Messenger of the gods

The Big profile: Freddie Mercury aka Farrokh Bulsara, born to an Indian Parsi family from Bulsara, Gujarat, ruled the world music stage like none other.

He is a musical icon millions around the world look up to. With his unparalleled flamboyance, his trademark costumes, his four-octave baritone, he was no doubt a rock star in the real sense of the word. While music lovers around the world know every small detail concerning his musical career, not many are aware of his Indian connection. Yes, Farrokh Bulsara aka Freddie Mercury was a Parsi whose parents and grandparents belonged to Bulsara, Gujarat, which is also the town from which his parents derived their surname. Like most Indians then, his parents Bomi and Jer Bulsara moved to Zanzibar, which is now a part of Tanzania, where his father worked as a registrar at the British Colonial Office. Freddie and his younger sister Kashmira were born and raised there.

Young years

When Freddie turned eight, he was sent to St Peter’s School, an all-boys boarding school in Panchgani, Maharashtra. As his mother relates in an interview to a leading publication, “He was quite happy and saw it as an adventure as some of our friends’ children had gone there.” Though a strict school that stressed on discipline and etiquette above all else, it recognised and encouraged natural talents in its students. It was here that the foundation for his iconic musical career was laid.

A quiet, introverted, buck-toothed Parsi boy, he didn’t take long to attract the attention of his music teachers Jay and O’Shea with his natural talent for the piano, his flair for picking up tunes he had just heard, and his powerful voice. Not only did his teachers encourage him musically, but also introduced him to Western classical, which was new to a boy who spoke Gujarati, watched Indian films, and listened to Bollywood music.

It was also in St Peter’s that Farrokh became Freddie. Peculiarly, he was born with four extra teeth in the back of his mouth, causing his now-famous bucktooth grin, earning him the nickname he wasn’t happy with, Bucky, which became Freddie over time. Freddie’s musical leaning soon saw him join the school band named The Hectics. He was just 12 years old then. Grooving to the tunes of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards and Little Richard, he soon became popular in school for his musical talent. Wearing tight trousers, thin string ties, pointy shoes and gelled hair like Elvis Presley and Cliff Richards, his transformation from a shy lad to a confident performer on stage set the tone for his future as Queen.

After school, he moved back to Zanzibar, but its independence in 1963 was followed by a revolution which saw the largely poor Africans involved in riots that targeted the wealthier Indian population, forcing his family to move to Feltham, London in 1964. In an effort to complete his education, Freddie soon enrolled at Isleworth Polytechnic to study graphic design, though it was music that interested him. He wrote songs on sheets of paper and tucked them under his pillow. His mother, who never took his interest in music seriously, even asked him to “clear up all the rubbish including the papers under his pillow”.


Freddie Mercury 

 

According to an interview Freddie’s mother gave to a leading UK publication, “It was more music than studying and my husband said he didn’t understand what this boy was going to do. I made him type some letters for jobs and when he posted the applications, he said, ‘I hope I don’t get these jobs’. The applications were for graphic design. Had he got one of those jobs, things would have been quite different. In the end, he thought it was too much because he was in his bedroom most of the time and elderly neighbours were complaining about the noise. He decided to leave home.”

It was around this time that he befriended many musicians, including Brian May and Roger Taylor, who played together in a band named Smile. An admirer of Smile, Freddie always encouraged them to be experimental.

Finally, when he teamed up with them, Queen took birth, in 1970, and he adopted his stage name, Freddie Mercury. The rest is history. The band with Freddie Mercury (lead vocals and piano), Brian May (lead guitar and vocals), Roger Taylor (drums and vocals), and John Deacon (bass guitar) played their major concert as a support act to Mott the Hoople at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973. And his parents attended it. According to his mother, “My favourite memory of him is that very first concert at Hammersmith Odeon. When the show was over, people came over to me and my husband and said it was nice that we supported him. I said simply, ‘Well, he is my son’.”

In addition to his talents as a singer and songwriter, Freddie was also a great showman. He was very good at entertaining the audiences by strutting around the stage and encouraging the audience to join in the fun.

His favourite costume included the one featuring skintight spandex. In an interview, she recalls fondly how he dressed flamboyantly, sported long hair, and even failed his driving test. “He said it didn’t matter. I said he didn’t want to spend his life on buses and he said: ‘It doesn’t matter because one day I will be chauffeur-driven everywhere’. I thought that my boy certainly had a dream.”

