1946 – Freddie Mercury of Queen is born in Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara; September 5, 1946 – November 24, 1991) was a Zanzibar-born British musician, best known as the lead singer and co-founder of the rock band Queen (inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001). He was noted for his vocal abilities, his charisma, and his live performances. As a songwriter, he composed many international hits, including “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Killer Queen”, “Somebody to Love”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “We Are the Champions” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”. He is often referred to as the best vocalist of all time, and one of the greatest songwriters of all time. In addition to his work with Queen, he also led a solo career with minor success, and was occasionally a producer and guest musician (piano or vocals) for other artists. Mercury, who was of Indian Parsi descent and who grew up in India, has been referred to as “Britain’s first Asian rock star.” However, he has also been criticised for having kept his ethnicity, as well as his sexual orientation and HIV status, a secret from the public.
Mercury was born in Stone Town on Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. His parents, Bomi and Jer Bulsara,
Mercury attended St. Peter’s School, a boarding school for boys in Panchgani near Bombay (now Mumbai), India. At St. Peter’s, he was a bright student who excelled at several sports. He was especially adept at boxing, with a strong ‘left hook’. At school, he formed a popular school band, called The Hectics, for which he played the piano. A friend from the time recalls that he “had an uncanny ability to listen to the radio and replay what he heard on piano.” It was also at St. Peter’s where he began to call himself “Freddie”. Mercury remained in India for most of his childhood, living with his grandmother and aunt. He completed his education in India at St. Mary’s (ISC) High School in Mazagon before returning to Zanzibar.
At the age of 17, Mercury and his family fled from Zanzibar as result of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. The family moved into a small house in Feltham, London. Mercury enrolled at Isleworth Polytechnic (now West Thames College) in West London where he studied art. He ultimately earned a Diploma in Art and Graphic Design at Ealing Art College, later using these skills in order to design the Queen crest. Mercury remained a British citizen for the rest of his life.
Following graduation, Mercury joined a series of bands and sold second-hand clothes in the Kensington Market in London. He also held a job at Heathrow airport. Friends from the time remember him as a quiet and shy young man who showed a great deal of interest in music.
In April 1970, Mercury joined with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor who had previously been in a band called Smile, and despite reservations from the other members, Mercury chose the name “Queen” for the new band. He later said about the band’s name, “I was certainly aware of the gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it.” At around this time, he also legally changed his name.
As a child, Mercury listened to a considerable amount of Indian music, and one of his early influences was the Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, whom he had the opportunity to see live in India.
Regarded as one of the greatest singers in rock music, Freddie Mercury possessed a very distinctive voice, including a recorded range of four octaves (E2 to E6). Although his speaking voice naturally fell in the baritone range, he delivered most songs as a tenor. Biographer David Bret described his voice as “escalating within a few bars from a deep, throaty rock-growl to tender, vibrant tenor, then on to a high-pitched, perfect coloratura, pure and crystalline in the upper reaches.”
US rock singer Billy Squier, with whom Mercury wrote two songs for in the mid-1980s (‘Lady with the Tenor Sax’ and ‘Love is the Hero’) said in an interview (Source: Life is Real) that Mercury indeed ‘sang sharp’.
Mercury wrote ten out of the seventeen songs on Queen’s Greatest Hits album: “Seven Seas of Rhye”, “Killer Queen”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Somebody to Love”, “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”, “We Are the Champions”, “Bicycle Race”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Play the Game”.
The most notable aspect of his songwriting involved the wide range of different genres that he used, which included, among other styles, rockabilly, heavy metal and disco. As he explained in a 1986 interview, “I hate doing the same thing again and again and again. I like to see what’s happening now in music, film and theatre and incorporate all of those things.”
Freddie Mercury with a Brazilian flag during the Rock in Rio concert, 1985.
Mercury is noted for his live performances, which were often delivered to stadium audiences around the world. His “bottomless microphone stand” gig was one of his many notable acts on stage. He displayed a highly theatrical style that often evoked a great deal of participation from the crowd. A writer for The Spectator described him as “a performer out to tease, shock and ultimately charm his audience with various extravagant versions of himself.”
