(September 5th 1946 - November 24th 1991)
Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in Stone Town on Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. His parents, Bomi and Jer Bulsara, were Parsis from the Gujarati region of the then province of Bombay Presidency in British India. 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.
Mercury attended St. Peter's School, a boarding school for boys in Panchgani near Bombay (now Mumbai), India. 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." 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 result of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. 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. 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.
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." At around this time, he also legally changed his name.
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. After moving to England, Mercury became a fan of The Who, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and The Beatles. 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 songs—the sheer energy."
Regarded as one of the greatest singers in rock music, Freddie Mercury possessed a very distinctive voice, including a recorded range of four octaves (E2 to E6). Although his speaking voice naturally fell in the baritone range, he delivered most songs as a tenor. 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." On the other hand, he would often lower the highest notes during live performances. Mercury also claimed never to have had any formal training and suffered from vocal fold nodules. 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."
US rock singer Billy Squier, with whom Mercury wrote two songs for in the mid-1980s ('Lady with the Tenor Sax' and 'Love is the Hero') said in an interview that Mercury indeed 'sang sharp'.
Mercury wrote ten out of the seventeen songs on Queen's Greatest Hits album: "Seven Seas of Rhye", "Killer Queen", "Bohemian Rhapsody", "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 different 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." 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. "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. He wrote most of his songs on the piano and used a wide variety of different key signatures.
Mercury is noted for his live performances, which were often delivered to stadium audiences around the world. His "bottomless microphone stand" gig was one of his many notable acts on stage. 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." 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. He could always turn a cliché to his advantage."
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". 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."
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. He once explained, "We're the Cecil B. DeMille of rock and roll, always wanting to do things bigger and better." The band were the first ever to play South American stadiums, breaking worldwide records for concert attendance in the Morumbi Stadium in São Paulo in 1981. In 1986, Queen also played behind the Iron Curtain, when they performed to a crowd of 80,000 in Budapest. Mercury's final live performance with Queen took place on August 9, 1986 at Knebworth Park in England and drew an attendance estimated as high as 300,000.
Mercury played the piano in many of Queen's most popular songs. Examples of piano-based Queen songs include "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. Although he wrote many lines for guitar, Mercury possessed only rudimentary skills on the instrument. Nevertheless, he wrote the song "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" on the guitar (it has been said that he wrote it while taking a bubble bath in his room at the Munich Hilton hotel), and often played it during live performances of the song.
In addition to his work with Queen, Mercury put out one solo album, 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 of a song called Love Kills to a 1984 album dedicated to the 1926 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The song, which was produced by Giorgio Moroder, debuted at the #10 position in the UK charts.
Mercury had two full albums outside the band, Mr. Bad Guy and Barcelona, released in 1985 and 1988, respectively. The former was a pop-oriented album that emphasised disco and dance music. "Barcelona" was recorded with the opera singer Montserrat Caballé, whom he had long admired. Although it debuted in the top ten of the UK Album Charts, Mr. Bad Guy was not considered to have been a commercial success relative to most Queen albums. However, in 1993, a remix of "Living on My Own", a single from the album, reached the #1 position on the UK Singles Charts. 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." In particular, the album was heavily synthesizer-driven in a way that was not characteristic of previous Queen albums.
Barcelona, recorded with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, combined elements of popular music and opera. Many critics were uncertain what to make of the album, with one critic referring to it as "the most bizarre CD of the year." Caballé, 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 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. Caballé sung 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 additional singles, including his own version of the hit The Great Pretender by The Platters, which debuted at the #5 spot in the UK in 1987. 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.
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 mid-1970s, the singer began an affair with a male record executive at Elektra Records; this ultimately resulted in the end of his relationship with Austin. 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." 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.
By 1980, Mercury began to frequently visit gay bathhouses and clubs where he met many short-term partners. By 1985 he began another long-term relationship with a hairdresser named Jim Hutton. Hutton, who himself 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 also claims that Mercury died wearing a wedding band that Hutton had given him.
Although he cultivated a very flamboyant stage personality, several sources refer to Mercury as having been very shy in person. 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."
According to his partner Jim Hutton, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1987. Around that time, Mercury also claimed in an interview to have tested negative for the virus. 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. 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 November 22, 1991, Mercury called Queen's manager Jim Beach over to his Kensington home, to discuss a public statement. The next day, November 23, the following announcement was made to the press on behalf of Mercury:
"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 November 24, 1991 at the age of 45. The official cause of death was bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. Although he had not attended religious services in years, Mercury's funeral was conducted by a Zoroastrian priest. Singers 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 his partner, Jim Hutton. Mary Austin continues to live at Mercury's home, Garden Lodge, Kensington, with her family. 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 birthday.