A dream, he had, most certainly. To rule the world music stage like none other. If only his life wasn’t cut short at 45 by an AIDS-related illness.

Adjectives flow when one is asked to describe the persona of the late Farrokh Bulsara, known to the world as Freddie Mercury, the lead vocalist of the British rock band Queen. The most concurred adjective, however, is ‘flamboyant’. Rock aficionados the world over cannot erase the picture of Freddie strutting around stage at Wembley Stadium, doing ad lib scat vocals on ‘Another one bites the dust’, or that point in the Budapest concert where he takes the crowd on, making them match his lines, going higher and higher all the time. How they loved it! That was Freddie Mercury — the frontman who could “hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”

His voice was phenomenal — something like never before, and probably something that never will be. He could sing everything from rumbling lows all the way up to perfect highs. This vocal range was exceptional and became the subject of an extensive study. He was known to have refused corrective treatment for his dental overbite, citing fear of having his voice affected.

The manner in which he could modulate from low to high and then back to low within a few bars of music was incredible. One minute he was belting out raw power and the next he was singing soft, lilting tones like a lullaby, gentle and tender. There was passion in his voice, and he was completely into it. Roger Daltrey of ‘The Who’ once said that Freddie Mercury “could sing anything in any style.”

Then, the energy on stage was simply overwhelming! He was gifted with unmatched stage presence that would get the crowd going with just a few notes. His attire became synonymous with his personality. Any classic rock lover remembers him dressed in shorts, bare-chested, with a towel draped around his neck.

He often wore tights, a sleeveless vest, sometimes a cap, and did his own set of dance moves on stage with his broken microphone stand in hand. The histrionics became his signature, and that enhanced his ability to hold an audience, no matter where the band performed. Queen guitarist Brian May once said that Freddie would make the person in the most distant part of the showground feel connected, and that was something only Freddie could do. At Queen’s final performance in 1986, he walked onto stage wearing a robe, holding a crown, as the British national anthem played. He became the legend that many generations will listen to.

The genres that show up in the kind of music Queen made are widely varied. There are strains of progressive rock, early forms of heavy metal, there’s disco — omnipresent on songs like ‘Radio Ga-ga’, gospel in the vocal harmonies. It was an eclectic mix; a treat and a challenge for musicians who ventured to cover their songs.

The chord progressions were unfamiliar… none of the standard, predictable changes, so were the key signatures, unlike millions of artists who have a certain comfort zone for singing or displaying their instrumental prowess. The amazing vocal harmony arrangements in a rock setting suggest he was not afraid to push every boundary, try some crazy things, and in the end turn out brilliant! This brought on a distinctive edge and the typical ‘Queen’ sound.

Brian May relates that Freddie was never “impressed with his own instrument skills, so he wanted to walk around stage and entertain the audience.” Well, for a fact, Freddie played piano on ‘We are the champions’, ‘Somebody to love’, and the masterpiece ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’... melody lines that can never be erased from the annals of rock, ever. He played a bit of guitar, too.

Yet, he composed another hit on the guitar. ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ saw Freddie playing rhythm guitar both in the studio and live.

On another note, Freddie was very artistic and is responsible for designing Queen album jackets and the ‘coat-of-arms’ for the band. His solo work saw its own flavour of success, climbing a long way since he went by the pseudonym Larry Lurex in 1972.

The title track of his album ‘Barcelona’ went on to become the official anthem for the summer Olympics of 1992 held in Barcelona. His cover of The Platters ‘The Great Pretender’ went up to No. 5 on the UK charts while ‘Living On My Own’ reached No. 1. Posthumous awards include the Brit Award, induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, UK Music Hall of Fame and being listed among ‘100 Greatest Britons’.

Contrary to the person he was on stage, Freddie Mercury was a shy, private person. In the public statement released a day before his death in 1991, he said, “My privacy has always been very special to me and I am famous for my lack of interviews.”

His last place of residence at Logan Place in West London has become a permanent shrine to the iconic singer who left an indelible mark on the world of rock, a performer par excellence who set the standard for his contemporaries and for those who idolise him. The show must go on!

The making of 'Queen'

Brian May and Roger Taylor played together in a band called ‘Smile’, with Tim Staffell. Staffell was not keen on continuing, so he recommended a fan who had recently moved to England. That fan suggested the band assay something new on vocals and arrangements. That fan, Farrokh Bulsara a.k.a. Freddie Mercury, joined them in 1970 and a new band named ‘Queen’ was born. The bass players kept changing until the entry of John Deacon.

