Freddie Mercury dominated the flamboyant "Glam-rock" style of mid-1970s rock 'n' roll performances with a dynamic voice and an electrifying stage presence unmatched by his peers. As the lead singer of the supergroup Queen, Mercury commanded and entranced fans all over the world with a powerful, four-octave singing range. He effortlessly hit and sustained high notes that were usually limited to female opera stars, but also snarled through the band's hard-hitting songs with his powerful tenor voice. On stage, he moved with energy and bravado as he acted out some of their biggest and most aggressive hits like "Killer Queen" (1974), "We Will Rock You" (1977), and "We Are the Champions" (1977). Mercury wrote music that combined a variety of influences - from blues, funk, disco and a touch of vaudeville - with authority and flair. But by far, the most timeless song that he would write was "Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975), a multilayered hard rock gem infused with an operatic feel. While Queen produced its best work during the mid to late 1970s, its charismatic front man kept on singing throughout the 1980s - at his apex, wowing billions of people watching 1985's benefit concert, Live Aid - before tragically dying in 1991 from AIDS. Fans and his band members grieved the loss of Mercury, as he was not an easy frontman to replace. However, even in death, Mercury continued to reach new generations of fans with his enduring and unrivaled legacy as one of music's consummate stage entertainers and arguably the greatest singer in rock 'n' roll history.
Born Farrokh Bomi Bulsara on Sept. 5, 1946 in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Mercury was the son of Parsi parents who were devout Zoroastrians. He lived in Zanzibar until he was eight, when he was sent to a private school near Bombay, India. It was during this time that Mercury developed a love for music and learned to play the piano. In 1964, Mercury and his family moved to England, where he earned a graphics design degree from the Ealing College of Art in 1969. In the late 1960s, Mercury played in a number of local bands until he met guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor. Mercury saw them perform in the band Smile, and reportedly approached them after one of their shows to encourage them to experiment with more elaborate stage and recording techniques. Together, along with bassist John Deacon, they formed the band Queen. Mercury came up with the band's name because he believed it to be a strong and regal name. Their debut album, Queen (1973), achieved moderate success in Britain, but it was not until releasing the LP, Sheer Heart Attack (1974), that the band took off. Performing the band's first international single "Killer Queen," Mercury's macho energy was a refreshing alternative to the faceless rock groups that dominated in the early 1970s.
Mercury wrote many of Queen's major hits, but the most popular would be "Bohemian Rhapsody," from the group's third album, the commercially successful and critically lauded album, A Night at the Opera (1975). The album also featured the song, "Love of My Life," dedicated to Mercury's girlfriend at the time, Mary Austin, and became one of the most requested songs during Queen's concerts. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was very complex and combined various musical genres, including hard rock and opera; so complex in fact that Mercury and the rest of the band overdubbed their parts to lend a choir-like effect to the opera portion of the piece, which then crashed into the hard rock finale. Despite its length at 5:55, the song was a huge radio hit around the world, peaking at No. 9 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. Years later, the unique rock-opera confection would enjoy a rebirth in popularity by charting again after being featured prominently and hilariously in the comedy hit, "Wayne's World" (1992).
In the wake of Opera, "flamboyant" was an understatement when it came time for critics to encapsulate Mercury's stage presence. Dynamic and interactive, his theatrical performances were exciting and entertaining, with many calls to the audience to answer back in kind to his vocal gymnastics. When he was not gyrating around the stage in seemingly painted-on, slashed-to-the-navel bodysuits, he played passionate piano along with the band. Mercury reportedly said that Queen was the "Cecil B. DeMille of rock 'n' roll," which explained his propensity for over-the-top grandeur. With his tremendous four-octave-plus vocal range, he sang with an operatic-like precision. However, Mercury's untrained voice did cause him some problems through the years, as he suffered from vocal fold nodules due to overuse and straining, which sometimes limited his vocal range or at times caused him to completely lose his voice. Like with his famous overbite, Mercury chose not to get corrective surgery to remove polyps on his vocal chords out of fear that it would damage his voice. It was once said that if one wanted to see the "real" Queen show, one had to attend a show early in the touring schedule when Mercury's voice was still "fresh." But even with his voice functioning at less than its optimum power, he always fronted Queen in style and held the audience captive with his strange but endearing stage presence.
