Larger Than Life: Remembering the legendary Freddie Mercury 29 years after his passing

Remembering the one and only Freddie Mercury 29 years after his untimely death

Larger Than Life: Remembering the legendary Freddie Mercury 29 years after his passing

Party animal and animal lover, talented musician and artist, composer and performer, generous friend and passionate lover, Freddie Mercury embodied the Rock N’ Roll mythical excess during his life, his time on this earth has last only 45 years but he left behind a body of work that will remain a strong artistic legacy for the generations to come. We look back at the different sides of his life on the day that marks the anniversary of his untimely death on November 24th, 1991*

The Early Days

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on September 5th, 1946 in Stone Town, Sultanate of Zanzibar (now Tanzania). He was of Parsi descent and grew up there and in India before moving with his family to Middlesex, England, in his teens. Mercury spent most of his childhood in India and began taking piano lessons at the age of seven, when he was 12 years old he formed his first band The Hectics that played Rock N’ Roll covers from Cliff Richards and Little Richard among others, it was also the first time he started calling himself Freddie. From a young age it was noticeable his musical talent, he was gifted with the ability to listen to the radio and replay what he heard on piano, although throughout his career and life, Freddie never thought of himself as a good musician or pianist. In 1964, at 17, during the Zanzibar Revolution, where thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed, together with his family he moved to England for safety reasons. During that period he also develops another artistic talents such as drawing, leading him to earn a diploma in Art and Graphic Design. Being caught during the full bloom of the 60’s “Swinging London”, Freddie was able to express himself artistically in a different scale than what he was used to in India or Zanzibar. Already influenced by Western Culture from a young age, he started to absorb all that was happening around him musically and artistically. Jimi Hendrix becomes his favorite artist and will remain so for the rest of his life.

The Birth of Queen

It’s very regal obviously, and it sounds splendid. It’s a strong name, very universal and immediate

Freddie joined several bands during the 60’s period, most notably Ibex in 1969. Playing in the same London circuit as Ibex were the band Smile, he becomes one of their biggest followers and friends,  that features the members Brian May, Roger Taylor and lead singer Tim Staffell.  Smile were actually successful and were signed to Mercury Records in 1969, however, in 1970 Staffell leaves the band. Disappointed with the end of Smile, Mercury persuades Taylor an May to keep the band going and for that, he offers himself to be their lead singer. At his insistence they switch their name to Queen and Freddie adds Mercury to his name, years later later he stated about choosing the name Queen for the band: “It’s very regal obviously, and it sounds splendid. It’s a strong name, very universal and immediate. I was certainly aware of the gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it.” Aside of choosing the band’s name, Freddie also designs their logo, the famous “Queen Crest”. By then John Deacon also had joined the band as bass player, Queen’s classic line up was now complete. In 1971 they start developing and recording their first album in Trident Studios, but because of the low status of “secondary” band, they can only record when the major artists aren’t using the studios. The album was released in 1973 on EMI featuring already some Freddie’s compositions. It paved the way for what would come next, making Queen one of the biggest and most influential Rock bands of all time. Estimates of Queen’s total worldwide record sales to date have been set as high as 300 million.

The Composer

Do what you want with my music, but never make me boring

Freddie Mercury was a versatile composer, he composed rockabilly, progressive rock, heavy metal, gospel, disco and even opera, In 1986 he said about this “I hate doing the same thing again and again and again. I like to see what’s happening now in music, film and theater and incorporate all of those things.” Freddie was a prolific songwriter, his masterpiece was “Bohemian Rhapsody”, he composed and wrote the lyrics for the song that included different music genres blended in several parts such as a capella, pop, opera and heavy metal. Freddie’s compositions usually tended to be complex, with dozens of chords and key changes, however, as stated by him, he couldn’t “really read or write music”, Freddie was often self-deprecating about his skills being as musician or composer. Among some of the most memorable songs he composed are “Seven Seas Of Rhye”, “Killer Queen”, “Love Of My Life”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Somebody To Love”, “We Are The Champions”, “Bicycle Race”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Play The Game”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Princes Of The Universe”, “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, “I Was Born To Love You” and “Living On My Own” , he also co-authored a large majority of Queen’s songs and the 1988 Opera album with Montserrat Caballé “Barcelona”. During the last years of his life and specially the last year,  knowing he had limited time, Freddie rushed to leave as much music as he could for Queen to use after he was gone. He literally composed and recorded until he could no more. He said to his band mates, “Do what you want with my music, but never make me boring”

The Voice

His technique was astonishing. No problem of tempo, he sang with an incisive sense of rhythm, his vocal placement was very good and he was able to glide effortlessly from a register to another –  Montserrat Caballé

His known vocal range extended from bass low F (F2) to soprano high F (F6). He could belt up to tenor high F (F5). 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.”Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, with whom Mercury recorded an album, expressed her opinion that “the difference between Freddie and almost all the other rock stars was that he was selling the voice”. She adds, “His technique was astonishing. No problem of tempo, he sang with an incisive sense of rhythm, his vocal placement was very good and he was able to glide effortlessly from a register to another. He also had a great musicality. His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right coloring or expressive nuance for each word. In an unique research, a team undertook a study in 2016 to understand the appeal behind Mercury’s voice. Led by Professor Christian Herbst, the team noted his notably faster vibrato and use of sub-harmonics, particularly in comparison to opera singers. The research team studied vocal samples from 23 commercially available Queen recordings, his solo work, and a series of interviews of the late artist. They also used an endoscopic video camera to study a rock singer brought in to imitate Mercury’s singing voice.