The final line-up comprising Brian May on guitars, Roger Taylor on drums, John Deacon on bass and Freddie Mercury on vocals gave their first performance in 1971, at a college in Surrey.

Their first taste of worldwide success came in 1974 with ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ and was closely followed by ‘Night at the Opera’ in 1975. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, arguably their greatest hit, stayed at No. 1 on the UK Charts for nine weeks.

The Queen sound initially leaned towards progressive rock, bordering on heavy metal, and later slowly turned song-oriented, with influences of ragtime, Caribbean and other varied genres riding on the music.

Brian May’s distinct guitar sound brought his riffs and licks to the fore; his use of a coin instead of a pick adding to that unique tone.

Rock solid basslines and a strong pulsating beat made for a groovy foundation while Freddie’s voice brought on an irreplaceable, inimitable element that nobody even tries to get close to.

Their choir-style vocals on ‘Somebody to love’ was the result of the band members multitracking their voices over and over again to sound like a large choir. Similar harmony can be heard on ‘Don’t stop me now’ as well.

The hits ‘We are the champions’ and ‘We will rock you’ have become anthems in their own right and are played the world over to this day at sporting events. The live concerts were the complete sell-out kind. Having performed at Budapest, Rock in Rio and every other part of the world, the ‘Live Aid’ concert of 1985 is considered Queen’s best concert ever, while the one at Knebworth in 1986 was the last with Freddie Mercury. He considered a concert “not a live rendition of our album. It’s a theatrical event.” Queen is definitely one of the largest selling bands in history, with record sales of their greatest hits going platinum over eight times.

The band has been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and all members are in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. The band has received recognition by the Grammy Foundation as recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Queen has released music after the death of Freddie Mercury, including songs he had recorded during his illness. Live performances continued with guest artistes doing the frontman duties, among them George Michael and Paul Rodgers with only Brian May and Roger Taylor from the original lineup, since John Deacon retired from gigging.

Adam Lambert, the singer who currently tours with Queen, said at a recent concert in Sydney, “I may be performing with Freddie’s band, but I’m just like you... another fan of one of the greatest performers this world has seen.”

Freddie Facts

Born on 5 September 1946 at Stone Town, Tanzania.

Died on 24 November 1991 at Kensington, London, United Kingdom.

His was part of the bands - The Hectics (1958 – 1962), Sour Milk Sea (1969 – 1970), Queen (1970 – 1991).

Queen’s original members were Freddie Mercury (lead vocals, piano), Brian May (guitar, vocals), Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), and John Deacon (bass guitar).

It now has Adam Lambert, Brian May, and Roger Taylor.

Three of Queen’s biggest hits were ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘We Are the Champions’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

Queen was put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Mercury Phoenix Trust is a charity set up after Freddie’s death to fight HIV and Aids.

Bohemian Rhapsody, a biographical film about Queen, and Freddie’s life, has just been released with actor Rami Malek playing Freddie.

Queen’s performance at Live Aid at Wembley Stadium in 1985 was later voted the greatest live show of all time by a large section of musicians
and critics.

Freddie Faves

He worked as a model at a live drawing class as he was desperate for a pair of Levi’s. He also worked as a Heathrow baggage handler before he joined Queen in 1970.

His first encounter with David Bowie was in 1969, when Bowie played a gig in Freddie’s art school canteen.

Following graduation, he sold second-hand clothes in Kensington Market with girlfriend Mary Austin.

He refused to have his bucktooth fixed, fearing it would affect his vocal ability.

He started writing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ when still in
college, and took five years to complete it.

He had female nicknames for himself and his friends. His was ‘Melina’, Brian May ‘Maggie’, Roger Taylor ‘Liz’, Elton John ‘Sharon’ and Rod Stewart ‘Phyllis’.

He changed his name to Freddie Mercury after the lyrics “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me” in ‘My Fairy King’.

His favourite colour was yellow.

His sexuality was a mystery even to this bandmates.

He has been voted the Greatest Rock Legend Of All Time, ahead of Elvis Presley, David Bowie, Jon Bon Jovi and Jimi Hendrix.

He was a witness when his sister Kashmira married Roger Cooke in 1972.

The couple have a son and daughter, Sam and Natalie.

Mary Austin was the love of his life. His wish was that she collect his ashes after his cremation and dispose of them at a private location never to be disclosed. To this day, it remains a secret.

His father, Bomi Bulsara, passed away in 2003, at 95, while his mother, Jer Bulsara, on November 13, 2016, at 94.

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