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Freddie Mercury: Rock 'N' Roll's Humble Showman

Freddie Mercury chose a stage name in perfect harmony with his voice.

The mercurial rock star and lead singer of Queen was born Farrokh Bulsara on the East African island of Zanzibar on Sept. 5, 1946. The Bulsaras were Parsi — a group with ties to ancient Persia. Both his parents were from India.

The film Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story portrays him as an artist who mastered his craft in the West, but came of age in the East. To hear it in Mercury's music, director Rudi Dolezal points to the song "Mustapha," from Queen's album Jazz.

"If you listen to a song like 'Mustapha,' you think this is very strange," says Dolezal. "What kind of cultural influences, where does it come from?"

"If you know that Freddie was born in Zanzibar, then went to India, then came to London, which was like a culture shock, then you can see that it was multiculturalism that was combined in Freddie Mercury and the way he used his voice," Dolezal says.

Mercury's voice was untrained and unpredictable, sometimes soaring from an earthy baritone to a wild but heavenly tenor.

"It's supersexy," says American Idol star Adam Lambert. He spent hours upon hours listening to Queen, trying to figure out how Mercury did it. And when he auditioned for Idol, he sang Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

"Freddie's voice has so much texture to it," Lambert says. "He kind of grabs at everything, he squeezes it."

The Mercurial Showman

Mercury's connection with his audiences, huge stadiums full of people, was intensely personal.

Jacky Smith, Queen's fan club manager, first met the singer in 1982 after responding to a want ad for the job. Smith always had a backstage pass to Queen's stadium shows, but she says she preferred to watch Mercury from the stands.

"The atmosphere was incredible out front," Smith remembers. "There were — I don't know — 120,000 people at the last show, which was Knebworth, and it was like you were still part of an intimate crowd because Freddie reached every single one of those people, even those right at the back."

Smith says one of Mercury's hallmarks were "Freddie's Day-ohs." He would call out to the audience, and they would respond. Mercury could go from directing huge crowds to singing a ballad at a baby grand, to high-stepping like a rock star and wielding a microphone that looked like it was just ripped from its base.

"He was completely over the top in the best possible way," says Lambert. "Music, most of the time, is about sexuality, whether you are straight, gay or in between. It's about love and sex. That's rock 'n' roll."

Lambert, as an openly gay performer, says he owes a debt to Mercury's flamboyance decades ago.

"There's definitely something missing in today's music scene," he says. "We don't have a lot of men on stage doing flamboyant or theatrical. We have a lot of female pop stars doing it, but where are the guys? Where's the classic pop-rock showman?"

Substance Before Style

As skilled as he was at performing, Dolezal says that Mercury was humble and always put his voice before his image. He cites one story as an example.

"We all know that Freddie Mercury had very strange teeth," Dolezal says, "and we would all ask ourselves, 'A guy who was that rich, why didn't he change his teeth?' He was very afraid that if he changed his teeth that his particular sound of [his voice] would go away. So he was more concerned with his voice than his looks, and I think that says a lot about the man."

In 1991, the humble showman with a quicksilver voice died of complications from AIDS.

"The spirit of Freddie Mercury is alive and well," says Lambert. "He made it rock."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This year on NPR, we're exploring "50 Great Voices," singers who've made their mark across the decades.

Today, the voice of Freddie Mercury. The late singer is best known as the front man for the '70s rock group Queen.

And NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji has our profile.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: Mercury is an element that stays fluid when the temperature dips low or soars high. Mercury is the Roman messenger god, wings on his sandals, moving quickly from place to place.

Freddie Mercury was the mercurial rock star who chose a stage name in perfect harmony with his voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Me Now")

Mr. FREDDIE MERCURY (Lead Singer, Queen): (Singing) Shooting star, I'm a leaping through the sky like a tiger, defying the laws of gravity. I'm a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva. I'm going to go, go, go, there's no stopping me.

MERAJI: He wasn't always the unstoppable British glam rocker Freddie Mercury.

(Soundbite of film, "Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story")

Ms. JER BULSARA: The name we selected for him is Farrokh. That was his birth name.

MERAJI: That's Mercury's mother, Jer Bulsara, from the film "Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story." Farrokh Bulsara was Parsi, a group with ties to ancient Persia. But both of his parents were from India. He was born on the East African island of Zanzibar, once a base for Persian Gulf traders.

(Soundbite of film, "Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story")

Unidentified Man: In this very hospital, the government Hospital Zanzibar, on the 5th of September 1946, Farrokh Bulsara first saw the dazzling light of the world.

MERAJI: The film was directed by Rudi Dolezal. He portrays Mercury as an artist who mastered his craft in the West, but came of age in the East.

(Soundbite of song, "Mustapha")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) Allah, Allah, Allah will pray for you. Hey. Mustapha, Mustapha, Mustapha Ibrahim, Mustapha, Mustapha, Mustapha Ibrahim...