While most of Mercury's songwriting encompassed the hard rock type for which Queen was becoming known during the mid-1970s, his individual musical style was much broader and spanned many different genres. Their hit single, "Somebody to Love" (1976), stayed true to his guitar-driven music with a distinct gospel influence. In 1977, the band went mainstream with its platinum-selling album, News of the World scaling down their complex arrangements, but also keeping their signature multi-tracked harmonies and guitar orchestrations. The album contained two of Queen's biggest songs: "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions." Although both were individual singles, they began being played back-to-back by American DJs, essentially melding them as one song in the minds of fans. Both became staples in sports stadiums and arenas all over the world; this gift of creating timeless stadium-friendly hits was one of Queen's greatest strengths. At the opposite end of the spectrum, their No. 1 hit single, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" from the 1980 album, The Game was decidedly written in "rockabilly" style, similar to that of early Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins. The Game also featured another No. 1 with "Another One Bites the Dust," in which Mercury experimented with a harmonizer that created a "swirling" effect when used in combination with pianos, guitars, and drums - particularly John Deacon's prominent bass lick.
At the peak of their game, literally and figuratively, Mercury and Co. suddenly hit a rough patch with their soundtrack to the campy sci-fi feature, "Flash Gordon" (1980), which they wrote for the movie soundtrack. Along with the odd title song, the band also composed the score, all of which ended up a major disappointment on the charts. Queen did, however, score a major hit with the single, "Under Pressure" (1982), which Mercury wailed through with David Bowie. Like many of their songs, "Pressure" would later be sampled most famously by white rapper, Vanilla Ice, resulting in his 1990 hit, "Ice Ice Baby." Three years later, the band released their supposed "comeback" album, The Works (1984), which contained the smash hits "Radio Ga Ga" and "I Want To Break Free." In both cases, their respective music videos caused a stir. With "Ga Ga," Queen was accused of using Nazi-influenced mannerisms - à la the "Heil Hitler" salute - during the concert portion of the "Metropolis"-inspired video, while "Break Free" featured the boys in full drag. The image of the mustachioed Mercury in blonde wig, stilettos and push-up bra caused an uproar and led again to whispered questions about his sexuality. Though not one to shy away from controversy, Mercury would never confirm where he fell on the sexual spectrum, though most assumed he was bisexual. His longtime love affair with Mary Austin - to whom called his "common-law wife" - notwithstanding, Mercury's sexual orientation did veer toward homosexuality to those in the know. His voracious sexual appetite and outlandish Caligula-esque parties thrown both by the band and Freddie independently became the stuff of rock 'n' roll legend.
In 1985, Mercury released his moderately successful solo album, Mr. Bad Guy, a compilation of disco and dance songs. In 1987, after Barcelona was selected as the next Olympic city, Mercury was tapped to write a song for the event. He released the album, Barcelona (1988), which he recorded with the Spanish operatic soprano, Montserrat Caballe'. They recorded their parts separately, and as a testament to Mercury's unwavering soprano voice, he sent Montserrat Caballé tapes of him singing her parts in his falsetto voice. With Queen, Mercury performed in front of some of the largest crowds to ever attend a rock concert, with one show - Knebworth Park in England on Aug. 9, 1986 - estimated at more than 300,000 in attendance. However before that could take place, Queen had to snatch back their crown after suffering a bit of a slump and did so in spades by agreeing to join the roster of Bob Geldof's pet project to feed Africa's poor, Live Aid. One of numerous superstar acts on the bill - including U2, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Madonna, and Elton John, among others - Queen jogged onstage to little expectation and ended up tearing apart London's Wembley Stadium with their 17-minute set of greatest hits - including the stadium-friendly "Radio Ga Ga" and "We Will Rock You." Mercury commanded the stage as he never had before. Calling out to the audience of 70,000, his awe-inspiring manipulation of the clapping, saluting throngs mesmerized the world and its media, most of whom changed their focus from the band onto the enthusiastic crowds who swayed in unison at Mercury's every command. Critics called it the closest thing modern-day audiences would get to witnessing what the Nazi's Nuremberg rally might have looked like. So memorable was Live Aid's Queen that the band's set was voted "The World's Greatest Concert Performance" in a historic 2005 poll for UK's Channel 4. Beyond the band's native borders, international music critics and fans often cite Live Aid's most celebrated act as the greatest live performance in the history of live rock music. In the shadow of Live Aid, the comeback kids began touring stadiums around the world, leading to their sold-out 1986 Wembley concert becoming their second most famous concert performance.
