Freddie Mercury was born on Thursday, September 5th 1946 on the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania as Farrokh Bulsara. His parents, Bomi and Jer Bulsara, were both Parsee (Persian) from the Gujarat 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, Freddie and his family practiced the Zoroastrian religion. His father, Bomi, was a civil servant, working as a High Court cashier for the British Government. The Bulsara family had moved to Zanzibar in order for his father to continue his job at the British Colonial Office. He had one younger sister, Kashmira she 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. 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 School, Mumbai.
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. A friend from the time recalls that he had “an uncanny ability to listen to the radio and replay what he heard on piano.”
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.
Freddie was seventeen that time when fled from Zanzibar with his family in England. Initially they lived with relatives into a small house in Feltham, Middlesex, until they were able to find their own small, terraced house in the area. Freddie 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 (now West Thames College) in West London where he studied art.
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. Friends from the time remember him as a quiet and shy young man who showed a great deal of interest in music, also 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. He ultimately earned a Diploma in Art and Graphic Design at Ealing Art College, later using these skills to design the Queen crest. Mercury remained a British citizen for the rest of his life.
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.
His first steps in music
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.
Freddie first met Ibex on 13th August 1969. Such was his enthusiasm, that just ten days later, he’d learned the band’s set, brought in a few new songs, and had traveled to Bolton, Lancashire, for a gig with them – his debut public performance. The first date was 23rd August, and the occasion was one of Bolton’s regular afternoon ‘Bluesology’ sessions, held at the town’s Octagon Theatre. On the 25th August, Ibex appeared in the first ‘Bluesology pop-in’, an open-air event on the bandstand in Bolton’s Queen Park, and the proceedings were covered in Bolton’s ‘Evening News’. This even featured an uncredited photograph of Freddie.
While Freddie’s trip to Bolton with Ibex was photographed, Ibex’s appearance at the Sink was recorded. This recording was made by Geoff Higgins; as he says, tape is chronic quality, but it demonstrates Ibex’s love of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, as well as Freddie’s favourite of the day, Led Zeppelin.
Somewhere between 9th September and the end of October 1969 Ibex underwent a mini upheaval – at Freddie’s instigation. “I recall him canvassing the idea of calling the band Wreckage, but nobody was very enthusiastic,” reveals Mike Bersin. “Then he phoned me one night and said, ‘The others don’t mind. How do you feel?’ I said, ‘If they agree, then fine’. When I spoke to the others about it, Freddie had phoned them all up and had the same conversation.”
The name-change went hand-in-hand with the departure of drummer Mike ‘Miffer’ Smith. He was replaced by Richard Thompson, the former drummer in Brian May’s 1984. Despite flashes of true potential, the end of the 1960s also marked the end of Wreckage. Gigs were few and far between, and while John Taylor, Richard Thompson and Freddie remained in London, Mike Bersin was committed to his college course in Liverpool, as he promised to his parents. Inevitably, the band petered out.
Freddie started to search for another band for himself. He found Sour Milk Sea after seeing a “Vocalist Wanted” advert in the ‘Melody Maker’. The pomp and ceremony were impressive, and the band he was auditioning for knew he was the right man, especially when he got around to singing. Freddie had a great voice, with terrific range. But there was not only his voice that made his performances so attractive to people. “He knew how to front a show,” – Ken Testi recalls. “It was his way of expressing that side of his personality. Everything he did on stage later in Queen, he was doing with Ibex at his first gig.” It wasn’t anything that could be developed. It was his charisma, his pure natural gift that was in perfect harmony with his voice, his appearance, his delicate taste and his musicianship in the wide sense of the word. The fact that he realized it himself made him absolutely fascinating!
They offered him the job, and in late 1969 Freddie became the lead singer with Sour Milk Sea. The other members of the band were Chris Chesney on vocals and guitar, bass player Paul Milan, Jeremy ‘Rubber’ Gallop on rhythm guitar and Rob Tyrell on drums. They did a few rehearsals, and then a few gigs in Oxford (Chris’s home town).
