The king of Queen: Freddie Mercury’s inspiring, tragic life
“Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me!” Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was a force of nature. His lyrics were as powerful as his voice, but behind the loud music and wild antics we love was a complex man we barely knew.
Let’s take a journey through the world of rock and roll royalty to see the making of a Killer Queen.
His real name was Farrokh Bulsara
Queen is hands down one of the most influential bands in music history. Their blend of hard rock and pop rock took the world by storm and continues to influence the masses to this day. However, none was as electric than their vocalist Freddie Mercury. The “Bohemian Rhapsody” singer was as eccentric as his songs and knew from the get-go that he would be a legend.
But before he was Freddie Mercury, he was Farrokh Bulsara. He was born in Zanzibar on September 5, 1946. His parents worked on the colonized island as a registrar for the British government. However, life was about to take a turn for the future band vocalist.
He lived in Zanzibar as a child
You don’t hear much about the boy who became the legend. We’re used to seeing the leotards and the explosive energy he brought to the stage but seldom do we get a glimpse at his life before flashing cameras and celebrity. Freddie didn’t stay on the sandy beaches of Zanzibar for long.
He went to a boarding school in Bombay (now Mumbai) and had a talent for the piano. It turned into a passion and his family knew it. According to Telegraph, his mother commented on how musically inclined he was: “Right from the start, Freddie was musical. He had it on his mind all the time.” He even joined his first band, the Hectics.
He worked at Heathrow Airport
It was in school that Farrokh was first called “Freddie,” and it stuck. He returned to Zanzibar with a newfound passion — and a new name. However, he wouldn’t stay on the island for very long. His family would move to England to escape a violent riot in 1964 known as the Zanzibar Revolution.
When they settled, his parents pushed for Freddie to get a college education. He attended art school and graduated in 1969. He received his degree in graphic art and design and worked at Heathrow Airport for a while. But destiny came knocking when he met three guys who had the same musical ambitions as him.
“I’m not going to be a pop star. I’m going to be a legend!”
Freddie always knew he was going to be something big. During the infancy of his musical career, he followed a band called Smile, where the soon-to-be Queen guitarist and drummer, Brian May and Roger Summers, were already performing. Freddie was in love with their sound and was determined to be a part of the band’s legacy.
In fact, ex-Smile musician Chris Smith later recalled that Freddie constantly commented on how he was going to be a pop star. But one day, Smith saw Freddie looking glum with his hands covering his face. When asked what was wrong, he replied, “I’m not going to be a pop star. I’m going to be a legend!” Talk about navigating one’s own destiny!
Something amazing happened in 1970 — a fortuitous event that that would change music forever. Smile’s lead singer left the band (a big mistake on his part) leaving the stage open for a new singer. Rising to the occasion, Freddie saw the opportunity and grabbed the mic with both hands. He didn’t want the band to separate, not when they had such a unique sound.
He became the lead singer and renamed the band Queen. Much controversy came with the name because of its association with the LGBTQ community. However, Queen was something regal, and at the time, outrageous. The new band name and their new frontman were about to change everything.
He could hit four octaves
Freddie had an amazing voice — and a rare one at that. It is very rare for people to have a voice that can reach four octaves, and Freddie was one of those few people. To put his voice into perspective, Mariah Carey’s voice has a five-octave range (have you heard her hit those high notes in “Emotions?!”) and Celine Dion can sing in three octaves.
Freddie’s voice lands right in the middle. Of course, the band heard Freddie and they knew they had someone special. Not only can he sing, but he channeled the music and could work the stage. He was a natural performer and became hungry for a life in music.
Freddie didn’t want to fix his teeth
We all know that Mercury belted some killer notes, and as mentioned previously, it’s all thanks to that four-octave range. However, Mercury believed that it was his teeth that helped project his voice. As we all know, Mercury had some unique set of teeth. He was born with four extra teeth in the back of his mouth, attributing to his famous “bucktooth” grin.
Growing up, Mercury was given the nickname “Bucky,” and although his teeth made him, at times, insecure, he never got his teeth fixed solely because he believed altering or correcting his teeth could ruin his vocals. To hide his teeth, Mercury would try to hide his smile with his top lip.
Queen’s sound was a little something different
By 1973, Queen was garnering a following and picking up speed in the music scene. Freddie had a stage presence that left people awestruck. He was electrifying to watch and could easily charm the audience. He could move a crowd with the sweep of his hand to rise, and they always obeyed.
His charisma and stage presence was moving, and people couldn’t help but fall in line. The band’s music was also distinct and unexpected during a time where heavy rock and roll was saturating the mainstream. Queen’s electrifying sound was a breath of fresh air in the music industry. People began remembering their name.
