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Freddie Mercury

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Freddie Mercury

Mercury in 1978.

Background information Birth name Farrokh Bulsara Born Died Genre(s) Occupation(s ) Instrument(s ) 5 September 1946 Stone Town, Zanzibar 24 November 1991 (aged 45) Kensington, London, England Hard rock, progressive rock, heavy metal, pop Singer-songwriter, producer Vocals, piano, keyboards, guitar

Voice type(s) Tenor Years active 19691991 Columbia, Polydor, EMI, Label(s) Parlophone Hollywood Records
(US & Canada)

Associated acts

Queen, Wreckage/Ibex

Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara), (5 September 1946 24 November 1991) was a British singer-songwriter, pianist, guitarist and co-founder of the rock band Queen (inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001). As a performer, he was known for his vocal prowess and flamboyant performances.[1][2][3] 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". In addition to his work with Queen, he also led a solo career and was occasionally a producer and guest musician (piano or vocals) for other artists. Mercury, who was of Parsi descent and grew up in India, has been referred to as "Britain's first Asian rock star."[4] He died of bronchopneumonia induced by HIV (AIDS) on 24 November 1991, only one day after publicly acknowledging he had the disease. In 2006, Time Asia named him as one of the most influential Asian heroes of the past 60 years,[5] and he continues to be cited as one of the greatest singers in the history of popular music.[6][2]

Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara, on the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. His parents Bomi and Jer Bulsara,[a] were ethnic Parsis from the Gujarat region of the then province of Bombay Presidency in British India.[7][b] The family surname is derived from the town of Bulsar (also known as Valsad) in southern Gujarat. As Parsis, the family practiced the Zoroastrian religion. The family had moved to Zanzibar in order for his father to continue his job as a cashier at the British Colonial Office. He had one younger sister, Kashmira.[8] In 1954, at the age of eight, Freddie was shipped to St. Peter's School, a boarding school for boys in Panchgani near Bombay (now Mumbai), India.[9] 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."[10] 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 a result of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution.[4] 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. [11] In 1969 he formed the band Ibex, which was later renamed Wreckage. When this band failed to take off, he joined a second band called Sour Milk Sea. However, by early 1970, this group broke up as well.[12] 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."[13] At around this time, he also legally changed his name.[citation needed]

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.[14] After moving to England, Mercury became a fan of Jim Croce, The Who, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and The Beatles.[15] Another one of Mercury's favourite performers was singer and actress Liza Minnelli. He once explained: "One of my early inspirations came from Cabaret. I absolutely adore Liza Minnelli. The way she delivers her songsthe sheer energy."[16]

Regarded as one of the greatest singers in the history of popular music, Mercury's vocal range spanned four octaves (F2[17]-E6[18]).

Although his speaking voice naturally fell in the baritone range, he delivered the songs in the tenor range. 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."[19] Spanish soprano Montserrat Caball, 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."[20] As Queen's career progressed, he would increasingly alter the highest notes of their songs when live, often harmonising with seconds, thirds or fifths instead. Mercury suffered from vocal fold nodules and claimed never to have had any formal vocal training.[21]

Mercury wrote ten out of the seventeen songs on Queen's Greatest Hits album: "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Seven Seas of Rhye", "Killer Queen", "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 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."[22] Compared to many popular songwriters, Mercury also tended to write musically complex material. For example, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is acyclic in structure and comprises dozens of chords.[23][24] "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", on the other hand, contains only a few chords. Despite the fact that Mercury often wrote very intricate harmonies, he also claimed that he could barely read music.[25] He wrote most of his songs on the piano and used a wide variety of different key signatures.[23]

Live performer
Mercury is noted for his live performances, which were often delivered to stadium audiences around the world. 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."[26] David Bowie, who performed at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and recorded the song "Under Pressure" with Queen said of Mercury, "Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest." ... "He took it over

the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once, and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand."[27]

Freddie Mercury with a Brazilian flag during the Rock in Rio concert, 1985. 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".[28][29] In reviewing Live Aid in 2005, one critic wrote, "Those who compile lists of Great Rock Frontmen and award the top spots to Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, etc. all are guilty of a terrible oversight. Freddie, as evidenced by his Dionysian Live Aid performance, was easily the most godlike of them all."[30] 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. [22] He once explained, "We're the Cecil B. DeMille of rock and roll, always wanting to do things bigger and better."[22] The band were the first ever to play South American stadiums, breaking worldwide records for concert attendance in the Morumbi Stadium in So Paulo in 1981.[31] In 1986, Queen also played behind the Iron Curtain, when they performed to a crowd of 80,000 in Budapest.[32] Mercury's final live performance with Queen took place on 9 August 1986 at Knebworth Park in England and drew an attendance estimated as high as 300,000.[33]


