In spring 1987, I was living in a little bungalow in Seattle with my partner of eight years (now my husband). I had single-digit body-fat and I was getting a great deal of work as an actor. I was also grooving to the Number One song in the nation, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) by Aretha Franklin and George Michael (1987).
It sort of makes sense that one of the greatest soul duos of all time, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, make an appearance in the video for I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me). 36 years ago, this week, this duet between George Michael and Aretha Franklin went to Number One on the R&B and Pop charts. It is still Franklin’s biggest hit on the Adult Contemporary chart, spending nearly a month in the number two spot. It was Michael’s third single since going solo after the breakup of Wham!. The song gave the Queen of Soul and her young admirer a kind of blank space for their voices to fuse. Michael elegantly proved he had the boldness, vocal chops, and diffidence to do right by the Do Right Woman.
In his now out-of-print memoir Bare (1991), Michael wrote:
“I was nervous about singing with Franklin. I knew that Aretha would get the melody and then take it all over the place, which sounds great, but the thing also needed tying down. I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple. It was very understated in comparison to what she did.”
The song brought Michael his first Grammy Award and made it clear that he was, first and foremost, a soul singer as good as any other.
It was Michael’s first single recorded that was not written by him. It’s by Simon Climie and Dennis Morgan, who had composed catchy hits for Eric Clapton, Pat Benatar and Rick Astley, and had a hit of their own in 1987 with Love Changes (Everything) as Climie Fisher.
Michael and Franklin recorded the song together but did their little ad-libs bits separately. Michael admitted to being nervous during the recording session, but he knew there was no point in trying to copy Franklin’s style:
“Nobody can emulate Aretha Franklin. It’s stupid to try. I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple; it was very understated in comparison to what she did.”
After Michael’s shocking passing on Christmas Day 2016, Franklin wrote:
“The first time I heard George was with Wham! and I liked it then. He had a very unique sound, very different from anything that was out there. When Clive Davis suggested we get together for I Knew You Were Waiting, I was all ready. It reminded me of producer Jerry Wexler. We’d go in the studio and cut songs. If we were happy with what we recorded, Jerry would say, ‘Let’s wait until tomorrow. If we feel the same way that we do now, maybe we have a hit.’ I Knew You Were Waiting had that. Musically, it does not grow old.”
Regarding the video for the song, which received heavy rotation on MTV, Franklin said:
“We had a super time. He was calling most of the shots: how he wanted this, how he wanted that. My older sister, Erma, just fell for him right away. He was very friendly and personable, easy to talk to.”
Listening today, I was transported back in time, but if I heard it today, I would think it was contemporary. Timeless.