One of Mercury’s most notable performances with Queen took place at Live Aid in 1985, during which the entire stadium audience of 72,000 people clapped, sang, and swayed in unison. Queen’s performance at the event has since been voted by a group of music executives as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. The results were aired on a television program called “The World’s Greatest Gigs”.
Over the course of his career, Mercury performed an estimated 700 concerts in countries around the world with Queen. A notable aspect of Queen concerts was the large scale involved.
Freddie Mercury playing guitar during a live concert with Queen in Frankfurt, 1984.
Freddie Mercury playing guitar during a live concert with Queen in Frankfurt, 1984.
Mercury played the piano in many of Queen’s most popular songs. Examples of piano-based Queen songs include “Killer Queen”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy”, “We Are the Champions” and “Don’t Stop Me Now”. He used concert grand pianos and, occasionally, other keyboard instruments such as harpsichord. From 1979 onwards, he also made extensive use of synthesisers in the studio. Queen guitarist Brian May claims that Mercury was unimpressed with his own abilities at the piano and used the instrument less over time. Although he wrote many lines for guitar, Mercury possessed only rudimentary skills on the instrument. Nevertheless, he wrote the song “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” on the guitar (it has been said that he wrote it while taking a bubble bath in his room at the Munich Hilton hotel), and often played it during live performances of the song.
In addition to his work with Queen, Mercury put out one solo album, a duet with Montserrat Caballe and several singles. Although his solo work was not as commercially successful as most Queen albums, the two off-Queen albums and several of the singles debuted in the top 10 of the UK Album Charts. His first solo effort involved the contribution of a song called Love Kills to a 1984 album dedicated to the 1926 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The song, which was produced by Giorgio Moroder, debuted at the #10 position in the UK charts.
Mercury had two full albums outside the band, Mr. Bad Guy and Barcelona, released in 1985 and 1988, respectively. The former was a pop-oriented album that emphasised disco and dance music. “Barcelona” was recorded with the opera singer Montserrat Caballé, whom he had long admired. Although it debuted in the top ten of the UK Album Charts, In particular, the album was heavily synthesizer-driven in a way that was not characteristic of previous Queen albums.
Barcelona, recorded with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, combined elements of popular music and opera. Many critics were uncertain what to make of the album, with one critic referring to it as “the most bizarre CD of the year.” where the song received massive air play as the official hymn of the 1992 Summer Olympics held in Barcelona one year after Mercury’s death. Ms. Caballé sung it live at the opening of the Olympics with Mercury’s part played in a screen.
In addition to the two solo albums, Mercury released several additional singles, including his own version of the hit The Great Pretender by The Platters, which debuted at the #5 spot in the UK in 1987.
In the early 1970s Mercury had a long-term relationship with a girlfriend named Mary Austin (whom he had met through guitarist Brian May). He lived with Austin for many years. However, by the mid-1970s, the singer began an affair with a male record executive at Elektra Records; this ultimately resulted in the end of his relationship with Austin.
By 1980, Mercury began to frequently visit gay bathhouses and clubs where he met many short-term partners.
Although he cultivated a very flamboyant stage personality, several sources refer to Mercury as having been very shy in person.
According to his partner Jim Hutton, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1987. Toward the end of his life, he was routinely stalked by photographers, while the daily tabloid newspaper The Sun featured a series of articles claiming that he was seriously ill.
On November 22, 1991, Mercury called Queen’s manager Jim Beach over to his Kensington home, to discuss a public statement. The next day, November 23, the following announcement was made to the press on behalf of Mercury:
Following the enormous conjecture in the press over the last two weeks, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth and I hope that everyone will join with my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease. My privacy has always been very special to me and I am famous for my lack of interviews. Please understand this policy will continue.
A little over 24 hours after issuing the statement, Mercury died on November 24, 1991 at the age of 45. The official cause of death was bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. Although he had not attended religious services in years, Mercury’s funeral was conducted by a Zoroastrian priest. Singers Elton John, David Bowie, and the remaining members of Queen attended the funeral. He was cremated at Kensal Green Cemetery.
In his will Mercury left the vast majority of his wealth, including his home and recording royalties, to Mary Austin, and the remainder to his parents and sister. He further left £500,000 to his chef Joe Fanelli, £500,000 to his personal assistant Peter Freestone, £100,000 to his driver Terry Giddings, and £500,000 to his partner, Jim Hutton.
