Happy birthday, Freddie Mercury: 8 things you did not know about the Queen singer and rock legend
From accidentally giving the Sex Pistols their big break to featuring on Cobain's suicide note, here are 8 little known facts about one of the greatest singers of all time.
Today, September 5, marks the 72nd birthday of one of the greatest legends and the most recognizable voices in rock history - Freddie Mercury.
While the world knows and remembers him as Freddie Mercury, the exuberant and flamboyant frontman of Queen, he was actually a shy, reserved character off the stage, born Farrokh Bulsara, on September 5, 1946, in the British protectorate of Zanzibar to Parsi parents of Indian heritage. With his famous four-octave vocal range, Freddie gave us unforgettable rock anthems like 'We Will Rock You' and 'We Are The Champions', and of course the gloriously incomparable 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
A naturally gifted performer, Freddie is well known for his ability to command crowds that filled up stadiums, keeping them engaged through every second with his inimitable on-stage theatrics and shock art. Most notably, during 'The Game Tour' with Queen in 1981, the band broke all records at São Paulo in Brazil setting the world record for the biggest paying audience at 131,000 people. Three years later, they broke their own record at the Rock in Rio festival—in which Freddie and the gang appeared on stage at two o'clock in the morning in front of 470,000 people during the first night and 250,000 on the second.
With a songwriting style that constantly evolved through his career and the innate ability to keep a finger on the pulse of the times and the vocal chops to back it all up, Freddie will be remembered as one of the greatest showmen in the world. Freddie died in 1991 at age 45 due to complications from AIDS, having confirmed just one day earlier that he had contracted the disease.
The following year, Freddie was posthumously awarded the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music, and a tribute concert was held at Wembley Stadium, London. As a member of Queen, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.
In life, he constantly pushed the boundaries of his genre, paving the way for generations of inspired performers. In death, he gave voice to the millions suffering from AIDS. A quarter of a century after his passing, it is still almost impossible to not recognize his unique voice when a Queen track pops up on the radio, irrespective of whether you lived in his time or not. As we celebrate the birthday of one of the greatest singers in the history of popular music, here are eight lesser-known titbits about the legend that'll give you a peek into the life of the man behind the rock n roll facade.
1. Scientists studied Freddie Mercury's voice to unlock its secrets
In 2016, a group of European researchers conducted the research to understand the secrets behind Freddie's voice, the results of which were published in Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology. While they couldn’t confirm the long-held belief that Freddie’s range spanned four full octaves, they did discover some interesting tidbits about the expanse of his voice. For one, despite being known largely as a tenor, he was more likely a baritone. They based this assumption off analysis of six interviews that revealed a median speaking fundamental frequency of 117.3 Hz. That, coupled with anecdotal evidence that Freddie once turned down an opera duet because he was afraid fans wouldn’t recognize his baritone voice, led to the conclusion that the singer was talented enough to jump out of his base range.
According to Professor Christian Herbst was part of that team, the key lies in Freddie's vibrato, which differs slightly from those of other classically trained singers. "Usually, you can sing a straight tone, but opera singers try to modulate the fundamental frequencies," he says. "So they make the tone, if you like, a bit more vibrant. Typically, an opera singer's vibrato has this frequency of about 5.5-6 Hz. Freddie's is higher, and it's also more irregular, and that kind of creates a very typical vocal fingerprint."
2. He released two solo singles before the Queen era under the pseudonym of Larry Lurex
In early 1973, the fledgling band was recording its debut album at London’s Trident Studios, a cutting-edge facility that had recently been utilized by David Bowie and the Beatles. Though it was an honor to follow in such prestigious footsteps, Queen’s lowly status meant that they were only allowed to record during off-peak hours: usually between 3 and 7 a.m. One night, while waiting for their studio to become free, Freddie was approached by Trident’s house engineer, Robin Geoffrey Cable. Cable had been trying to recreate record producer Phil Spector’s famed “Wall of Sound” style, and felt that the Queen singer’s voice would be a perfect addition to the project. Freddie then enlisted the musical services of Brian May and Roger Taylor, and together they recorded covers of the Ronettes’ 'I Can Hear Music' and Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s 'Goin’ Back,' made famous by Dusty Springfield.