Farrokh Bulasa officially becomes Freddie Mercury
As the band gained momentum in the music scene, Freddie decided to do something drastic: legally change his name. He felt that his birth name wasn’t befitting of a rock star. His first name was a given, considering everyone already called him Freddie. However, his last name wasn’t so obvious.
Ultimately, Freddie chose Mercury as his last name, knowing Mercury was a Roman deity who was a messenger of the gods through his personal interest in mythology. From the get-go, Freddie knew Queen wasn’t going to be an ordinary rock band, as his bandmates were not conventional rock n’ roll stars.
An astronomer, a dentist, an engineer, and a graphic artist
Queen was an eclectic bunch of folks. We’re used to hearing about musicians wanting to be an artist or entertainer all their lives. Queen, however, was an unlikely ensemble in that they had pursued other interests prior to joining the band. Each member held degrees in different fields of study.
For instance, Brian May received a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy, John Deacon has a doctorate in electronics, Roger Taylor trained as a dentist, and of course, Freddie received a degree in graphic arts. Though they could have chosen drastically different paths, they all changed course (thankfully) and decided to pursue a life in music.
Their first album was a flop
When they’re first album “Queen” dropped in 1973, the band felt like they were walking on cloud nine. They couldn’t believe they were in record stores. The feeling didn’t last long though; their record didn’t sell very well. Part of the problems was that not many people had ever heard of Queen before. But once their second album, “Queen II” was released, everything changed.
That’s when they found their sound, and with it, the opportunity to broadcast their music on a TV show called Lost Top of the Pops in February 1974. They started to gain some traction in obtaining the large-scale publicity they needed to become commercially successful.
“Killer Queen” put Queen on the map
Sure, Queen’s first released album was a flop, but that’s because no one knew their true potential (poor marketing was also to blame). However, instead of giving up, Mercury was determined to break the mold of failure and get Queen to make the charts. In 1973, Queen released a couple of albums that would gain traction.
However, when their third record was released, Sheer Heart Attack in 1974, and “Killer Queen,” invaded people’s radio, suddenly people knew Queen. The song about a “high-class call girl” hit No.2 on the UK music charts and even crossed the Atlantic, coming in as No. 12 in the U.S.
They got their big break as an opening act
Their big break didn’t come until they had the good fortune to snag a place as the opening act for Mott the Hoople, an English rock and roll group with an appreciable following in the UK. Next thing they knew, Mott the Hoople asked them to cross the Atlantic with them and perform in the United States. Of course, they said yes.
However, the tour would be cut short when Brian May woke up gravely ill with acute Hepatitis B. It was their last show in Chicago, but May was completely yellow, and the doctors sent him home. May almost had to have his arm amputated, but luckily, after a long healing process, he overcame the illness.
The first sign of real success: Dumping your manager
Despite the close call, the show had to go on. They kept themselves busy, and shortly after they released “Sheer Heart Attack” with their next big hit “Killer Queen” which was written by Freddie. Killer Queen was number two on the UK charts and became a hit in the US.
But it wasn’t enough to see a fair amount of income. In fact, they didn’t see much income at all. They were penniless and in debt. The problem was that they were using a management company to sell their music to record companies. The production company was robbing them blind. Queen decided to fight back.
Everything was riding on The Night at the Opera
They hired a new manager. But not just any manager — they hired Elton John’s manager, John Reid. They weren’t going to put up with previous management and refused to create any more music until they were able to eat the fruit of their labors. Reid could offer them that, and the band had a great relationship with him from then on.
However, that didn’t stop them from being in a shoddy situation. They were still in debt, and they were hiding behind their new album, “A Night at the Opera.” A lot was riding on the success of their third album. If the album flopped, the band might not have made it any further. Not to spoil the ending, but that’s not what happened.
Elton John thought “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a risk
Fun fact: Reid showed the finished product of “Bohemian Rhapsody” to Elton John. His reaction wasn’t he wanted to hear. “Are you mad?” Elton reportedly asked them. But he wasn’t commenting on the lyrics — he was reacting to the length of the song. The monster of a song was a little over six minutes long.
Producers begged Freddie to make the rock ballad shorter, but Freddie held his ground. He had a vision, and he made sure that his vision came to reality. Good thing too, because upon its release, it shot to number one on the music charts where it stayed nine weeks straight in the UK — a record at the time.
“We Are the Champions” was a huge success both in the UK and the US
Night at the Circus was a major win for Queen. They were on top of the world and their success continued to grow. They weren’t just rock stars whose popularity was relied solely on the UK music charts, but they also had substantial success in the US. Perfect timing for the British invasion that crept into the American music scene.
