Someone To Love
Legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, one of the greatest and most charismatic rock performers of all time, died 25 years ago, on Nov. 24, 1991. The official cause of death was bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. Mercury would have turned 70 years old this year.
He’s “the most inspirational frontman of all time,” says My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way. A hard-rock hammerer, a disco glitterer, a rockabilly lover boy, Freddie Mercury was dynamite with a laser beam, his four-octave range overdubbed into a shimmering wall of sound on records such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Killer Queen.” Even as he was dying, Mercury threw himself into his majestic, operatic singing. Queen’s Brian May recalls that Mercury could hardly walk when the band recorded “The Show Must Go On” in 1990. “I said, ‘Fred, I don’t know if this is going to be possible to sing,’ ” May says. “And he went, ‘I’ll fing do it, darling’ — vodka down — and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal.”
Singer-songwriter Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946, in Zanzibar, Tanzania. He studied piano in boarding school in India and befriended numerous musicians at London’s Ealing College of Art. The music of Mercury’s band, Queen, reached the top of U.S. and British charts.
His parents, Bomi and Jer Bulsara, were both Parsee (Persian). His father, Bomi, was a civil servant, working as a High Court cashier for the British Government. Freddie’s sister, Kashmira, was born in 1952. In 1954, at the age of eight, Freddie was shipped to St Peter’s English boarding school in Panchgani, about fifty miles outside Bombay. It was there his friends began to call him Freddie, a name the family also adopted.
As St Peter’s was an English school, the sports played there were typically English. Freddie loathed cricket and long-distance running, but he liked hockey, sprint and boxing. At the age of 10 he became a school champion in table tennis. Freddie was not only a good sportsman, his artistic skills were incomparable.
At the age of twelve he was awarded the school trophy as Junior All-rounder. He loved art, and was always sketching for friends or relatives.
He was also music mad and played records on the family’s old record player, stacking the singles to play constantly. The music he was able to get was mostly Indian, but some Western music was available. He would sing along to either and preferred music to school work.
The principal headmaster of St Peter’s had noticed Freddie’s musical talent, and wrote to his parents suggesting that they might wish to pay a little extra on Freddie’s school fees to enable him to study music properly. They agreed, and Freddie began to learn to play the piano. He also became a member of the school choir and took part regularly in school theatrical productions. He loved his piano lessons and applied himself to them with determination and skill, finally achieving Grade IV both in practical and theory.
In 1958, five friends at St Peter’s – Freddie Bulsara, Derrick Branche, Bruce Murray, Farang Irani and Victory Rana – formed the school’s rock’n roll band, the Hectics, where Freddie was the piano player. They would play at school parties, at annual fetes and school dances, but little else is known about them.
In 1962, Freddie finished school, returned to Zanzibar and spent his time with friends in and around the markets, parks and beaches. In 1964, many of the British and Indians, due to political unrest in Zanzibar, left their country, although not under forcible pressure, and among those driven out were the Bulsaras who migrated to England.
Initially they lived with relatives in Feltham, Middlesex, until they were able to find their own small, terraced house in the area. Freddie was seventeen, and had derided he wanted to go to art college, but needed at least one A level to ensure he could get in. In September 1964 he enrolled at the nearby Isleworth Polytechnic.
Queen: The Story of Bohemian Rhapsody (documentary)
During vacations he took a variety of jobs to earn some money; one was in the catering department at Heathrow Airport, a stone’s throw from home, and the other was on the Feltham trading estate, where he had a job in a warehouse lifting and stacking heavy crates and boxes. His fellow workers commented on his ‘delicate’ hands, certainly not suited for such work, and asked him what he did. He told them he was a musician just ‘filling in time’, and such was his charm that those co-workers were soon doing the lion’s share of his work.
He studied hard, although he preferred the aesthetic side of school life to the more mundane academic side, and easily achieved his Art A level, leaving Isleworth in the spring of 1966. His grade A pass and his natural skill ensured that he was readily accepted by Ealing College of Art and, in September 1966, Freddie began a graphic illustrating course at that college, later using these skills to design the Queen heraldic arms.
After Jimi Hendrix exploded onto the scene in 1967, and Freddie became an ardent fan, he spent time sketching and drawing his hero; drawings he would frame and use to decorate the walls of his flat in Kensington, rented by his friend Chris Smith, where Freddie had moved from the family home in Feltham. At that time Kensington was an important place to be for the art crowd – it was the base of the famous Biba boutique and the home of Kensington Market, frequented by the then ‘in’ crowd.
A fellow student at Ealing College was bass player Tim Staffell, with whom Freddie became good friends. As Tim’s and Freddie’s friendship became closer, Tim took him along to rehearsals of his band called Smile, with Brian May on the guitar and Roger Taylor on the drums. Freddie got on famously with Brian and Roger and loved the sound that Smile had achieved; he also had immense admiration and respect for Brian’s guitar-playing. Inspired by Smile, Freddie began to experiment with music for the first time since leaving India.
