The legendary Freddie Mercury may have passed away three decades ago, but new information about his colorful life is still emerging all the time. His Queen bandmate Brian May, in particular, has often spoken in detail about what the iconic singer was really like behind closed doors. And in many interviews, the wild-haired guitarist has opened up about Mercury’s tragic final days.
Freddie Mercury was something of a contradiction. When he took to the stage he was one of the most flamboyant characters to ever grace the music industry. But away from the spotlight he was a surprisingly shy man who sometimes found it difficult to talk to people he wasn’t familiar with.
Mercury also very rarely allowed himself to be interviewed. On one of the few occasions that he did talk to the press he admitted that, “When I’m performing I’m an extrovert, yet inside I’m a completely different man.” Another time, he revealed how he’s able to act so differently in front of a crowd. According to Ian Chapman’s book Global Glam and Popular Music, Mercury said, “That’s something inbred, it’s a part of me. I will always walk around like a Persian popinjay.”
In fact, Mercury even discussed the disparity between his public and private persona in his last recorded interview. He told movie director friend Rudi Dolezal, “Most of the stuff I do is pretending – it’s like acting, you know? You go on stage and I pretend to be a macho-man and all that, and then in my videos, you go through all the different characters, and you’re pretending anyway.”
Off stage, Mercury felt more at ease with his beloved cats than other people. And he made this abundantly clear in the sleeve notes to his solo 1986 LP: Mr. Bad Guy. He wrote, “This album is dedicated to my cat Jerry – also Tom, Oscar, and Tiffany and all the cat lovers across the universe – screw everybody else!”
Cinemagoers got the chance to discover more about the man behind the mustache when Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody hit the big screen in 2018. Rami Malek gave an Oscar-winning performance as Mercury in a film which touched upon the singer’s bisexuality, personal relationships and HIV diagnosis alongside his rise to fame. But although the movie helped to shed further light on the rock icon, it couldn’t possibly paint the full picture of his close bond with his Queen bandmates.
Mercury first met drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May in the late 1960s when the pair were in a band called Smile. The singer, who was working at Heathrow Airport in London as a baggage handler at the time, was a fan of the group. And following the departure of bassist Tim Staffell, Mercury convinced Taylor and May to give him a shot as their new frontman.
In a 2011 interview with The Daily Telegraph, May explained why he and Taylor were so bowled over by Mercury. He said, “We took it on faith somehow. His personality was so strong. We didn’t see a great singer or musician first of all: he was very wild and unsophisticated. We just saw someone who had incredible belief and charisma, and we liked him.”
May continued, “I think the first time it struck me was in the studio, when Freddie was listening to his voice come back, going, ‘No, that won’t do’ – and just working and working. He was exceptional, and there was a very quick period, you could almost have blinked and missed it – where he learned to harness his technique.”
After changing their name to Queen, the group recruited John Deacon as their new bassist and began performing across London as a four-piece. In 1973 the band landed a deal with EMI Records and recorded their self-titled debut album. Despite critical acclaim, Queen failed to connect with the mainstream. But it wasn’t long before the quartet’s fortunes changed.
Just a year later Queen II peaked at number five in the U.K charts and spawned a Top 10 single: “Seven Seas of Rhye.” The band also began to make inroads in the United States – opening for Mott the Hoople for a run of shows and reaching the Billboard Top 50. Featuring the hit single “Killer Queen,” Sheer Heart Attack peaked at number two in the U.K and number 12 on the other side of the Atlantic.
But it was 1975’s hugely ambitious A Night at the Opera that truly elevated Queen into the big league. An epic blend of prog, theatrical rock and heavy metal, its lead single “Bohemian Rhapsody” became the group’s signature hit and enjoyed nine weeks at pole position in their homeland’s singles chart. It was also accompanied by a memorable conceptual promo credited with helping establish the music video as an art form.
A Day at the Races and News of the World continued their winning streak. But although audiences couldn’t get enough, the critics were often particularly snooty about their bombastic sound. Indeed, at a time when back-to-basics punk was all the rage, Queen’s epic tendencies were often dismissed as old hat.
However, while most punk bands struggled to sustain their success into the 1980s, Queen’s popularity only increased. They scored their first chart-topping album Stateside with The Game. And two of its singles – “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust” – also reached the summit of the US Hot 100.
And in their homeland the band scored their first number one in six years with 1981’s David Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure.” Unfortunately, Queen never hit such heights across the pond again. But the group remained a constant chart presence in the U.K. throughout the decade with albums such as Hot Space, The Works and A Kind of Magic.
Mercury also cemented his reputation as one of the all-time greatest frontmen with a captivating performance at Live Aid in 1985. The singer had 72,000 fans at Wembley Stadium and 1.9 billion viewers across the world in the palm of his hands throughout the well-received set. Drummer Taylor later described Mercury’s antics as the “shot in the arm” that Queen needed to revitalize their career.
The band’s British fan base also sent 1989’s The Miracle and 1991’s Innuendo all the way to the top of the chart. But tragically, the latter would prove to be the final album that Mercury completed. For just months after its release, the hugely popular singer passed away due to complications from AIDS.
Of course, this wasn’t the end of the Queen story. A year later the surviving members staged a tribute show at Wembley Stadium which featured the likes of Elton John, George Michael and Annie Lennox. “Bohemian Rhapsody” also became a hit a second time around – partly thanks to its memorable use in the first Wayne’s World movie.
Initially, the rest of Queen band members concentrated on their solo careers. May recorded his sophomore LP, Back to the Light – while Taylor joined forces with The Cross. But all three members returned to the studio in 1994 to put new music to vocals Mercury had recorded shortly before his untimely death. The result, Made in Heaven, hit the shelves a year later.