Cable readied the tracks for release but with Queen’s debut nearing completion, he insisted on using a pseudonym to avoid confusing the public. He settled on the outlandish name Larry Lurex, which he admitted was a “personal piss-take” on Gary Glitter, who ruled the British charts at the time. The surname was borrowed from a brand of metallic yarn used in bodysuits favored by Glitter and the glam-rock elite.
Glitter's massive fan army did not take kindly to Freddie's jab. They refused to buy the song out of spite, and many DJs declined to play it. Freddie was apparently pissed off about the whole issue. “I thought it was great!” he said about the incident at a later point in his career. “Let’s face it, it’s the highest honor for any performer to have people copying you. It’s a form of flattery and it was only meant in fun. Anyway, what does it matter? After Elvis Presley, it’s all parody, isn’t it?”
3. He was awkward about his overbite and is never seen smiling on the Queen album covers
Although he was a highly charged, flamboyant performer on stage, Freddie was quite shy off stage. So much so that he even had issues with the way he looked, especially his big teeth and his prominent overbite. In the Queen documentary 'The Story of Queen: Rising Mercury', photographer Mick Rock, who is the brains behind the famous album cover of 'Queen II' that flaunts the quartet in black and white, addresses the issue.
"If you look at all my pictures of him, you will see his lips are closed," Rock says in the documentary. "Because he was very self-conscious about the overbite. And we made sure that before I took the shot, his lips were closed. I remember saying to him at one point, 'You know, with your money, you could do what you want'," Mick Rock says, in reference to suggesting dental surgery to fix it. Apparently, Freddie had "four extra teeth" growing behind his molars, presumably his wisdom teeth that had sprouted awkwardly, but he would not get rid of them for the fear of "changing his palate" and altering his vocal range.
4. He accidentally gave The Sex Pistols their big break
Let's face it. The Sex Pistols' punk aesthetic is probably the polar opposite of Queen's ostentatious exuberance. But the two acts were signed to the same label, EMI, and there was a lot of friction there. The story goes that on December 1, 1976, Queen was booked on the early evening talk show 'Today with Bill Grundy' to promote their upcoming album, 'A Day at the Races'. But when Freddie had to make a visit to the dentist, EMI sent their new signees, The Sex Pistols.
Thanks to the free drinks backstage and host Grundy's combative proddings, Steve Jones and Johnny Rotten both uttered numerous obscenities on air, including the unforgivable F-word. The incident caused a huge furor in the UK, with several tabloids sensationalizing the band's immoral ways! According to legend, one particularly outraged truck driver smashed his television set. Conservative members of the London City Council described the Sex Pistols as “nauseating” and “the antithesis of humankind.” Many dates on their imminent Anarchy Tour of the U.K. were canceled or protested, but the media scrutiny only increased their popularity.
The two bands' paths would overlap in 1977 at London’s Wessex Studios, where the Sex Pistols were recording their debut album. Members of Queen have contrasting anecdotes about the time. While guitarist Brian May said his interactions with the Pistols were civil and respectful, Roger Taylor called Pistols bassist Sid Vicious a "moron" and an "idiot". On one memorable occasion, Vicious drunkenly wandered into Queen’s studio and tried to pick a fight with Freddie by snarling: “Have you succeeded in bringing ballet to the masses yet?” – a reference to a particularly flamboyant boast the singer had made in a recent NME interview.
Freddie was not so easily rattled. “I called him ‘Simon Ferocious’ or something and he didn’t like it at all,” he claimed later in one of his rare television interviews. “I said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And he had all these [cuts] – he was very well marked – so I said, ‘Make sure to scratch yourself in the mirror properly today because tomorrow you’re going to get something else.’ He hated that I could even speak like that. I think we survived that test.”
5. He features in Kurt Cobain's suicide note
Die-hard Nirvana fans remember the tragic suicide note from the band's frontman for the line "it's better to burn out than to fade away," a reference to the lyrics of Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)', it's interesting to note that the one and only rock star name-dropped in the entire note is Freddie. Cobain talks about Freddie's ability to form a bond with the crowd and exhilarate thousands of people at concerts, something that he admits he envies and admires and claims he hasn't felt in ages.
The exact words from the note read: "I haven't felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things. For example, when we're backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowds begin, it doesn't affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy."