He initially began to practice with Tim, another art student Nigel Foster, and with Chris Smith. “The first time I heard Freddie sing I was amazed,” recounts Chris. “He had a huge voice. Although his piano style was very affected, very Mozart, he had a great touch. From a piano player’s point of view, his approach was unique.”
“Freddie and I eventually got to write little bits of songs which we linked together,” adds Chris. “It makes sense when you consider Bohemian Rhapsody. It was an interesting way getting from one piece in a different key signature to another. But I don’t think we actually finished anything. Freddie certainly taught me a lot at those sessions. He had great, natural sense of melody. I picked that up straight away. For me it was the most interesting aspect of what he was doing.”
Freddie left Ealing College in June 1969, with a diploma in graphic art and design, and a few commissions for adverts in local newspapers. He moved into Roger Taylor’s flat, and that summer opened a stall with Roger at Kensington Market, initially selling artwork by himself and fellow Ealing students, and later Victorian or whatever clothes, new and secondhand, he could lay his hands on.
In the summer of 1969 Freddie was introduced to a Liverpool band called Ibex, who had come to London to try to make a name for themselves. Ibex were a three-piece, with guitarist Mike Bersin, John ‘Tupp’ Taylor on bass and Mick ‘Miffer’ Smith on drums. They also brought with them their apprentice manager, roadie and general dogsbody Ken Testi; part-time bass player Geoff Higgins used to travel down for occasional gigs. Geoff would play bass when Tupp, a great Jethro Tull fan, wanted to play flute.
He lived briefly in a flat above the Liverpool pub, The Dovedale Towers. When this band failed to take off, he joined a second band called Sour Milk Sea. However, by early 1970 this group had broken up as well.
In April 1970 Mercury joined guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor who had previously been in a band called Smile. Despite reservations of the other members and Trident Studios, the band’s initial management, Mercury chose the name “Queen” for the new band. He later said, “It’s very regal obviously, and it sounds splendid. It’s a strong name, very universal and immediate. I was certainly aware of the gay connotations, but that was just one facet of it.” At about the same time, he changed his surname, Bulsara, to Mercury. Mercury designed Queen’s logo, called the Queen crest, shortly before the release of the band’s first album. The logo combines the zodiac signs of all four members: two lions for Leo (Deacon and Taylor), a crab for Cancer (May), and two fairies for Virgo (Mercury). The lions embrace a stylised letter Q, the crab rests atop the letter with flames rising directly above it, and the fairies are each sheltering below a lion. There is also a crown inside the Q and the whole logo is over-shadowed by an enormous phoenix. The whole symbol bears a passing resemblance to the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, particularly with the lion supporters.
Although Mercury’s speaking voice naturally fell in the baritone range, he delivered most songs in the tenor range. His known vocal range extended from bass low F (F2) to soprano high F (F6). He could belt up to tenor high F (F5). 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.”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.”
His technique was astonishing. No problem of tempo, he sang with an incisive sense of rhythm, his vocal placement was very good and he was able to glide effortlessly from a register to another. He also had a great musicality. His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right colouring or expressive nuance for each word.
The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey called Mercury “the best virtuoso rock ‘n’ roll singer of all time. He could sing anything in any style. He could change his style from line to line and, God, that’s an art. And he was brilliant at it.”A research team undertook a study in 2016 to understand the appeal behind Mercury’s voice. Led by Professor Christian Herbst, the team noted his notably faster vibrato and use of subharmonics, particularly in comparison to opera singers. The research team studied vocal samples from 23 commercially available Queen recordings, his solo work, and a series of interviews of the late artist. They also used an endoscopic video camera to study a rock singer brought in to imitate Mercury’s singing voice
Mercury was 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.”
David Bowie, who performed at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and recorded the song “Under Pressure” with Queen, praised Mercury’s performance style, saying: “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.”
Queen guitarist Brian May wrote that Mercury could make “the last person at the back of the furthest stand in a stadium feel that he was connected.”
In the early 1970s, Mercury had a long-term relationship with Mary Austin, whom he met through guitarist Brian May. He lived with Austin for several years in West Kensington, London. By the mid-1970s, the singer had begun an affair with a male American record executive at Elektra Records and, in December 1976, Mercury told Austin of his sexuality, which ended their romantic relationship. Mercury moved out of the flat they shared, into 12 Stafford Terrace in Kensington and bought Austin a place of her own nearby. They 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’s final home, Garden Lodge, 1 Logan Place, a twenty-eight room Georgian mansion in Kensington set in a quarter-acre manicured garden surrounded by a high brick wall, had been picked out by Austin. In his will, Mercury left his London home to Austin, rather than his partner Jim Hutton, saying to her, “You would have been my wife and it would have been yours anyway.” Mercury was also the godfather of Austin’s oldest son, Richard.