Things went quiet on the Queen front for several years until Taylor and May – but not a retired Deacon – made a controversial comeback in 2005. Fans were decidedly mixed on the decision to appoint former Free frontman Paul Rodgers as a replacement for Mercury. This new incarnation released the studio album The Cosmos Rocks in 2008, but Rodgers departed soon after.
After performing with Adam Lambert on the finale of the 2009 American Idol season, May and Taylor invited the talent show runner-up to become their new singer. This third incarnation of Queen embarked on a world tour in 2014 and has continued to perform sporadically ever since. Thankfully, the response to Lambert has been much more positive than that for his predecessor.
Queen’s music was then introduced to a whole new generation in 2018 thanks to the big screen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Rami Malek picked up an Academy Award for his portrayal of frontman Freddie Mercury. Furthermore, both May and Taylor contributed to its official soundtrack – a mixture of classic Queen songs and reworkings of their biggest hits.
Of course, Freddie Mercury has remained a constant pop culture presence in the 30 years since his death. His bandmates have also been more than happy to talk about the impact he made in the music world and the personal relationships they built with the star. And in an interview unearthed in 2020, May also discussed the heartbreak of watching the singer succumb to AIDS.
May told Rolling Stone writer Alan Light about the final sessions Mercury recorded for 1991’s Innuendo. He said, “There was a lot of joy, strangely enough, because Freddie was in a lot of pain, and he was being pursued by the press and stuff outside, so his life was pretty hard. But inside the studio, there was a sort of blanket around us, and he could be happy and enjoy what he liked doing best.”
“We had a lot of laughs, and a huge amount of fun because it was a safe place for him,” May continued. “Sometimes it would only last a couple of hours a day, because he would get very tired. But during that couple of hours, boy, would he give a lot.”
In the same interview, Roger Taylor also spoke about these emotional final sessions. The drummer said, “He knew time was limited, and his reserves were very limited, so we made the absolute best use of him that we could. There was a lot of unstated emotion, about it sort of being finalizing.”
May went on to reveal just how Mercury managed to make his contribution while he was in so much discomfort. The guitarist said, “When he couldn’t stand up, he used to prop himself up against a desk, at the mic here, down a vodka and do a blinding vocal.” According to May, Mercury would also insist, “I’ll sing it till I f***ing bleed.”
And there was one particular track that May thought would be impossible for anyone to nail – let alone someone in such desperately ill-health. He told White, “I remember doing the demo for ‘The Show Must Go On,’ with the guide vocal, some of it in falsetto because I couldn’t reach the top notes, and I said, ‘Fred, I don’t know if this is going to be possible to sing.’”
Of course, May soon learned once again that you should never underestimate a talent such as Mercury. The guitarist added, “And he went, ‘I’ll f***ing do it, darling,’ vodka down, and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal. He was in a very poor state physically by that time, really hardly able to walk, but he could still bring that passion into the vocal.”
May also spoke about these sessions with great fondness during an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2011. In fact, the guitarist revealed that this period was one of his happiest memories as a member of Queen. He said, “It was obvious that Freddie had not got long to live, but he just wanted life to be normal, and to make as much music as humanly possible.”
According to May, his terminally ill bandmate told the rest of Queen, “Keep writing for me, let’s keep recording stuff. Then you guys can finish it when I’m gone.” The guitarist was left in awe of how Mercury was dealing with his condition, adding, “He had an amazing acceptance himself.”
May added, “We were there with our very closest family, in this rather warm and cozy place where we could just create. And Freddie loved it. It was his favorite thing in the world, just to make music, to make unusual things happen. He wasn’t very well by that time, but if it came to it, he’d say, ‘Oh well, we need a vocal, don’t we? F*** it, I’ll do it.’”
Of course, there was a point when it did inevitably get too much for the then-fragile Mercury. While recording a track named “Mother’s Love,” the singer had to admit defeat when it came to the final verse. Mercury intended to revisit the studio another day to lay down the vocal. But sadly he never got the chance to do so.
For shortly after, Mercury found himself confined to his West Kensington home named One Garden Lodge. His close friend and ex-lover Mary Austin helped to look after him during his final weeks, as did his partner Jim Hutton and personal assistant Peter Freestone. Mercury only went public with his AIDS diagnosis the day before he succumbed to the illness.
And May revealed in his interview with The Daily Telegraph that he initially found it difficult to cope with Mercury’s passing. He said, “When Freddie died, it was like losing a family member, and we all handled it in different ways. For a time, I really wanted to escape from Queen; I didn’t want to know about it. I think that was my grieving process.”
However, May now has nothing but fond memories of the times he shared together with the man widely regarded as one of the finest rock vocalists of all time. He added, “But I’m very proud of what we did together. My God, we really did go on some interesting excursions! Mostly, it makes me feel good.”
May also was keen to point out that the public perception of Mercury was often wide of the mark. He said, “Freddie wasn’t greedy for power. People have this image of him as a diva who insisted on getting his own way, but he was the mediator, the guy who could make sense out of opposite ends of arguments. He was very good at focusing on the important issues.”
Although several decades have passed since Mercury’s tragic death, May admits that the hugely talented singer is never far from his mind. He told The Daily Telegraph, “I think about Freddie all the time, really. There certainly isn’t a day where I don’t have some sort of thought about him.”
May added, “I have been to the extremes, where I have found it very painful, and I couldn’t talk about him. But I don’t feel that anymore. He’s part of our lives, still, in a very real way. I’m not saying there aren’t moments when I don’t get tearful – because there are – but most of the time it’s a joy.”
And May is still keen to extend Queen’s legacy for as long as he possibly can. Alongside Lambert and Taylor, he toured South Korea and Japan in early 2020 before heading Down Under. And during their appearance at the Fire Fight Australia charity show, Queen reprised their historic set at Live Aid for the first time since the iconic event itself.