Freddie and Chris, who was about seventeen at the time, became close friends and Chris moved into the house that Freddie shared with Smile in Ferry Road, Barnes. The other members of Sour Milk Sea were more than a little peeved Chris and Freddie spent so much time together, and felt rather insecure about the future of the band. After just two months Jeremy, who owned nearly all the equipment, derided to take it back and break up the band.
In April 1970 Tim Staffell decided to leave Smile, and Freddie join them as lead singer. Despite reservations from the other members, Freddie decided to change the name of the band and 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 about the same time, Mercury also changed his last name to Mercury.
The further biography of Freddie Mercury is to considerable degree a story of Queen.
In 1970 Freddie met Mary Austin. They lived together for seven years and remained good friends until his death. Although he had a very close girlfriend in Mary Austin for many years, Freddie Mercury had always been fairly open about his bisexuality. Beginning in the mid 1970’s, Mercury began a series of affairs with men, which ultimately resulted in the end of his relationship with Mary Austin. However, the two remained close friends through the years, and Mercury often referred to Austin as his only true friend. In a 1985 interview, Mercury said of Mary 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. I couldn’t fall in love with a man the same way as I have with Mary.”
In 1983, Mercury found a new lover named Jim Hutton. Hutton lived with Mercury for the last six years of his life, cared for him when he was ill, and was at his bedside when he died. According to Hutton, Mercury referred to him as his husband, and died wearing a wedding band that Hutton had given him.
Mercury possessed a notable overbite of his teeth that he had wanted to fix for many years. Early in his career, he commented that he wished to have work done, but regretted that he did not have time to do it.
Queen Age – The golden years
In 1971 John Deacon joined the band and Queen were complete. Freddie designed the band’s logo using their birth signs: two fairies for him (Virgo), two lions for Roger and John (Leo) and a crab for Brian (Cancer). Freddie was the author of the first Queen song that entered the British charts (Seven Seas Of Rhye), the first big hit (Killer Queen) and the most famous Queen song that was on the top of charts for 9 weeks (Bohemian Rhapsody). Freddie has always been considered the front-man of the band.
In 1975 Queen toured Japan. A crowd of screaming fans followed them everywhere. They were taken by surprise at the strength of their reception. Freddie fell in love with Japan and soon became a fanatical collector of Japanese art and antiquities.
On October 7th, 1979 Freddie performed with the Royal Ballet. He had never done any ballet before, but it was something he had always wanted to try. The songs he had chosen to perform to were Bohemian Rhapsody and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. Songs were played by the orchestra with Freddie doing live vocals. Freddie’s first dance was Bohemian Rhapsody, and he performed with skill in front of a packed house of enthusiastic balletomanes, who loved him, and he received a standing ovation for both his cameo performances.
In 1980 Freddie changed his image. He cut his hair and grew a moustache. His fans began to send him gifts of nail polish and razor blades.
At the end of 1982 Queen all agreed they wanted to take break from each other. They announced they wouldn’t be touring throughout 1983. Freddie had been thinking of making a solo album for some time, and at last he had time to do something about it. He booked studio time at Musicland in Munich and began work in early 1983. During that time he was introduced to Georgio Moroder, who was working on a re-release of the 1926 Fritz Lang silent science fiction film Metropolis. He wanted to put a contemporary musical score to the film. He asked Freddie to consider collaborating on a track for the film to which Freddie agreed. He had never before co-written with anyone outside Queen, and had not recorded anyone else’s compositions, apart from Larry Lurex. The result of this co-operation was the song Love Kills.
In 1983 Freddie attended a performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera at the Royal Opera House sometime in May. It was the first time when he saw Spanish opera diva Montserrat Caballé, and the sheer power and beauty of her voice mesmerized him.
On September 10, 1984 Freddie’s first solo single was released. It was the track he had co-written with Georgio Moroder for Metropolis, Love Kills.