During the early- to mid-1980s, he was romantically involved with Barbara Valentin, an Austrian actress, who is featured in the video for “It’s a Hard Life”. By 1985, he began another long-term relationship with hairdresser Jim Hutton (1949–2010). Hutton, who was 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 said Mercury died wearing the wedding band that Hutton had given him
Although he cultivated a flamboyant stage personality, Mercury was shy and retiring when not performing, particularly around people he did not know well, and 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.”
While on stage, Mercury basked in the love from his audience; Kurt Cobain’s suicide note mentions how he both admired and envied the way Mercury “seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd.”
Freddie Mercury Documentary (2013)
In 1987 Mercury celebrated his 41st birthday at the Pikes Hotel, Ibiza, several months after discovering that he had contracted HIV. Mercury sought much comfort at the retreat and was a close friend of the owner, Anthony Pike, who described Mercury as “the most beautiful person I’ve ever met in my life. So entertaining and generous.” According to biographer Lesley-Ann Jones, Mercury “felt very much at home there. He played some tennis, lounged by the pool, and ventured out to the odd gay club or bar at night.”The party, held on 5 September 1987, has been described as “the most incredible example of excess the Mediterranean island had ever seen,” and was attended by some 700 people. A cake in the shape of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família was provided for the party, although the original cake collapsed and was replaced with a 2-metre-long sponge with the notes from Mercury’s song “Barcelona”.The bill, which included 232 broken glasses, was presented to Queen’s manager, Jim Beach.
In the days before his death, his once lithe body now rendered extremely frail by Aids, Freddie Mercury made one final request of the woman he described as ‘the love of my life’. That she, and she alone, should collect his ashes after his cremation and dispose of them at a private location never to be disclosed.
For more than two decades Mary Austin has abided by Mercury’s wishes and kept the whereabouts of his ashes a secret. Not even his elderly parents were told.
Since the death of Queen’s flamboyant frontman, aged 45, in November 1991, speculation has been rife. Were the ashes taken to his native Zanzibar? Or buried under a cherry tree in the Japanese garden of his London mansion?
When a plinth erected at Kensal Green cemetery in West London bearing his real name – Farrokh Bulsara – was discovered in 2013, his legion of fans hoped their hero’s final resting place had finally been located.
But Mary, the woman who shared much of her life with the enigmatic showman, and to whom he left his magnificent £20 million Edwardian mansion in West London as well as the bulk of his £9 million fortune, is categoric on the matter: ‘Freddie is definitely not in that cemetery,’ she says.
Mercury, famed as much for his excessive lifestyle as his exuberant stage persona, died from AIDS at a time when it was feared and misunderstood. Mary says that just before his death, he was terrified his resting place would be defiled: ‘He didn’t want anyone trying to dig him up as has happened to some famous people. Fans can be deeply obsessive. He wanted it to remain a secret and it will remain so.’
She kept the ashes in an urn in Freddie’s bedroom for two years and then staged an elaborate covert exercise, slipping out of the mansion alone to carry out his last request.
To avoid prying eyes, she didn’t even take her driver. ‘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.
‘One morning, 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.’
A few days beforehand, Mary invited Mercury’s parents to the house to say a few prayers in his memory. But not even they were told where his ashes ultimately lie.
It was an emotional and stress-filled mission for Mary, who lived with Mercury on and off for 20 years.
That he left the bulk of his fortune to her caused deep and bitter resentment – not least among Mercury’s former band members. She says he warned her the legacy she would inherit could become a burden. ‘And he was right,’ she has said.
After Freddie died she felt out of her depth. She suffered several serious illnesses and struggled emotionally to cope with the inheritance. ‘I found myself thinking, “Oh Freddie, you’ve left me too much and too much to deal with as well.” I felt I couldn’t live up to it. He’d warned me that the house was going to be more of a challenge than I realised. I’m grateful he did because I hit jealousy head on – like a Japanese bullet train. Very painful.
‘I don’t think the remaining members of Queen have ever reconciled themselves to it. I don’t understand it. Because to me it’s bricks and mortar. I try never to be jealous or envy people.
‘Freddie was very generous to them in the last years of his life and I don’t think they embraced that generosity. I don’t think they appreciated or recognised what Freddie had left them. He left the band a quarter share of the last four albums – which he didn’t need to do. And I never hear from them. After Freddie died, they just wandered off.’
Everywhere, she confesses, there are memories of Mercury. ‘You hear a specific song and it makes you feel emotional. We lived those 20-odd years together. Under the same roof. Together emotionally.’
