Retrospective: Freddie Mercury

Queen's Freddie Mercury in 1982They just don’t make them like they used to. We hear that phrase more and more often these days. We speak of musicians being "legends" and claim "there will never be anyone else like him/her." If you hear the name Farrokh Bulsara – you may say – who? Hear the name Freddie Mercury however; and I don’t think there is a person on this planet that has heard his voice, seen him perform and turned up the volume on "Bohemian Rapsody". No one would deny he's an absolute legend. And no – there certainly will never be anyone else like him.

Freddie was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 in Zanzibar (now Tanzania) and was then brought up in India before he moved to Britain in his mid-teens. He is best known as the front man of the rock band Queen.

At the age of 8 he was sent to an English boarding school just outside of Bombay. It was there his friends began calling him Freddie, a name his family also adopted. His head master recognised his musical talent and wrote to his parents suggesting they may want to pay a little extra on his school fees so he could study music properly. They agreed, and Freddie began to learn to play the piano.

When he was 12 years old he formed a rock band with four of his school friends and they would play at school fetes, parties and school dances. He and his family migrated to England in 1962 when Freddie was 16 years old. He enrolled at Ealing College of Art, where he began a graphic illustration course. Freddie was very much inspired by Jimmy Hendrix and would spend time sketching and drawing him. He saw him perform live 14 times and became a massive fan. He would decorate his Kensington flat with the pictures he drew of him.

At Ealing, Freddie became friends with a guy called Tim Staffell who was a bass player in a band called Smile. As their friendship grew closer, Tim took Freddie along to rehearsals and it was there he was introduced to fellow band members Roger Taylor and Brian May. Brian was the guitar player in Smile and Roger played the drums… Freddie grew really close to Roger and Brian and had great admiration for Brian’s guitar playing. It was with Smile that Freddie began to experiment with music again, for the first time since he had left India.

Freddie left Ealing College in 1969 with a Diploma in graphic art and design, and moved into Roger Taylor's flat. He soon began to sell his art work on a stall in Kensington. Having joined a couple of bands that didn’t end up going anywhere, Freddie returned to Smile in 1971 following the departure of Tim Staffell. He became their lead singer and changed the band’s name to Queen. At the same time he also changed his surname to Mercury.

Queen are one of the most iconic and memorable bands of all time. It was Freddie’s awe inspiring powerful vocals, flamboyant stage presence, and charismatic songwriting that made them so special. After signing their first recording contract in 1973 with EMI, their debut album Queen was a massive success, as was follow up Queen II. But it was the release of their 3rd and 4th albums in 1974 and 1975 that gained them international success.

Their 4th album A Night at the Opera featured a single called "Bohemian Rapsody" which stayed at Number 1 in the singles chart for 9 weeks. In 1976 they toured the US and Japan. By the spring, all 4 of their albums were in the Top 20. Later that year they released "A Day At the Races" and gave a free concert in Hyde Park to over 200,000 people.

The album was a huge success and advance orders alone amounted to over 500,000. The bands success just grew and grew. Their hits included the likes of "Killer Queen", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", "Don’t Stop Me Now", "A Kind of Magic" , "Under Pressure", "We Are the Champions" and "Another One Bites The Dust". The list just goes on. Freddie wrote 10 of the 17 songs on Queens greatest hits album. By the early 80s, Queen were one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world. Their performance at 1985’s live aid is considered to be one of the greatest in rock history.

Freddie was known for his creative melodies. He said that most of the time he would write his songs around the melody. He began by hearing a melody in his head, playing it on the piano and then recording it on tape. But then he would just store them in his head and if he remembered them, he considered them worth remembering. He once said in an interview that he could write a new song anytime. He would just sit down at the piano and the music would come to his mind. Freddie was also inspired by classical music. Roger Taylor once said in an interview that Freddie would listen to Chopin and Mozart.

Freddie also released two solo albums separate from the band: Mr Bad Guy, and Barcelona. He was awarded an Ivor Novello Award for the single "Living on My Own". He dedicated his first album to his cats. Freddie adored his feline companions and even had a waistcoat made with all their faces on. Freddie explored new musical territories with his solo albums. His influences ranged from disco to dance music. The album was supposed to feature duets with Michael Jackson and they recorded "There Must Be More to Life Than This" together, but Freddie pulled out of any further collaboration due feeling uncomfortable with Michael’s pet Llama always being in the studio. On the album Barcelona he collaborated with Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe, who Freddie declared was one of the most beautiful women he had ever met. The album was a commercial success and the title track was used as the soundtrack for the 1992 Olympics. Watching him perform with Montserrat is so emotive, it’s hard to keep a dry eye. How can this ‘rock god’ stand up with an opera singer in a suit and bow tie and perform with such precision, such emotion and grace. Only Freddie Mercury, of course!

Freddie’s performances were more than captivating. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand every time with his tremendous stage presence and persona. His vocals spanned a four octave range and his pitch and tone just blows you away. One minute he would be playing piano and sipping on a beer, and the next dancing around the stage with a microphone in hand, full throttle. But behind this extravagant showman was quite a shy man. He granted very few interviews and once said of himself, "When I’m performing I’m an extrovert, but inside I am a completely different man." Behind closed doors he was very private, and enjoyed spending time with his cats. It’s very endearing to know that behind the music was a very deep, sensitive and almost vulnerable side to the strong and confident character we now all know and love.

At the 1990 Brit Awards, Queen were awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Music award at the Dominion Theatre in London. This was to be Freddie’s last public appearance on stage. Unbeknownst to the world (although with much speculation) Freddie had been suffering from AIDS. He wanted to keep his condition private to protect his family and friends. It was obvious to many in the final months of his life that he was not a well man, but despite constant rumours and press speculation, Freddie and his team denied everything. Then on 22nd November 1991 he called Queen’s manager Jim Beach to his Kensington home to discuss a public statement. The next day an announcement of the state of Freddie’s health was made to the international press. On the evening of the 24th November 1991, a little over 24 hours after issuing the statement, Freddie Mercury died at the age of 45 in his Kensington home.

Freddie Mercury really was one of a kind. There has been, and will be no other. He mesmerised the world with his voice, his lyrics, his melodies, his performances and showmanship. He had ‘it’. He had everything, he had talent. He was an incredible man and the amount he has done for music and his art cannot be put into words. The music world is poorer without him in it. He has inspired generations and he isn’t an artist who will be forgotten. He is an artist everyone’s grandparents, parents and children all know. His talent inspires and will continue to inspire others. He lives on through this inspiration; he lives on through his music. Who wants to live forever anyway?

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