Happy birthday Farrokh Bulsara

62 years ago Farrokh Bulsara was born in Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa, which is now part of Tanzania, but was then a British colony. His parents were Parsis, citizens of India of Iranian origin and practitioners of the Zoroastrian religion. As young Farrokh played in the island sands and balmy breezes, it’s unlikely he would have foreseen the life ahead of him. It’s doubtful that he could have foreseen that his creations would move people attending athletic events in vast stadiums throughout the world to leap to their feet and chant. He probably didn’t even know there was a National Football League a world away in the United States, where his words would become a part of every game.

When he was of age to start his education, Farrokh’s parents sent him back to India, where he attended a boarding school near Bombay. There he didn’t particularly distinguish himself, but he did take piano lessons and formed a band that played at school functions. After completing his education in India, he moved back to Zanzibar to live with his parents. During the revolution in 1964, the Bulsara family fled Zanzibar for London, where Farrokh began his college education. After a few stops and starts, he ultimately obtained a degree in Art and Graphic Design from a small technical college.

After graduation Bulsara took on a series of jobs including selling second-hand clothing and working in the baggage area of Heathrow airport. As he drifted from job to job, none of which involved art or graphic design, he formed or joined a few bands, all of which failed. Despite his dead end jobs, his keen interest and focus on music kept him inspired and constantly on the prowl for a band to join. In 1970 he teamed up with the members of a failed band called Smile to form yet another band. Farrokh overcame the resistance of other band members and named the new group Queen, then changed his own name to Freddie Mercury and launched himself into the pantheon of Rock immortals.

Although untrained as a singer, Freddie Mercury was endowed with a spectacular 3.5-4 octave range voice. As a consequence, you don’t see many groups out now doing Queen music, at least not as Freddie did it. There are countless Beatles imitators out there because though the Beatles were clever songwriters, they didn’t have particularly great voices. Their sound is easy to reproduce with fairly ordinary singers – even John Lennon’s sort of whiny voice. Elvis impersonators are a dime a dozen for the same reason. And all of them sound pretty much just like the King. Not so with Freddie. Few can match his vocal range.

Here is Freddie singing a song he wrote called Killer Queen. Ignore the camp (it was all part of Queen’s early shtick) and focus on the range of his voice and the ease with which he hits all the right notes.

Not long after Luciano Pavarotti died I posted a video of a pop singer compared to a trained opera singer at the height of his powers. There was really no comparison. Freddie, however, could hold his own. Here he is in concert with Montserrat Caballé.

As MD pointed out after having watched this video, it’s apparent that Freddie wasn’t formally trained because he sings from his throat. Which is one of the reasons he developed vocal nodules as he aged.

Not only was Mercury a phenomenal singing talent, he was no slouch as a songwriter. Most of the greatest Queen hits were penned by Freddie. Queen and Freddie pioneered the use of video to promote their music and were really the first to perform stadium rock. Freddie wrote two of the songs that are staples at athletic events throughout the world today: We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions. Here he is performing these songs before God only knows how many people Live Aid.

In what could have been Mercury’s theme song about his own life of excess and flaming out early, here is the group performing another Freddie-written song, Don’t Stop Me Now.

You can better understand the quality of Freddie’s voice when you see someone else with an excellent voice try to duplicate it as this guy does on American Idol. Notice how he can’t hit the high notes at the end and so he bails out and drops them down an octave or two. Link here. For some reason I couldn’t get this YouTube to embed.

Now here is Freddie performing Bohemian Rhapsody, a song he wrote considered by many to be the greatest rock song ever written. Listening to this, you can see that Queen was truly a choral group, which is why MD likes them so much. (Every time I hear the line in this song that goes “Spare him his life from this monstrosity” I always think of all the PBs (poor bast**ds) who get frightened by their misinformed doctors into going on a lifetime of statin drugs unnecessarily.)

MD is afraid that you all will think I have a man crush on Freddie Mercury. I really don’t, but I am mesmerized by the range and quality of his voice. And by his songwriting ability. It’s almost unimaginable that he was able to do the musical things he did without any formal voice or musical training other than the same piano lessons countless others have taken in childhood and ultimately forgotten.

Here is one more.

I hope you all have appreciated this little break from nutrition (I needed it after that last post), and I hope you enjoyed these videos as much as I did tracking them down and watching them myself.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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37 thoughts on “Happy birthday Farrokh Bulsara

  1. Thank you for this, I was just watching the 86 Wembley concert on VHI a few days ago and thought how much I miss this guy. What a voice and what a showman. What a loss!
    I love when you ramble off on a tangent, haha.

