A year that has seemed disproportionately filled with celebrity deaths, from Prince to David Bowie to Leonard Cohen and more, claimed another this evening, as British singer, songwriter and producer George Michael died on Christmas Day. He was 53.
The boundary-bending icon and member of British duo Wham! was one of the greatest talents of his time, penning some of pop music’s most beloved hits over the years (“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper,” “Faith,” “Freddom! ’90”) and, of course, one of its most controversial (“I Want Your Sex”). But his death at the young age of 53 of heart failure caught the music world, already reeling from a year of high-profile deaths, shocked and saddened — perhaps even moreso as it came on Christmas day.
As tributes continue to pour in and fans the world over mourn Michael’s death, Billboard takes a look at other musical icons who passed on Christmas day over the years.
W.C. Fields, 1946
An accomplished juggler and comedian, the iconic figure of early-1900s America was also a Broadway musical star in his own right before making his name in films throughout the 1930s, and was even reportedly the first choice to star in The Wizard of Oz, a role he ultimately passed up in order to write his next film. He died in 1946 of a gastric hemorrhage at 66 years old.
Dean Martin, 1995
The King of Cool, member of the original Rat Pack alongside Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., television star and celebrated singer was known as much for his comedy (first alongside Jerry Lewis) and film career as his immense discography, which spanned some 30 years and dozens of albums. The iconic figure died at the age of 78 of acute respiratory failure, a result of a battle with emphysema that stemmed from his long-term love of cigarettes.
James Brown, 2006
It’s impossible to sum up Brown’s influence on American pop culture — beyond even music — over his seven decades on this earth, but it’s safe to say the Godfather of Soul left his mark on so many people that it’s near impossible to not see some piece of his influence in every corner of the entertainment industry today. Whether it was as a pioneer of funk music, a political and social lightning rod, a dynamic, iconic and relentless performer or an irresistible personality, Brown was nothing short of a legend in his time, and his death on Christmas day at the age of 73 sparked a national period of mourning.
Eartha Kitt, 2008
“Santa Baby” just wouldn’t be the same song without the singular voice of Eartha Kitt, whose extensive career as a singer was rivaled by her long-running career as an actress on Broadway and in film, and which spanned more than 60 years. In some ways it is fitting that her most enduring hit celebrated the 25th of December; Kitt died of colon cancer on that day in 2008 at the age of 81 having never truly retired, appearing in television and film up until the year of her death.
Vic Chestnutt, 2009
Georgia-born Chestnutt was largely paralyzed from the neck down for most of his adult life due to injuries sustained in a car accident at the age of 18, but that didn’t stop him from playing guitar and becoming an influential force in the alt- and indie-folk world. He collaborated extensively with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Widespread Panic, and many of his songs were covered on the 1996 charity album Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, which brought attention to his songwriting skills. He died at the age of 45 after overdosing on muscle relaxants.