The Performer

He was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand – David Bowie

Freddie Mercury was a natural born performer. As David Bowie once stated “he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand”. He could mastered large audiences of audience like no other artist could.Throughout Queen’s career they got used to play sold out stadiums, not even once Freddie failed to conduct the audience in following his instructions to sing along or to sing alone. On stage, Freddie was larger than life, privately though he was a very shy person. There were still some moments where he felt nervous, and that usually happened when he thought his voice wasn’t good enough for him to offer the audience what they deserved. Mercury sung for an estimated record breaking audience of 250.000-500.000 people in Brazil during the Rock In Rio Festival in 1985 and made a majority of non-English speaking audience sing with him “Love Of My Life”. There were many high moments during their Live history, but the one that tops it all was the performance at the Live Aid, Wembley 1985, it has since been voted by a group of music executives as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. During their last tour, “Live Magic” in 1986, Freddie promises the audience Queen will be “together until they f…k die”. Mercury’s final live performance with Queen took place on 9th August 1986 at Knebworth Park in England and drew an attendance estimated as high as 160,000. With the British national anthem “God Save the Queen” playing at the end of the concert, Mercury’s final act on stage saw him draped in a robe, holding a golden crown aloft, bidding farewell to the crowd.

The Rockstar

Freddie could out-party me, which is saying something – Elton John

Freddie Mercury lived the ultimate Rockstar life style. He loved life, excess, he was a man that lived to party and to please everyone around him, he loved seeing people happy and was very generous to those around him. The myths, legends and stories about his life are famous, from the midgets serving cocaine at his famous parties to the day he clashed with Sid Vicious in the studio where Queen were recording their album “So you’re the bloke that’s supposed to be bringing ballet to the masses?” asked a sneering Sid Vicious during a brief encounter in the conjoining corridor. “Ah, Mr Ferocious!” piped back Freddie, “well, we’re trying our best!” One of his most legendary parties was the celebration of his 39th Birthday in Munich, Germany. The party was themed as Black and White, everyone who was invited had to come dressed in black or white and in drag. The party reportedly costed over $50.000 and featured hundreds of Freddie’s friends, some were flied to Munich on a Jumbo jet hired by him and all booked into the Hilton. Friend Elton John stated in 2001 that “Freddie could out-party me, which is saying something.” Since the 70’s  Queen were well-known in the industry for their outrageous shindigs. Most notable was the ‘Jazz’ launch party at New Orleans’ Fairmont Hotel in 1978, which featured wholesome delights including nude waiters and waitresses, a fellow biting heads off live chickens, naked models wrestling in a liver pit and (again) dwarves swanning about with trays of cocaine strapped to their heads.”

The Man and Lover

All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible. The only friend I’ve got is Mary and I don’t want anybody else

During the early to mid 70’s Freddie was in conflict with his own sexuality, this was mainly because of his relationship with Mary Austin, long term girlfriend that he loved and respect but felt he was betraying because of his sexual orientation. By the mid 70’s Freddie had come to terms of what he wanted for himself in a relationship and rather than sacrificing the friendship and love he had for Mary, he came out as gay to her and end their relationship in a honest way. This was a hard period in Freddie’s life because the last thing he wanted was to hurt Mary, however,the story had a happy ending as the complicity and love they had for each other as friends was stronger than their relationship as lovers. After that, Freddie felt free and released from the burden he had, being finally happy and comfortable with who he was. He said about Mary: “All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible. The only friend I’ve got is Mary and I don’t want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage. We believe in each other, that’s enough for me.” Freddie wrote “Love Of My Life” for Mary and  in his will left his London home to Austin, rather than his partner Jim Hutton, saying to her, “You would have been my wife and it would have been yours anyway.”. Mercury was a man of many lovers both men and women, in 1985 he began another long-term relationship with hairdresser Jim Hutton (1949–2010). Hutton, who was tested HIV-positive in 1990, lived with Mercury for the last six years of his life, nursed him during his illness and was present at his bedside when he died. Hutton said Mercury died wearing the wedding band that Hutton had given him, this was the most stable relationship Freddie had aside of the one with Mary Austin.

The Show Must Go On

On the evening of 24 November 1991, just over 24 hours after issuing a statement where he confirmed he had AIDS, Mercury died at the age of 45 at his home in Kensington.The official cause of death was bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. Mercury’s close friend, Dave Clark of The Dave Clark Five, had taken over the bedside vigil when he died. Austin phoned Mercury’s parents and sister to break the news of his death, which reached newspaper and television crews by the early hours of 25 November On 27 November, Mercury’s funeral service was conducted by a Zoroastrian priest. In attendance at Mercury’s service were his family and 35 of his close friends, including the remaining members of Queen and Elton John. His coffin was carried into the chapel to the sounds of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”/”You’ve Got a Friend” by Aretha Franklin. Mercury was cremated at Kensal Green Cemetery, west London. In accordance with Mercury’s wishes, Mary Austin took possession of his ashes and buried them in an undisclosed location. The whereabouts of his ashes are believed to be known only to Austin, who has stated that she will never reveal where she buried them. His epitaph, “Lover Of Life, Singer Of Songs”.

Freddie Mercury life in pictures

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Celebrate Freddie Mercury’s life by looking back at the stunning live performance of Queen at Live Aid, 1985

More on the Queen video channel

*This article originally posted by Pop Expresso on September 2017

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