Freddie Mercury playing guitar during a live concert with Queen in Frankfurt, 1984. As a young boy in India, Mercury received formal piano training up to Grade IV. Later on, living in London, he'd learn guitar as much of the music he liked was guitar-oriented: his favourite artists at the time were Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. He was often deprecating about his own skills on both instruments, and from early 80's onwards started to count extensively on guest keyboardists both for Queen and his solo career. Most notably, he enlisted Fred Mandel (an American musician who'd also work for Pink Floyd, Elton John, and Supertramp) for his first solo project, and from 1985 onwards collaborated extensively with Mike Moran, leaving most of the keyboard work exclusively to him. Mercury played the piano in many of Queen's most popular songs, including "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[34], because he wanted to walk around onstage and entertain the audience. Although he wrote many lines for guitar, Mercury possessed only rudimentary skills on the instrument. Songs like Ogre Battle and Crazy Little Thing Called Love were composed on guitar; the latter famously featured Mercury playing acoustic rhythm both on stage and in the studio.

Solo career
In addition to his work with Queen, Mercury put out two solo albums, 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 to

the song Love Kills on the 1984 album and new soundtrack to the 1926 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The song, which was produced by Giorgio Moroder, debuted at the #10 position in the UK charts.[35] Mercury's two full albums outside the band were Mr. Bad Guy (1985) and Barcelona (1988). The former is a pop-oriented album that emphasises disco and dance music. "Barcelona" was recorded with the opera singer Montserrat Caball, whom he had long admired. Mr. Bad Guy debuted in the top ten of the UK Album Charts.[35] In 1993, a remix of "Living on My Own", a single from the album, reached the #1 position on the UK Singles Charts.[36] The song also garnered Mercury a posthumous Ivor Novello Award. Allmusic critic Ed Rivadavia describes Mr. Bad Guy as "outstanding from start to finish" and expressed his view that Mercury "did a commendable job of stretching into uncharted territory."[37] In particular, the album is heavily synthesiser-driven in a way that is not characteristic of previous Queen albums. Barcelona, recorded with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caball, combines elements of popular music and opera. Many critics were uncertain what to make of the album; one referred to it as "the most bizarre CD of the year."[38] Caball, on the other hand, considered the album to have been one of the great successes of her career. The title song from the album debuted at the #8 position in the UK charts and was a hit in Spain,[39] 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. Caball sang 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 singles, including his own version of the hit The Great Pretender by The Platters, which debuted at #5 in the UK in 1987.[35] In September 2006, a compilation album featuring Mercury's solo work was released in the UK in honour of what would have been his sixtieth birthday. The album debuted in the top 10 of the UK Album Charts.[40]

Personal life
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 mid1970s, the singer began an affair with a male record executive at Elektra Records; this ultimately resulted in the end of his relationship with Austin.[41] Mercury and Austin nevertheless remained close friends through the years, with Mercury often referring to her as his only true friend. In a 1985 interview, Mercury said of Austin, "All my lovers asked

me why they couldn't replace Mary [Austin], 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."[42] He also wrote several songs about Austin, the most notable of which is "Love of My Life". Mercury was also the godfather of Mary's eldest son, Richard.[34] By 1980, Mercury began to frequently visit gay bathhouses and clubs where he met many short-term partners.[43] By 1985, he began another long-term relationship with a hairdresser named Jim Hutton. Hutton, who himself tested HIV-positive in 1990,[44] 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 also claims that Mercury died wearing a wedding band that Hutton had given him.[44] Although he cultivated a very flamboyant stage personality, several sources refer to Mercury as having been very shy in person.[20][8][45] He also granted very few interviews. Mercury once said of himself: "When I'm performing I'm an extrovert, yet inside I'm a completely different man."[46]

According to his partner Jim Hutton, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1987.[47] Around that time, Mercury also claimed in an interview to have tested negative for the virus.[20] Despite the denials, the British press pursued the rampant rumours over the next few years, fuelled by Mercury's increasingly gaunt appearance, Queen's absence from touring, and reports from former lovers to various tabloid journals.[48] 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 22 November 1991, Mercury called Queen's manager Jim Beach over to his Kensington home, to discuss a public statement. The next day, 23 November, the following announcement was made to the press on behalf of Mercury:[49]
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 24 November 1991 at the age of 45. The official cause of death was bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS.[50] Although he had not attended religious services in years, Mercury's funeral was conducted by a Zoroastrian priest. 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 Jim Hutton.[51] Mary Austin continues to live at Mercury's home, Garden Lodge, Kensington, with her family.[51] Hutton moved back to the Republic of Ireland permanently in 1995, where he still lives. He was involved in a 2000 biography of Mercury, Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story, and also gave an interview for The Times for what would have been Mercury's 60th [47]