The first single from his forthcoming solo album was I Was Born To Love You. It was released on April 9, 1985. Three weeks later Freddie’s first solo album Mr. Bad Guy was released on CBS Records.
July 13, 1985 was a special day for Queen and Freddie. It was the day of their memorable performance at Live Aid, a tremendous show at Wembley Stadium in front of 72,000 people. Live Aid was also broadcast to over one billion people worldwide. Queen secured their place in history, as every media person, journalist, fan and critic unanimously agreed: Queen stole the show.
The early part of 1987 was very quiet for Queen, so Freddie took the opportunity to go into Townhouse Studios to do some solo work. It resulted in a remake of the classic Platters’ song The Great Pretender. The single was released on February 23rd.
In March 1987 Freddie flew to Barcelona to meet Montserrat Caballé. He gave her a cassette with two or four songs. The Spanish opera diva liked these songs and even performed one of them at London’s Covent Garden. Freddie was delighted. In early April, Freddie began work on the album he agreed to record with Montserrat Caballé.
At the end of May the island of Ibiza staged a huge festival at the outrageous Ku Club. Freddie agreed to be a guest of honour and closed the event with Montserrat Caballé singing the song he had written for her and her home city, Barcelona.
On October 8th, 1988 Freddie and Montserrat appeared at the huge open air La Nit festival in Barcelona. They performed three tracks from their forthcoming album – How Can I Go On, The Golden Boy and Barcelona, accompanied by Mike Moran on piano. The long-awaited album, Barcelona, finally come out on October 10th.
October 8th was the last time Freddie Mercury performed on stage. At the time, he was terribly ill with AIDS, although he didn’t want people to know about it. He announced that fact the day before he died. Being ill he continued to compose and record songs and even took part in making videos.
According to his partner Jim Hutton, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after Easter of 1987. Around that time, Mercury 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 22 November 1991, Mercury called Queen’s manager Jim Beach over to his Kensington home, to discuss a public statement. The next day, 23 November, 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 me, 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, on 24 th November 1991 Freddie Mercury died peacefully at his home in London 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. Elton John, David Bowie, and the remaining members of Queen attended the funeral. He was cremated at Kensal Green Cemetery and the whereabouts of his ashes are unknown, although some believe them to have been dispersed into Lake Geneva.
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 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 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.
The remaining members of Queen (May, Taylor and Deacon) founded The Mercury Phoenix Trust and organised The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness.
On April 20th, 1992 a tribute concert in Freddie’s memory was held at Wembley Stadium, and many famous rock stars took part in it. But the best tribute to Freddie was the album Made In Heaven, released on November 6th, 1995 by the three remaining members of Queen. We can hear the last songs that Freddie composed and recorded.
A plaque was erected at the site of the family home in Feltham where Mercury and his family moved upon arriving in England in 1964.
A statue in Montreux, Switzerland (by sculptor Irena Sedlecka) has also been erected as a tribute to Mercury. It stands 3 metres high overlooking Lake Leman and was unveiled on 25 November 1996 by Freddie’s father and Montserrat Caballé.
Beginning in 2003, fans from around the world gather in Switzerland annually to pay tribute to the singer as part of the “Freddie Mercury Montreux Memorial Day” on the first weekend of September. A Royal Mail stamp was issued in honour of Mercury as part of the Millennium Stamp series.
On August 25, 2006, an organization calling itself the Islamic Mobilization and Propogation, or UAMSHO, petitioned the Zanzibar government’s culture ministry, demanding that a large-scale celebration of what would have been Freddie Mercury’s sixtieth birthday be canceled. UAMSHO had several complaints about the planned celebrations, including that Mercury was not a Muslim, had a homosexual lifestyle that was not in accordance with the laws of Islam, was not a true Zanzibari, and that ‘associating Mercury with Zanzibar degrades our island as a place of Islam.’ The planned celebration was canceled.