6. Three species from the animal kingdom are named after Freddie Mercury
A frog genus discovered in 2013 in the Western Ghats of India was named after the singer as a tribute because Freddie's "vibrant music inspires the authors". Froggie Mercury, aka Mercurana myristicapalustris was given its name "to commemorate Freddie Mercury, late iconic lead singer of the British rock band Queen." The scientists also noted that Freddie "had spent a major part of his childhood in India in Panchgani, located in the northern part of the Western Ghats, where the frog now bearing his name has been discovered."
An East African isopod, Cirolana mercuryi, is also named after the legendary vocalist. A species of crustacean found off the coast of Zanzibar, a city in Tanzania, the discoverers named it after "arguably Zanzibar's most famous popular musician and singer". There are also four species of damselflies (they're like dragonflies, but cooler!) named for each member of Queen, with Heteragrion freddiemercuryi taking inspiration from Freddie's name.
7. Freddie loved cats and even wrote a song for his favorite Delilah
Although he swung the other way, Freddie was definitely a pussy magnet! Freddie shared his home with a number of cats over the course of his life and found it difficult to be apart from them. In fact, even while touring the world with Queen, he habitually called his house in order to speak with his feline friends.
“He’d get to a hotel, we’d dial through and he really would talk to his cats,” writes Peter Freestone in his memoir, 'Mister Mercury'. “Mary [Austin] (Freddie's close friend and ex) would hold Tom and Jerry in turn up to the receiver to listen to Freddie talking. This continued throughout the years with the succeeding feline occupants of his houses.”
By the time Jim Hutton, Freddie's last romantic partner, moved into his elegant Garden Lodge mansion, the brood had swelled to six: Oscar, Tiffany, Goliath, Miko, Romeo and Delilah. “Freddie treated the cats like his own children,” Hutton writes in his book, 'Mercury and Me'. “He would constantly fuss over them, and if any of them came to any harm when Freddie was away, heaven help us. During the day the cats had the run of the house and grounds, and at night one of us would round them up and bring them inside.”
He reserved a special place for Delilah, whom Hutton refers to as “the little princess” of their home. “Of all the cats at Garden Lodge, Delilah was Freddie’s favorite and the one he’d pick up and stroke the most often. When Freddie went to bed, it was Delilah he brought in with us. She’d sleep at the foot of the bed, before slipping out for a night-time prowl.” Freddie even dedicated a song named after the cat that features on 'Innuendo', the last album Queen released during his lifetime. In retrospect, considering Freddie's ill health at the time, the lyrics, with lines like "You make me smile when I’m just about to cry/You bring me hope, you make me laugh – and I like it,” are touching.
8. His final resting place remains a mystery to this day
When Freddie succumbed AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia on November 24, 1991, his body was cremated at Kensal Green cemetery in West London. On 27 November, Freddie's funeral service at West London Crematorium was conducted by a Zoroastrian priest. In attendance at Freddie'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. In accordance with Freddie's wishes, Mary Austin, his former girlfriend and lifelong friend, took possession of his cremated remains.
His ashes were kept in an urn in Austin’s bedroom for two years before she quietly took his remains to their final resting place. “I didn’t want anyone to suspect that I was doing anything other than what I would normally do. I said I was going for a facial. I had to be convincing. It was very hard to find the moment,” she told The Daily Mail in 2013. “I just sneaked out of the house with the urn. It had to be like a normal day so the staff wouldn’t suspect anything – because staff gossip. They just cannot resist it. But nobody will ever know where he is buried because that was his wish.”
Apparently even Freddie’s parents have been kept in the dark about the location, but that hasn’t stopped fans from trying to find the place to pay their respects. Some have speculated that he’s in his native Zanzibar, while others believe him to be beneath a cherry tree in the garden of his mansion.
As Rolling Stone points out, it seemed like the mystery was solved in 2013, when a plinth bearing Freddie’s birth name and birth date was discovered at Kensal Green. “In Loving Memory of Farrokh Bulsara, 5 Sept. 1946 – 24 Nov. 1991,” it read, “Pour Etre Toujours Pres De Toi Avec Tout Mon Amour – M", which translates to “Always to Be Close to You With All My Love,” and many speculate that the “M” in question is for Mary Austin.
But Austin herself denies the theory. “Freddie is definitely not in that cemetery,” she said. The plaque has since been removed and the legendary Freddie Mercury's final resting place remains a mystery to this day.