Following its premiere earlier this year in venues around the UK, including a sell-out performance at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, George, the definitive show celebrating the music of George Michael, returns for a UK tour in 2020 opening in Glasgow and calling at Dundee.
Featuring the incredible voice of Rob Lamberti, alongside the National Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and long-time members of George Michael’s original band, the show celebrates the career of one of the most gifted performers of a generation. For Rob, the story began, by chance, after a karaoke night when he was told he sounded like George Michael.
“I can’t tell you that I sat at home and planned any of it,” he tells me. “I’ve had around 27 years of this, so I’ve spent more of my life being George Michael than myself! It’s been quite a journey. Things just happened.
“Around the millennium things were going a bit quiet and I was thinking of jacking it in. I was doing one a week, maybe, and everybody was going Robbie Williams mad. George was out of the scene and that tends to happen to the tribute acts, too. Back then it was, ‘oh, well, we’ve moved on now.’
“I thought about stopping but I’m glad I didn’t. Then the album Patience came out in 2003, it took off even more and my career really picked up from that point. The 90s had been a bit of a joke. I had been on Stars In Their Eyes and you could do the odd shop opening with your leather jacket on but the around the mid-2000s he started touring again and everything just became more serious.”
Rob first found fame when coming third as George on Stars In Their Eyes in 1994. A couple of years later Rob spotted George and Andrew Ridgeley at the back of the audience at one of his shows, something later confirmed by George’s manager Andy Stephens. Then, in 2007, Rob was asked to stand in for George, who was away touring, to help promote his album 25.
“That was really bizarre. This was not just a pop star, this was a mega-star, someone who is on the same level as Michael Jackson and Madonna and they’re using a tribute to do some promotional work! I was really pinching myself at the time. ‘Is this really happening? Is someone like Jeremy Beadle going to come out and say, “I’ve got you!”‘
“I was asked to sign some albums. I looked at the chaperone and asked what to do and he just said, ‘Sign away.’ So I picked up the black marker and was signing George’s CDs and then one of the fans in the queue went, ‘Hang on a minute, George signs with his left hand!’”
Rob chuckles at the memory. “‘Thank you very much, no more signings!’ It was a bit strange but I’m glad I did it, I was of use!”
He certainly was. With Rob’s help, Sony achieved their goal of getting the album to Number 1 in the charts that week.
That’s all a far cry from growing up in Scunthorpe with two older sisters and an elder brother.
“My sisters were really into music. I was born in ‘73 so by the time I was five I was listening to whatever my sisters were playing. We’d all dance in the house and it would be Motown, Blondie and disco. I was kind of brought up in an era that was a little older than what I should have been, musically. I found that I was into the madness of ska, that grabbed me when I was seven or eight, and in the 80s I was a skinhead, Doc Marten’s, down the market on a Saturday, buy a badge, stick it to your coat.
“When Wham! emerged and Young Guns came out I wasn’t into that at all. For me to be doing a tribute to someone like George and singing all these Wham! songs is amazing because, at the time, I wasn’t really open to it.”
And now Rob’s own career has been lifted to another level with the national tour as the star of George, working with a band and an orchestra.
“We did April and May of this year and it went really well and we go back again in May 2020,” Rob said. “It was an unbelievable experience because I’ve never done that before. I’ve worked with the odd band over the years but never with an orchestra. It was so exciting to be stood on the stage. When I opened up the show, I’m standing at the top of the stage
looking down and I’ve got all this band to the left with some of George’s own musicians and to the right, an orchestra, and then this huge audience in front… It was one of the most amazing experiences.
“The nerves, before I walked on, were the highest they’ve ever been. Walking out on TV is a similar sort of thing, sometimes it’s difficult to contain. I still get very nervous but it was an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to doing that again.”
And this is not just any old orchestra.
“No! Its the National Philharmonic with Matthew Freeman who’s put all that side of things together. It’s a really amazing sound. I think George would be really proud of that. It’s bringing in the symphonica with a live band. It’s a really good mix.”
I ask Rob if he feels the power, standing there, in front of the orchestra?
He pauses, thinking for a moment. “I feel like… ‘How have I got to this stage?'” and he then laughs. “I have to pinch myself. It makes you feel like you are in that space, that you could really be him. At that high level, this is what George would have gone through! This is the whole thing of walking out on this stage with all these musicians, you don’t get any bigger than that!”
Joining Rob, to make the show even more of a special occasion, are two of George Michael’s long-time band members, David Baptiste and Carlos Hercules. Saxophone player David has performed with George Michael since his Wham! days, including their show in China in 1984, the first Western pop group to perform in the country.
Carlos was the drummer in George’s band for several years, and was the first drummer to perform at the new Wembley Stadium as part of George’s huge show there in 2007. He has also performed with artists such as The Eurythmics, Beverley Knight and performed live at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.
“We’ve had numerous conversations and it’s interesting to hear their stories but I’ve never asked them loads of questions. They sometimes tell me things, down-to-earth things like after a show he’d take them for a meal. They were expecting a party and it would be a quiet room with just them, completely different to what you’d think. George didn’t want a big noise, he just wanted to talk to them as people.”
“We’re going to put some slightly different songs in, not too far away from what we’ve done before because everybody wants the classics Faith, Fastlove, Careless Whisper, I’m Your Man. We can’t drop too many of them but there’s a couple of changes. I wanted to, maybe, go a little deeper on some of the ballads, possibly You Have Been Loved, and possibly a different cover. People will be coming to the show who’ve seen it this year and I don’t want it to be a repeat from them, I want it to be slightly different.
“You have to think ‘What would George do?’ George would do that, he wouldn’t go on tour and do the same set for years and he’d even do it on the same tour. You’d see him in London; by the time he’d got to Birmingham he’d changed it. On my solo nights, I’m always flicking around. Sometimes I think, ‘After this song I know what’s going to work here,’ and you can do that on a solo night whereas this has to be planned but it’s nice to keep things fresh.”