    I’m glad someone likes it when I go off on a tangent. It seems to me that most people whine about it.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  2. what a gem of a post! i was/am a huge freddie fan and had the pleasure of seeing queen in concert many times. i love the tunes you mentioned above plus “bicycle”, “crazy little thing called love”, “under pressure” and countless others. aids has claimed many many stars but few shined as bright as freddy’s. thanks for this post, it warmed my heart!

    I’m jealous that you saw Freddie in concert. For him, I would have endured all that I hate about concerts. Unfortunately, I didn’t even know he existed until a few months ago. I missed that whole part of the rock music experience because I was so eaten up by classical music at the time that that’s all I listened to or cared about.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  3. Type in The World’s Greatest Rock gigs: Queen at Live Aid to Youtube and please have a ganders at this…quite quite superb and spine tingling esp. if one saw it live.

    Also Jim Beach was like a Peter Grant-type manager.
    Roger Taylor has or had a house in the Chiddingfold area and if you saw the area then you realize how much cash they made and cos of Beach hung onto it.

  4. If you like Freddie and Queen, check out British pop singer Mika, who has a similar rock/opera style. His album “Life in Cartoon Motion” includes a nod to Freddie in the song “Grace Kelly”. While it was a hit, grumpy types dissed Mika for his optimistic songs and over the top melodies. But, Queen guitarist Brian May weighed in favor of Mika. Those who like tightly-crafted positive pop songs and huge octave range should check out Mika.

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll give him a look.

  5. As an opera/concert singer, I have always been thrilled with Freddie Mercury. What annoys my friends even more, is that whatever his sexual orientation, I found him dominant and masculine and I’ve always been crazy about his singing.

    It’s interesting that Wikipedia lists him as a tenor/baritone. There aren’t many classically-trained vocalists who can fit into more than one category.

  6. Great post, which reminds me of a question I’d been intending on asking for a while to the skeptical scientist that you are. What’s your stance on HIV/AIDS, if you have any and want to share it?

    Many contrarian voices, the most prominent probably being Peter Duesberg, deny the causal relationship between the HIV virus and AIDS. The history of AIDS research seems to closely parallel that of nutrition, both being epidemics of controversial origins in which the State takes great interest.

    Duesberg’s theory (I might be off on this having no formal scientific background at all) is that AIDS in the Western world is mostly caused by a lifetime of exposure to toxic substances, mainly through drug abuse. The immune system is thus incapacitated by this toxic overload. The presence of HIV would be a correlation without causation. Freddie’s example would seem to agree with this hypothesis.

    http://www.mindfully.org/Health/2006/AIDS-Medical-Corruption1mar06.htm is a very good read on the topic for anyone interested.

    I have read all of Duesberg’s stuff, including his large book titled Inventing the AIDS Virus, which contained the best description of how the peer-review process in vetting medical papers really works. I’m not a virologist, so I can’t really comment on the science, but the fact that Duesberg was the world’s expert on retroviruses (HIV is a retrovirus) has got to count for something. And it’s not just Duesberg and a bunch of kooks who believe his theory. I posted on this topic a couple of years ago and linked to a list of reputable scientists, including a few Nobel laureates, who do agree with Duesberg

    Just one of the common findings in AIDS should give those believing it’s caused by the HIV pause. If a person gets tuburculosis or measles or mumps or strep or cellulitis or any other kind of infection disease in the United States the signs and symptoms are the same as those found in a person having the same infection in Africa. People with AIDS in the United States (or the Western world) typically get Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (which is what Freddie died from) whereas those in Africa with AIDS usually die from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a type of cancer. No other infectious disease does this. Why should HIV act like no other infectious disease that’s ever been discovered?

    Also, in reading a medical paper by George Mann about autopsy findings in the Masai showing that although the Masai had extensive atherosclerosis they didn’t have heart disease. I came across an interesting sentence in this paper. The authors were describing the process they used to select autopsy material suitable for their purposes, which was to select only those who were killed prematurely by accident of acute illness, and only those known to have been living in a tribal setting, i.e., not living or working in a city. Here is the interesting line: “They were instructed not to collect tissue from subjects who died with wasting disease.” What makes this interesting is that this material was collected in the mid 1960s, long before AIDS was even present. And the fact that it was mentioned as it was would seem to indicate that ‘wasting disease’ was fairly common, otherwise why the need to mention that collection of tissues from its victims was avoided? It appears that an AIDS-like syndrome has been around in Africa for a long time before the HIV was ever encountered.