During that time she witnessed the thrill of Mercury proposing marriage, the heartache of losing him when he realised he was gay and the anguish of nursing him through his final days. There is one particularly powerful memory of that time that still haunts her. As his life ebbed away, Mercury watched DVD footage of his past performances.
‘On one occasion he turned to me and said sadly, “To think I used to be so handsome.” I got up and had to leave the room,’ she recalls. ‘It was too upsetting. We were never allowed to get emotional around him and that was hard. But I knew if I sat there I would have been in tears. When I returned I just sat down as if nothing had happened. But for that moment, he caught me off guard.’
Mary was 19 when she first met Mercury in the early Seventies. Born into an impoverished family in Battersea, South London – her father worked as a trimmer for wallpaper specialists and her mother was a domestic for a small company – her childhood wasn’t easy. Both parents were deaf and communicated through sign language and lip-reading.
Mary was a PR at the fashionable Biba store in Kensington, West London, when she encountered Mercury, then 24, at the clothes stall he and Queen drummer Roger Taylor ran in nearby Kensington market.
Initially, she found Mercury intimidating but was also fascinated by this ‘wild-looking artistic musician’. She says: ‘He was like no one I had met before. He was very confident – something I have never been. We grew together. I liked him and it went on from there.’
The pair shared a bedsit and then moved into a modest one-bedroom flat in nearby Holland Road. They were blissfully happy but hadn’t discussed a future together. ‘Then, when I was 23 he gave me a big box on Christmas Day. Inside was another box, then another and so it went on. It was like one of his playful games. Eventually, I found a lovely jade ring inside the last small box.
‘I looked at it and was speechless. I remember thinking, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” It wasn’t what I’d expected at all. So I asked him, “Which hand should I put this on?” And he said, “Ring finger, left hand.” And then he said, “Because, will you marry me?” I was shocked. It just so wasn’t what I was expecting. I just whispered, “Yes. I will.”’
But, impulsive as ever, he changed his mind on a whim. ‘Sometime later,’ she says. ‘I spotted a wonderful antique wedding dress in a small shop. And as Freddie hadn’t said anything more about marrying, the only way that I could test the water was to say, “Is it time I bought the dress?” But he said no. He had gone off the idea and it never happened.
‘I was disappointed but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to happen. Things were getting very complicated and the atmosphere between us was changing a lot. I knew the writing was on the wall, but what writing? I wasn’t absolutely sure.
‘I never questioned him about it. But I think he must have been starting to question himself. Getting married was probably something he wanted. But then he began to wonder if it would be fair on me.’ The revelation that Mercury was gay ended their physical relationship, but Mary has always been grateful that Freddie one day had the courage to discuss his changing sexual feelings.
‘If he hadn’t been such a decent human being and told me I wouldn’t be here,’ she says candidly. ‘If he had gone along living a bisexual life without telling me, I would have contracted Aids and died.’
Mary started to notice he was staying out later and later and thought he was having an affair with another woman. Deeply hurt, she feared their relationship was over. But one day he told her he had something important to say – something that would change their relationship forever.
Gazing down at her lap, Mary says softly: ‘I’ll never forget that moment. Being a bit naive, it had taken me a while to realise the truth. Afterwards he felt good about having finally told me he was bisexual. Although I do remember saying to him at the time, “No Freddie, I don’t think you are bisexual. I think you are gay.”’
Freddie, she recalls, hugged her and told her that, whatever happened, he wanted her to always be part of his life.
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (Official Video)
Mary Austin, has faithfully followed the singer’s wishes and kept the whereabouts of his ashes a secret — even from his parents.
Mercury continued recording until not long before his death, losing none of his vocal power, even as his body began to noticeably waste away. While working on “The Show Must Go On” in 1990, May questioned whether Mercury was well enough to continue. “And he went, ‘I’ll f-ing do it, darling’ — vodka down — and went in and killed it,” May remembered. “Completely lacerated that vocal.” Enough sessions work was left over, in fact, for a huge-selling posthumous release; 1995’s Made in Heaven would go four-times platinum in the U.K.
Austin also received both Mercury’s opulent Edwardian mansion, located in West London, and the bulk of his fortune. May and Taylor, meanwhile, have continued on as Queen with a series of guest singers, including George Michael, Paul Rodgers and — most recently — American Idol finalist Adam Lambert. They also established the Mercury Phoenix Trust in 1992 in memory of Mercury, raising awareness and funds as part of the fight against AIDS.
Fans continue to flock to house where their idol lived, Mary understands their desire to know his final resting place.
But she is aware she made a lasting promise to him. ‘I never betrayed Freddie in his lifetime,’ she says. ‘And I’ll never betray him now.’