Criticism and controversy
Mercury has been criticised for the fact that he hid his HIV status from the public for many years, waiting until the day before he died to admit that he had AIDS. It has been suggested that he could have raised a great deal of money and awareness by speaking truthfully and honestly about his situation and his fight against the disease.
Mercury has also been criticised for having kept his Indian origins a secret from the public. As a journalist from The Times observed, “Freddie himself always played down his Indian origins. In the few interviews he gave, he remained deliberately unclear about them.”
Mercury and Queen were widely criticised in the 1980s for the fact that they broke a United Nations cultural boycott by performing a series of shows at Sun City in 1984, an entertainment complex in Bophuthatswana, a homeland of (then) apartheid South Africa. As a result of these shows, Queen was placed on a United Nations list of blacklisted artists and widely criticised in magazines such as the NME.
A further controversy ensued in August 2006, when an organisation calling itself the Islamic Mobilization and Propagation petitioned the Zanzibar government’s culture ministry, demanding that a large-scale celebration of what would have been Mercury’s sixtieth birthday be cancelled. The organisation issued several complaints about the planned celebrations, including that Mercury was not a true Zanzibari and that he was bisexual, which is not in accordance with their interpretation of sharia. The organisation claimed that “associating Mercury with Zanzibar degrades our island as a place of Islam.” The planned celebration was cancelled.
Several popularity polls conducted over the past decade indicate that Mercury’s reputation may in fact have been enhanced since his death. For instance, in 2002 he appeared in the 58th spot in a list of the “100 Greatest Britons”, sponsored by the BBC and voted for by the public.
In the UK, Queen have now spent more collective weeks on the UK Album Charts than any other musical act (including The Beatles),
The extent to which Mercury’s death may have enhanced Queen’s popularity is not clear. In the United States, where Queen’s popularity had lagged in the 1980s, sales of Queen albums went up dramatically in 1992, the year following his death. The movie Wayne’s World, which featured “Bohemian Rhapsody,” also came out in 1992.
A statue in Montreux, Switzerland (by sculptor Irena Sedlecka) has been erected as a tribute to Mercury. Beginning in 2003, fans from around the world gather in Switzerland annually to pay tribute to the singer as part of the “Freddie Mercury Montreux Memorial Day” on the first weekend of September. The statue itself stands 3 metres high overlooking Lake Geneva and was unveiled on November 25, 1996 by Freddie’s father and Montserrat Caballé. A Royal Mail stamp was issued in honour of Mercury as part of the Millennium Stamp series. A plaque was also erected at the site of the family home in Feltham where Mercury and his family moved upon arriving in England in 1964. Others carried tributes to “the” singer of all time: Robbie Williams and George Michael. In the anime Cromartie High School, a character also named Freddie is based on Mercury in his appearance and rock star qualities. There are also a number of quilt panels within the AIDS Memorial Quilt made in tribute to Freddie, first publicly appearing in the fall 1992 showing of the Quilt on the Mall in Washington DC. The satirical cartoon series House of Rock featured a house in the afterlife inhabited by Freddie Mercury and other deceased stars such as Kurt Cobain and John Lennon.
Importance in AIDS history
Freddie Mercury’s death represented an important event in the history of AIDS.
Main article: Freddie Mercury discography
See also: Queen discography
Instruments used by Mercury
* Baldwin SD10 Concert Grand
* Bechstein D Concert Grand at the Trident Studios in London.
* Bechstein S Baby Grand
* Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand
* Kawai RX7 Concert Grand
* Steinway D Concert Grand
* Steinway S Baby Grand
* White Baby Grand (unknown brand)
* Yamaha C1 Baby Grand
* Yamaha C7 Concert Grand
* Yamaha CFIIIS Concert Grand
* Yamaha SF Concert Baby Grand (Zissou Edition)
* Upright (unknown brand)
* Roland RD1000
* Wurlitzer EP200
* Yamaha CP80
Synthesizers and samplers:
* E-mu Emulator II+
* Fairlight CMIIIS
* Korg M1
* Kurzweil K250
* Oberheim OB8
* Oberheim OBX
* Oberheim OBXA
* Roland Jupiter 8
* Yamaha DX7
* Hammond organ
* Harpsichord (unknown brand)
* Ovation 12-string