Off stage, Mercury's personal life continued to be a frequent subject in the media - particularly the British media. To those closest to him, he was openly bisexual; in the 1970s, he had lived with Mary Austin, whom he considered his soul mate, as well as dated an Austrian actress during the early-to-mid-1980s. However, Mercury also had a series of affairs with men. Sadly, the singer was reportedly diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987, yet the press-shy Mercury never confirmed nor denied those rumors, even as his physical appearance and energy level began to change through the years. Despite the fear and prejudice surrounding anything HIV-positive at that time, Mercury's band mates rallied behind their frontman in support, promising to keep his secret even from their own wives. In spite of his weak state, Queen recorded another album which would turn out to be their swan song, Innuendo (1991), featuring the bittersweet singles "The Show Must Go On" and "These Are the Days of Our Lives." Although fans did not know it at the time, through his lyrics, the singer was bidding them goodbye.
Mercury's increasingly gaunt and frail appearance when he did venture out into the world - not to mention Queen's absence from touring - intensified rumors that he was dying. On November 23, 1991, Mercury's camp publicly confirmed that he did have AIDS. Only a day later, Mercury died of bronchial-pneumonia brought on by the disease. His death was a shock and a deep blow to the recording industry, not to mention fans who could not conceive of anyone filling Mercury's shoes vocally in the beloved band. Because he was the first major rock star to die of AIDS, his death brought more awareness and raised money for research. On April 20, 1992, the surviving members of Queen organized "The Freddie Mercury Tribute: Concert for AIDS Awareness" before a crowd of 72,000 strong at the scene of Queen's greatest live triumphs, Wembley Stadium. The concert featured some of music's biggest acts and Queen fans, including David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Guns n' Roses, and Mercury's close friend, Elton John. Throughout the years, Mercury's influence as a rock icon would live on through other artists' works, and in television and films, as well as in stage productions like the long-running West End spectacle, "We Will Rock You." As a member of Queen, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2010, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was tapped to portray Mercury in the singer's biopic that centered on Queen's heyday up until their historic 1985 Live Aid set.
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Studied at a private school in Bombay, India
Moved to England with family
Formed the band Queen with May, Taylor, and bassist John Deacon
Queen released self-titled debut album
Had commercial success with band's sophomore album <i>Sheer Heart Attack</i>
Released Queen's critically acclaimed third album <i>A Night at the Opera (1975)</i>; penned the classic hit "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Released mainstream hit <i>News of the World</i>, featuring band's anthems "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions"
Reached No. 1 with singles "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust" from Queen album <i>The Game</i>
Band wrote and recorded soundtrack to campy sci-fi feature "Flash Gordon"
Collaborated with David Bowie on hit duet "Under Pressure"
Released Queen's comeback album <i>The Works</i>; featured smash hits "Radio Ga Ga" and "I Want To Break Free"
Released solo album <i>Mr. Bad Guy</i>
With Queen, headlined all-star Live Aid concert lineup
Queen performed for over 300,000 at a concert held in Knebworth Park, England
Collaborated with opera singer Montserrat Caballé for second solo album <i>Barcelona</i>
Released 14th and final album with Queen, <i>Innuendo</i>
Surviving Queen members organized "The Freddie Mercury Tribute: Concert for AIDS Awareness" at Wembley Stadium; lineup included Elton John and Annie Lennox
"Bohemian Rhapsody" featured in memorable scene in comedy "Wayne's World"
Queen album <i>Made in Heaven</i> posthumously released; featured previously unreleased recordings
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Queen
Musical theater production "We Will Rock You" debuted at London's West End