Queen already had their foot in the door after “Killer Queen,” now they were going to blow every musical lover’s mind with the release of “We Are the Champions” (you know you’re a fan if you sang the chorus in your head after reading the song title). “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You” reached Top 10 in both the US and Britain, and became popular anthems for sporting events.
He kept his private life under wraps
Though we as fans know how much his music influenced the masses, the public knew very little about his personal life. In the midst of celebrity and rising fame, who (aside from his bandmates) was by Freddie’s side? That would be a woman by the name of Mary Austin.
It’s around this point in time that Freddie and Austin were very much together and in love. Their relationship was built on trust and friendship. They met before Freddie was the frontman of Queen in 1969. After a few months of getting to know one another, they moved in together. He then asked her a very important question (you know the one).
They had a common-law marriage
Austin was there before and after Freddie was in Queen. Because of her love, loyalty, and companionship, he inevitably popped the question. He did so by boxing a jade ring into a bigger box, which he put in a bigger box, then a bigger box before presenting it to Austin. She was very surprised that he asked her to marry him but agreed nevertheless.
But the two would never marry, and for a good reason. After six years of living together, something wasn’t quite right in their relationship. They drifted further and further apart, but Freddie wasn’t willing to admit it. That’s when Austin decided to take action.
He kept his sexuality hidden
Six years after their engagement, Freddie stopped mentioning marriage and began to withdraw from the person who inspired the song “Love of My Life.” Austin took matters into her own hands, already guessing what was troubling him. She broke it off with Freddie, believing he might have been having an affair with another woman.
But because he respected Austin so much and cared for her deeply, Freddie came out to Austin and confided that he was bisexual. Austin, on the other hand, was convinced that he was in fact very much a gay man and was still struggling with his sexual identity. Regardless, Austin remained in Freddie’s life as a close friend.
Mary Austin wasn’t the only love of his life
After Freddie admitted to Austin he was bisexual, he openly dated both men and women. Aside from having a close relationship with Austin, Freddie also had a relationship with Jim Hutton. They met at a bar in 1984, and by 1985 the pair were inseparable.
Both enjoyed their private lives together and it wasn’t until recently that Hutton released his autobiography, Mercury and Me, that any details of their relationship were shared. In their relationship, the two wore wedding rings in public, as Freddie saw Hutton as his husband. The couple lived together until Freddie’s untimely death. Hutton was with Freddie through it all, through thick and thin.
Freddie lived a lavish life
Although Mercury kept his private life under wraps, it goes without saying that the glamorous rock star enjoyed the good life. He lived a considerably lavish lifestyle (which let’s be honest, is totally appropriate with someone as flamboyant as Freddie Mercury). An avid art collector, Mercury reportedly spent over $400,000 on a set of hand-painted china and threw large celebrations, often elaborate and over the top.
For instance, Mercury celebrated one of his birthdays in Ibiza, flying himself and a group of friends to celebrate the Queen lead singer, complete with fireworks and flamenco dancing. Freddy Mercury knew how to live his life to the fullest and how best to reap the rewards as being a celebrated musician.
Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson almost made a song together
Upon his return from South America, Freddie had the golden opportunity to sing with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Freddie’s love for Jackson was established well before his pop days while he was still performing in the Jackson 5. Though the two got along gloriously together while at the club, Jackson’s reclusive and strange behavior rubbed Freddie the wrong way.
Let’s just say it got a little too weird. They were trying to record together, however, they never seemed to be on the same page or in the same country to finish a project. Freddie soon got frustrated, but the icing on the cake was when Freddie called his bandmates to pick him up because Jackson kept bringing his llama to the recording studio.
Fans across the world
Songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Love of My Life” were big hits, and the album by far was Queen’s most expensive. They used six different studios to create “Bohemian Rhapsody” alone. The album, in general, took $500,000 dollars to produce (which in 1975, was ridiculous!).
After the release of “A Night at the Opera,” the band was finally seeing recognition (and a paycheck). By the time the 80s rolled around, Queen was a household name. Then in 1981, they would be contacted by a country that was consumed by Queen fever. They never expected that call to come from South America.
The band got a huge offer but hesitated
Apparently, the band was huge in South America, specifically, Argentina. One day, the band’s producers came in and asked whether or not they wanted to play at a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires. At first, the band was skeptical that they were popular enough to fill a soccer stadium. Plus, they were hesitant to visit a country that was still under a dictatorship.
However, the band was talked into it. Next thing they knew, they were talking to the country’s General of the Army, who also had reservations about putting together a concert that could hold more than 50,000 people in a single space. He was afraid that a crowd that big could get unruly, but the band took the chance.
They sang their heart out
The next thing the band knew, they were flying to Buenos Aires in 1981 and gave the biggest performance in their careers up until that point. They sang to a massive audience, as the entire stadium was filled with over 100,000 people. As it turned out, Freddie came to life in large arenas.
