and session player who spent more than a decade playing in Marvin Gaye‘s band, had a close-up look at the pop phenomenon that was George Michael, who was discovered dead on Christmas Day. Not only did he perform in Michael’s band for the better part of 25 years, he also opened on the Faith tour and co-wrote a song with Michael, “Heaven Help Me,” from Estus’ 1989 album Spell, which reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Also drawing the two together: Estus’ voice, which would blend with Michael’s harmoniously. “We sounded a lot alike,” he says.
The two met in Ireland when Michael was still a teenager and became fast friends, says Estus, who soon after joined Wham! just as the duo was exploding. “I knew he would be big,” the bassist recalls of the pre-fame days. “Most Americans don’t know [1982 single] ‘Young Guns,’ which came out before they were with a major label, but once the album [Make It Big] was released, the success came overnight.”
Indeed, Wham! would become a global sensation in short order, making its way to China and marking the first time a western act had ever toured in a communist country. “It was not the China we have now,” says Estus, who played on the tour, which was covered by a press pool of American and British journalists. “It was the first time [the Chinese] saw music come out of speakers, the first time they could dance at a concert… It was historic.”
Asked to describe Michael as a performer and as a friend, Estus says he was “fun and very sure of himself… He was a beautiful person and a great friend.”
Estus adds that he and others who toured with and got to know Michael are still grappling with the shock of his death. “It’s a tragic loss, but George picked a beautiful day to go and be with God,” he says. ” I’m still in shock. It hasn’t quite hit me yet, but it helps to talk about it and to think about all those fantastic tours, all those records, all the people he’s helped and all the things he’s done, which is a lot. I was blessed to have known him.”