As a child, Mercury listened to a considerable amount of Indian music, and one of his early influences was the Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, whom he had the opportunity to see live in India. After moving to England, Mercury became a fan of Aretha Franklin, The Who, Jim Croce, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and The Beatles. Another one of Mercury’s favourite performers was singer and actress Liza Minnelli. He once explained: ” One of my early inspirations came from Cabaret. I absolutely adore Liza Minnelli. The way she delivers her songs — the sheer energy.”
Although Mercury’s speaking voice naturally fell in the baritone range, he delivered most of his songs in the tenor range. 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.” As Queen’s career progressed, he would increasingly alter the highest notes of their songs when live, often harmonising with seconds, thirds or fifths instead. Mercury suffered from vocal fold nodules and claimed never to have had any formal vocal training.
Mercury wrote ten out of the seventeen songs on Queen’s Greatest Hits album: “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Seven Seas of Rhye”, “Killer Queen”, “Somebody to Love”, “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”, “We Are the Champions”, “Bicycle Race”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Play the Game”.
The most notable aspect of his songwriting involved the wide range of genres that he used, which included, among other styles, rockabilly, progressive rock, heavy metal and disco. As he explained in a 1986 interview, “I hate doing the same thing again and again and again. I like to see what’s happening now in music, film and theatre and incorporate all of those things.” Compared to many popular songwriters, Mercury also tended to write musically complex material. For example, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is acyclic in structure and comprises dozens of chords. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, on the other hand, contains only a few chords. Despite the fact that Mercury often wrote very intricate harmonies, he also claimed that he could barely read music. He wrote most of his songs on the piano and used a wide variety of different key signatures.
Mercury is 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.”
One of Mercury’s most notable performances with Queen took place at Live Aid in 1985, during which the entire stadium audience of 72,000 people clapped, sang, and swayed in unison. Queen’s performance at the event has since been voted by a group of music executives as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. The results were aired on a television program called “The World’s Greatest Gigs”. In reviewing Live Aid in 2005, one critic wrote, “Those who compile lists of Great Rock Frontmen and award the top spots to Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, etc. all are guilty of a terrible oversight. Freddie, as evidenced by his Dionysian Live Aid performance, was easily the most godlike of them all.”
Over the course of his career, Mercury performed an estimated 700 concerts in countries around the world with Queen. A notable aspect of Queen concerts was the large scale involved. He once explained, “We’re the Cecil B. DeMille of rock and roll, always wanting to do things bigger and better.” The band were the first ever to play South American stadiums, breaking worldwide records for concert attendance in the Morumbi Stadium in São Paulo in 1981. In 1986, Queen also played behind the Iron Curtain, when they performed to a crowd of 80,000 in Budapest. Mercury’s final live performance with Queen took place on 9 August 1986 at Knebworth Park in England and drew an attendance estimated as high as 300,000.
As a young boy in India, Mercury received formal piano training up to the age of nine. Later on, while living in London, he learned guitar. Much of the music he liked was guitar-oriented: his favourite artists at the time were The Who, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin. He was often self-deprecating about his own skills on both instruments and from the early 1980s onwards began extensively using guest keyboardists for both Queen and his solo career. Most notably, he enlisted Fred Mandel (an American musician who also worked for Pink Floyd, Elton John, and Supertramp) for his first solo project, and from 1985 onwards collaborated extensively with Mike Moran, leaving most of the keyboard work exclusively to him.
Mercury played the piano in many of Queen’s most popular songs, including “Killer Queen”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy”, “We Are the Champions” and “Don’t Stop Me Now”. He used concert grand pianos and, occasionally, other keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord. From 1980 onwards, he also made extensive use of synthesisers in the studio. Queen guitarist Brian May claims that Mercury was unimpressed with his own abilities at the piano and used the instrument less over time because he wanted to walk around onstage and entertain the audience. Although he wrote many lines for guitar, Mercury possessed only rudimentary skills on the instrument. Songs like “Ogre Battle” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” were composed on guitar; the latter famously featured Mercury playing acoustic guitar both on stage and in the studio.
In addition to his work with Queen, Mercury put out two solo albums and several singles. Although his solo work was not as commercially successful as most Queen albums, the two off-Queen albums and several of the singles debuted in the top 10 of the UK Album Charts. His first solo effort involved the contribution to the song Love Kills on the 1984 album and new soundtrack to the 1926 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The song, which was produced by Giorgio Moroder, debuted at the #10 position in the UK charts.
Mercury’s two full albums outside the band were Mr. Bad Guy (1985) and Barcelona (1988). The former is a pop-oriented album that emphasises disco and dance music. “Barcelona” was recorded with the opera singer Montserrat Caballé, whom he had long admired. Mr. Bad Guy debuted in the top ten of the UK Album Charts. In 1993, a remix of “Living on My Own”, a single from the album, reached the #1 position on the UK Singles Charts. The song also garnered Mercury a posthumous Ivor Novello Award. Allmusic critic Eduardo Rivadavia describes Mr. Bad Guy as “outstanding from start to finish” and expressed his view that Mercury “did a commendable job of stretching into uncharted territory.” In particular, the album is heavily synthesiser-driven in a way that is not characteristic of previous Queen albums.
Barcelona, recorded with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, combines elements of popular music and opera. Many critics were uncertain what to make of the album; one referred to it as “the most bizarre CD of the year.” Caballé, on the other hand, considered the album to have been one of the great successes of her career. The title song from the album debuted at the #8 position in the UK charts and was a hit in Spain, where the song received massive air play as the official hymn of the 1992 Summer Olympics (held in Barcelona one year after Mercury’s death). Ms. Caballé sang it live at the opening of the Olympics with Mercury’s part played in a screen.
In addition to the two solo albums, Mercury released several singles, including his own version of the hit The Great Pretender by The Platters, which debuted at #5 in the UK in 1987. In September 2006, a compilation album featuring Mercury’s solo work was released in the UK in honour of what would have been his sixtieth birthday. The album debuted in the top 10 of the UK Album Charts.
In 1981-1983, Mercury recorded several tracks with Michael Jackson, including a demo of State of Shock and There Must Be More to Life Than This; none of these collaborations were officially released, although bootleg recordings exist. Jackson went on to record the former song with Mick Jagger for The Jacksons, and Mercury included the solo version of the latter song on his Mr. Bad Guy album.