Carrying his microphone stick (which was just a snapped microphone stand he enjoyed carrying around), he performed in Argentina and Brazil. When they returned from their trip to South America, they felt unstoppable. They went to Montreal, Canada to record in one of the best music production studios in North America.
He had 10 cats
While Freddie wasn’t in the studio, he was at home with his ten cats. Yes, you read that right, ten cats. Freddie was big on cats and treated them very much like his children. The first pair of cats he ever owned was during his relationship with Mary Austin. The couple adopted two cats they named Tom and Jerry.
Over time, however, a favorite emerged, and that was hands down Delilah. He loved the calico cat so much that Freddie wrote a song about her in his “Innuendo” album, which of course, was called “Delilah.” It was noted that Delilah loved Freddie back, and stayed by his side until the day he died.
It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies
It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies, and though their concert in South America and their fame in the US was at its peak, Queen took a couple of hits from some records that didn’t sell as well as previous albums. Soon, the group was finding themselves in a rut.
The group took a temporary hiatus. Each member took on their own projects, refreshing themselves until the band could reunite and start working again. That’s when “I Want to Break Free” and “Radio Gaga” was born. Soon the band was back on top and ready to rock. But just as they were pulling themselves out of a rut, they once again hit a brick wall.
Their comeback video was banned in the US
Their hit song “I Want to Break Free” might have been a hit both in the US and in the UK, but once the music video was released, everything changed. The band was ecstatic when the prospect of dressing in drag came to the table, but they didn’t anticipate that the idea would be received the way it was.
It was in reference to a popular British television show known as “Coronation Street.” Of course, the European countries understood the reference. American…not so much. On the contrary, Americans found the video rather controversial, and it was banned by many stations.
The performance of their career
That was a tough blow for Queen, who were hoping to make a comeback. Everybody on MTV wanted “White Snake and more White Snake,” but not Queen. Though they went global, in a way, the band lost America’s attention and demand. But not all was lost.
Queen would successfully make a come back when they decided to perform what would become of their most iconic performances — the 1985 Live Aid Concert at Wembley Stadium. On an eighteen-minute clock, the band paid for nearly an hour. They had an unfair advantage against the rest of the performers, as he knew very well how to work a stadium crowd.
Signs of trouble for Freddie
The Live Aid concert was the best performance of their musical careers, and the band knew it. After what felt like a dry spell of music creativity, they felt a new surge of life come through them. Once again, the musicians felt unstoppable. They were ready to take on the world once more.
They were filling stadiums and people came in starving for Queen. But something wasn’t quite right with their lead singer. There was a feeling in the air that suggested this may be one of his last major performances. Unfortunately, that would prove true. Nevertheless, Freddie’s outstanding performance would make it one of the most iconic in music history along with Queen’s final performance at Wembley Stadium in 1986 as shown above.
The worst kind of diagnosis
Freddie knew he wasn’t well. As the crowd cheered, beneath the charismatic surface that made him the face of Queen, Freddie was hiding one vital secret: he was HIV positive. His partner, Jim Hutton, says he was diagnosed in 1987. The public wouldn’t know about his condition until the last days of his life.
The band was devastated when they heard the news. Knowing he didn’t have much time left, he decided he wasn’t going to lay in bed waiting to die. He was going to write and sing music until his very last breath. And that’s exactly what he did. His bandmates were respectful of keeping Freddie’s ailment were under wraps, but soon it became apparent.
As he got weaker, Freddie was worried about how he looked. Over time, his body became frail, and soon, he was unable to perform live. He could only perform before a camera, and even then, it proved to be strenuous. There were times during the last year of his life that he could hardly stand.
He was soon bedridden, which soon became his deathbed. Freddie wanted to work. He wanted to do anything but think about the end. He knew he didn’t have a lot of time left. He realized that there were some songs that would probably never be finished, such as “Mother Love.”
Mercury eventually made a statement to the public about his condition
Mercury knew he didn’t have much time left. He knew when looking into the mirror and understood the fragile state he was in. He understood that he couldn’t hide his condition from his fans, so on November 23, 1991, Mercury released a statement, “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.” Mercury died the next day.
A lasting legacy
Freddie Mercury died shortly after turning 45 years old on November 24, 1991. He passed away surrounded by his loved ones in his home in London due to complications related to his diagnoses. He left everything to his good friend Mary Austin and his pack of cats. To his fans, he left something much more precious.
He gave us music at its purest form, untarnished by what was expected of music during his generation. He became an iconic symbol in the rock and roll community that continues to touch many lives generation after generation. Over twenty-five years later, his legacy reminds us to be strange and remain true to ourselves.