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Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

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Mercury, Freddie (1946-1991)  

For two decades, Freddie Mercury was the front man of one of the world's most popular rock groups, Queen. That he was able to maintain this status in spite of continued critical hostility, his flamboyant gender-bending , and questions about his sexuality is one of the more impressive accomplishments in the history of popular culture. He was also, arguably, the first Indian international rock star.

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara in the British colony of Zanzibar, East Africa (now part of Tanzania) on September 5, 1946. His parents were Parsees (Zoroastrian Indians of Persian descent), and his father was employed in the British civil service.

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From the age of six, he attended boarding school near Bombay, India, and showed a considerable aptitude for art and music. It was here that he was first called "Freddie" by his classmates.

In 1964, the Bulsara family moved to England, where Freddie completed his education, graduating in 1969 from the Ealing College of Art with a diploma in art and design. Around this time he adopted the surname Mercury, naming himself after the messenger of the gods.

After college, he sold second-hand clothes in trendy flea-markets, where he met future bandmate Roger Taylor, and joined Ibex, a local London group, as a vocalist and keyboard player.

In 1970, he formed a group with Taylor and Brian May (joined in 1971 by John Deacon) for which he chose the provocative name Queen. Even in its earliest days the band was notable for its stage performances, replete with light shows, flamboyant costumes, theatrics, and loudness.

The group's first album, Queen (1973), was greeted with critical hostility, as were its early live performances, a result, no doubt, of the implied queerness of its name and Mercury's effeminate, long-haired, heavily made-up stage persona.

The group's breakthrough came the following year with the album Queen II, and the first big hit single, "Killer Queen," a tribute to a fabulous individual "just like Marie Antoinette" who may or may not have been female.

Within a year Queen was one of the most popular bands in the world and began a series of world tours that drew crowds often in the hundreds of thousands. From 1975 until 1983, Queen enjoyed a long string of successful best-selling recordings.

These include "Bohemian Rhapsody" from the album A Night at the Opera (1975), "Somebody to Love" from A Day at the Races (1976), "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" from News of the World (1977), "Bicycle Races" and "Fat-Bottomed Girls" from Jazz (1978), "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust" from The Game (1979), and "Under Pressure" (with David Bowie, 1981).

In 1980, Mercury underwent a drastic image change that demonstrated his talent as a gender shape-shifter. Gone was the flaming, campy, "queeny" persona, replaced by a macho one, mustachioed, muscular, short-haired, and attired in an undershirt and tight-fitting jeans.

The new image was not without its own camp elements, which many fans took at face value. Mercury nevertheless continued to confound gender assumptions, performing with the rest of the band in complete drag in the video I Want to Break Free (1984).

By the mid-1980s, Queen's popularity had peaked, and Mercury pursued a number of solo interests. His remake of the Platters' oldie "The Great Pretender" (1987), which suggestively begged the ongoing question of who or what was the "real" Freddie Mercury, proved a success, as did his compelling if unlikely collaboration with Spanish opera diva Montserrat Caballé, which produced the international hit "Barcelona" (1987).

During his lifetime, Mercury made no definitive statements about his private life or sexuality, leaving the interpretation of his public image up to the individual imagination; accordingly, many fans were shocked when events made some sort of revelation inevitable.

In Queen's early years, Mercury lived with a woman, Mary Austin, with whom he subsequently maintained a significant friendship; in 1980, however, they separated, and he lived thereafter until his death with Jim Hutton, supposedly his gardener.

On November 23, 1991, Freddie Mercury released a statement confirming that he suffered from AIDS, as had long been rumored. He died the following day.

Since Mercury's death, many tributes, including an AIDS benefit concert and a ballet choreographed by Maurice Béjart, have honored him. In 2001, he was posthumously inducted as a member of Queen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has left a large and devoted following of fans.

Patricia Juliana Smith

     

 
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Freddie Mercury performing in Hannover, Germany in 1984. Photograph by Thomas Steffan.
  
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arts >> Overview:  Music and AIDS

A number of musical works in various genres have responded directly or indirectly to the AIDS crisis, generally focusing on expressions of grief, anger, or sympathy rather than on the personal and social consequences of the disease.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Popular

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons have had tremendous influence on popular music, though some musical genres have been more receptive to a homosexual presence than others.

arts >> Overview:  Rock Music

Although rock music has been closely associated with freedom of expression and rebelliousness, it has not been particularly welcoming to gay and lesbian performers.

arts >> Béjart, Maurice

Maurice Béjart was a significant presence in late twentieth-century dance as a result of his reinvigoration of classical ballet and his creation of palpably homoerotic dances that celebrate male beauty.

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David Bowie, also known as "The Dame," became a leading light in 1970s "glam rock," going on to enjoy international superstar status, but his relationship to queer culture is deeply contradictory.

arts >> Halford, Rob

Rob Halford--dubbed "The Metal God" by fans and critics--is one of the most talented vocalists in heavy metal music and one of the few out artists in the genre.

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Popular singer and songwriter George Michael, who confirmed his long-rumored homosexuality after an arrest for "lewd behavior" in 1998, has devoted much effort to AIDS charities since 1992.


    Bibliography
   

Evans, David, and David Minns. Freddie Mercury: The Real Life, the Truth Behind the Legend. London: Antaeus, 1997.

Freestone, Peter. Freddie Mercury: An Intimate Memoir by the Man Who Knew Him Best. New York: Music Sales, 2000.

Hodkinson, Mark. Queen: The Early Years. New York: Omnibus, 1997.

Hutton, Jim, with Tim Wapshott. Mercury and Me. New York: Boulevard Books, 1994.

Jones, Lesley-Ann. Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997.

Smith, Richard. "A Year in the Death of Freddie Mercury: Queen." Seduced and Abandoned: Essays on Gay Men and Popular Music. London: Cassell, 1995. 234-239.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Mercury, Freddie  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 27, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/mercury_f.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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