Criticism and controversy

HIV status
Mercury had 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.[27][52]

Mercury had 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."[4] A close friend of Mercury's father related to biographer David Bret: "[Farrokh] Bulsara was a name he had buried. He never wanted to talk about any period in his life before he became Freddie Mercury, and everything about Freddie Mercury was a self-constructed thing."[53]

Sexual orientation
While some critics have suggested that Mercury hid his sexual orientation from the public,[4][20][54] other sources refer to the singer as

having been "openly gay".[5][55] In fact, Mercury referred to himself as "gay" in a 1974 interview with NME magazine.[56] On the other hand, he would often distance himself from partner Jim Hutton during public events in the 1980s.[44] A writer for a gay online newspaper felt that audiences may have been overly nave about the matter: "While in many respects he was overtly queer his whole career ('I am as gay as a daffodil, my dear' being one of his most famous quotes), his sexual orientation seemed to pass over the heads of scrutinising audiences and pundits (both gay and straight) for decades."[57] John Marshall of Gay Times expressed the following opinion in 1992: "He [Mercury] was a 'scene-queen', not afraid to publicly express his gayness but unwilling to analyse or justify his lifestyle....It was as if Freddie Mercury was saying to the world, 'I am what I am. So what?' And that in itself was a statement."[57]

Other controversies
Members of 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 artists who broke the boycott and was widely criticised in magazines such as the NME.[30] 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 gay, 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."[55] The planned celebration was cancelled.

Appearances in lists of influential individuals
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.[58] He was further listed at the 52nd spot in a 2007 Japanese national

survey of the 100 most "influential heroes".[59] Despite the fact that he had been criticised by gay activists for hiding his HIV status, author Paul Russell included Mercury in his book "The Gay 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Gay Men and Lesbians, Past and Present."[60] Other entertainers on Russell's list included Liberace and Rock Hudson. In 2006, Time Asia magazine named him as one of the most influential Asian heroes of the past 60 years: The article credited Mercury with having "duplicated in popular music what other Indians such as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth have done in literature: taking the coloniser's art form and representing it in a manner richer and more dazzling than many Anglophones thought possible."[5] Mercury was also included in Rolling Stone's list of the "Top 100 Singers Of All Time", falling at number eighteen.[2]

Continued popularity
In the UK, Queen have now spent more collective weeks on the UK Album Charts than any other musical act (including The Beatles),[61] and Queen's Greatest Hits is the highest selling album of all time in the UK.[62] Estimates of the band's total worldwide record sales to date have been set as high as 300 million.[63] Two of Mercury's songs, "We Are the Champions" and "Bohemian Rhapsody", have each been voted as the greatest song of all time in major polls by Sony Ericsson[64] and Guinness World Records,[65] respectively. The former poll was an attempt to determine the world's favourite song, while the Guinness poll took place in the UK. In October of 2007, the video for "Bohemian Rhapsody" was voted as the greatest of all time by readers of Q magazine.[66] Mercury was also voted second to Mariah Carey in MTV's 22 Greatest Voices in Music.[5] 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.[67] In 1992 one American critic noted, "what cynics call the 'dead star' factor had come into play Queen is in the middle of a major resurgence."[68] 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.[69] The statue itself stands 3 metres high overlooking Lake Geneva and was unveiled on 25 November 1996 by

Freddie's father and Montserrat Caball. 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, D.C. 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. In an episode of the NBC series Chuck, one of the characters names is Farrokh Bulsara (Freddie's birth name).

Importance in AIDS history

Freddie Mercury's death represented an important event in the history of AIDS.[70] In the spring of 1992, the remaining members of Queen founded The Mercury Phoenix Trust and organised The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness.[71] The Mercury Phoenix Trust has since raised millions of pounds for various AIDS charities. The tribute concert, which took place at Wembley Stadium for an audience of 72,000, featured a wide variety of guests including Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Extreme, Elton John, Metallica, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Tony Iommi, Guns N' Roses, Elizabeth Taylor, George Michael, Def Leppard and Liza Minnelli. The concert was broadcast live to 76 countries and had an estimated viewing audience of 1 billion people, and due to other web based programs such as You Tube, My Space, blogs and the like, has continued to educate people about the legacy of Freddie Mercury.[72]