Mr. RUDI DOLEZAL (Director, "Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story"): For example, if you listen to a song like "Mustapha," you think - I mean, this is very strange. I mean, what kind of cultural influences? Where does it come from? If you now know that Freddie was born in Zanzibar, then went to India, then came to London - which again, was like a culture shock - then you sort of can see it's like a little bit of multiculturalism that was sort of combined in Freddie Mercury and the way he used his voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Mustapha")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) Vontap ist ahiln avil ahiln adhim, Mustapha. Aleikum Salaam. Hey.

MERAJI: Freddie Mercury's voice was untrained and unpredictable. Mercurial: throttling from an earthy baritone to a wild but heavenly tenor.

Singer Adam Lambert spent hours upon hours listening to Queen, trying to figure out how Mercury did it, so he could do it for his "American Idol" audition.

(Soundbite of audition clip, "American Idol")

Mr. ADAM LAMBERT (Singer): (Singing) Mamma, just killed a man, put a gun against his head. Pulled my trigger...

Mr. LAMBERT: Freddy's voice, it has such a texture to it. He kind of like grabs at everything - he squeezes it.

MERAJI: A virtual unknown before "American Idol," Adam Lambert finished the season belting out "We Are the Champions," taking Mercury's place beside Queen guitarist Brian May. But Lambert says no one can sing it quite like Freddie.

(Soundbite of song, "We Are the Champions")

Mr. LAMBERT: During "We Are the Champions," there's that one part where he goes: (Singing) Of the world. And he holds that out for a really long time, and it kind of like echoes off into the distance - you know what I'm talking about?

(Soundbite of song, "We Are the Champions")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) ...of the world...

Mr. LAMBERT: Instead of just being like, open, with like (singing) world - and singing it through an open throat, he kind of goes like, worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrld -like he squeezes it, and it's like it gives it this like, emotional intensity.

MERAJI: That squeeze gave Freddie Mercury the ability to hold a strong, forceful note that also trembled with vulnerability - not quite vibrato, more like a shout on the verge of crumbling into a sob.

(Soundbite of song, "Bohemian Rhapsody")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) Mamma, ooh, ooh, didn't mean to make you cry. If I'm not back again this time tomorrow, carry on. Carry on, nothing really matters...

MERAJI: The mercurial showman, Freddie Mercury could go from singing a ballad at a baby grand, to high stepping like a rock star, wielding a microphone that looked like it was just ripped from its base.

Mr. LAMBERT: It was about the music, but he also really captivated the audience, cause he was so electric. That's why he's an icon, because you remembered what he did on stage. He had a presence. There's definitely something missing in today's music, in the scene. We don't have a lot of men on stage doing flamboyant or theatrical. We have a lot of female pop stars doing it. But where's that classic, rock-pop showman?

MERAJI: Freddie Mercury's stage performance was humorous, camp. But he was very serious about entertaining the fans.

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) Diduh di day-oh.

AUDIENCE: (Singing) Day-oh.

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) Diduh day-oh...

Ms. JACKY SMITH (Fan Club Manager, Queen): Freddy's day-ohs, they used to call them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: Cause he would do the day-oh and that kind of sound, and like the audience would do them straight back at him, perfectly every time. And he was always quite amazed by that.

MERAJI: Jacky Smith met Mercury in 1982, after responding to a want ad for a Queen fan club manager. Twenty-eight years later, she still has the job. Smith always had a backstage pass to Queen's stadium shows, but she preferred to watch Mercury from the stands.

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) Daaaaaaay-oh.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Ms. SMITH: The atmosphere was incredible out in front. There were - what, 120,000 people, I think, at the last show, which was Knebworth. And it was like you were still part of an intimate crowd, 'cause Freddie almost reached every single one of those people - even those right at the back.

(Soundbite of song, "Radio Gaga")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) All we hear is radio gaga, radio goo goo, radio gaga. All we hear is...

Mr. DOLEZAL: Two hundred-forty thousand hands in sync, doing: (singing) All we need is...

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. DOLEZAL: ...was like, oh my God.

MERAJI: Rudi Dolezal, director of "Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story," adds that off-stage, Mercury was humble and always put his voice before his ego.

Mr. DOLEZAL: I can tell you one thing about his voice, which I think is a unique story. We all know that Freddie Mercury had very strange teeth. And we would ask ourselves, well, a guy who is that rich, why didn't he change his teeth? And he was very afraid that if he would change his teeth, that his particular sound, of how his voice sounded, would go away.

So his voice was more important to him than his looks, and I think that says a lot about the man.

MERAJI: The humble showman from the East and the West, with a quicksilver voice. Freddie Mercury chose a stage name that represented who he was, and how he sang.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Me Now")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) Oh, I'm burning through the sky, 200 degrees, that's why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit...

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Me Now")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) I want to make a supersonic man out of you...

MONTAGNE: You can see video and hear songs by Freddie Mercury, at NPRMusic.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Stop Me Now")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) ...just give me a call. Don't stop me now, 'cause I'm having a good time. Don't stop me now. Yes, I'm having a good time. I don't want to stop at all... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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