  7. You grew up in the sixties and seventies and you were’nt into rock music? Really? really??? what a nerd, mahaha!

    btw, Queen has reformed with Paul Rodger in Freddy’s spot. He’s the singer from Free, Bad Company, and some other bands I forget. I havent heard them yet, so I couldn’t tell you if he pulls it off. He’s a good singer, but nobody compares to Freddy. Not even Robert Plant (that’s the singer from a very successful band called Led Zepplin, nerd boy.) – he was more of a screamer than a singer, imho.

    I’m not exactly a nerd – I’m just out of phase. When everyone else was heavily into the Beatles, I was into Elvis. When I got past Elvis, I got hooked on Hank Williams, Sr. (that’s SR not JR) and listening to ol’ Hank got me started on Country music, which I can barely tolerate now. Once I finally got into the Beatles, they no longer existed as a band – but they were all still alive. Then I got hooked on classical music, which I’ve pretty much been eaten up with since. Occasionally I stumble into something like Queen, and I feel like I’ve made this great discovery that no one else knows about. In fact, I called our oldest kid, the big-time lawyer in Dallas, and told him that I had gotten immersed in this great band called Queen that I thought he might enjoy. His response: “Dad, the first album I ever bought on my own with my own money was a Queen album. I’m familiar with Queen.” Who woulda thunk it. And now he’s heavily into CW. As they say in the South, It just don’t make no sense.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  8. Ah, yes, and don’t you just love “Fat Bottom Girls”!

    I’m 53 years old and just discovered Queen in the past couple years. My husband thinks I’m nuts, especially when it comes on the car radio and I crank up the volume and start head-banging along to the beat. Love it!

  9. My mother and I were driving along in my car some 25 years ago, when “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” came on the radio. She was soon tapping her feet and humming along. When it was done, I was giving her kind of a strange look, and she asked why. I told her it was Queen, whom she had already decided she didn’t like, based on some of their harder stuff. After that, she wasn’t so critical.

    I’m currently 47 years old, and have loved Queen and Freddie since I first heard them. My now 82 year old mother still likes Queen, at least the stuff she claims has a melody, :), and my 15, 18 and 20 year old children all crank the radio in the car when any of their stuff comes on.

    Why is it such talent is so often accompanied by such self-destructive impulses?

    Thanks for the “break”. It’s a keeper.

    Brad

  10. Dr. Mike – you have my permission (not that you need it) to ramble off on tangents whenever you feel like it! That was the most enjoyable and enlightening post I’ve read in long time. Queen was in an era of rock that I despised and shifted my listening toward Country; I guess I really should have stuck around. I LOVE your blog tremendously – on or off topic! Thanks!!!

    Thank you for the kind words. Maybe I’ll ramble off a little more often.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  11. Hi Dr Eades,
    I’ve been extremely busy these last couple of days, so haven’t been able to do the research this note requires.
    If you want to know where Freddie Mercury comes from, look no further than “Filmi”: the hit songs from Bollywood films, the pop music he grew up with in Bombay. Here are some examples from the Academy Award nominated film “Lagaan”.
    1. Radha Kaise Na Jale:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmC86-uX7JE
    (The lady singing — not the dancer miming — is Asha Bhosle. She has recorded a phenomenal 12,000 hits!)
    2. O Mitwa:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwLXaJ-JDtg&NR=1
    (I believe the Playback Singer here is Sunil Dutt, but I could be wrong. Note the ease with which the male singer covers a couple of octaves without changing register!)
    3. Dola Re Dola from the movie Devdas
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiIL-w_jD8o
    (This time the singer is Lata Mangeshka, Asha’s sister. LM has recorded a mere 30,000 songs, and holds the record for the most records ever sold by a singer. She’s more soprano, while AB is more mezzo. Note the huge range, all evenly produced.)
    4. Dilbar Dilbar (Sweetheart, Sweetheart).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDb58heRzpo
    (Lataji again??? Filmed in exotic Huston. About 2 and a half octaves, easily covered. The dancers are nice to watch, as well. Check out the water flowing upwards!)
    Same song with gratuitously hilarious and offensive subtitles (not work suitable):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLpROhIg9eA

    Finally, a curiosity: Asha Bhosle with her smash hit with Australian Cricketing Legend Brett Lee! Watch if you dare!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48eHkZfnGug

    Bollywood is now very popular here in Australia. Many songs filmed here as well. This week, my wife’s school competed in the Rock Challenge. (She did the sets.)
    http://www.rockchallenge.com.au/index.php
    They came equal 3rd (out of 100’s of schools competing in their division). And the inspiration?
    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=817842&id=572393852&l=9a0b5

    Finally, Asha Bhosle has recorded an amazingly beautiful album with the Kronus Quartet. They performed this stuff in concert as well at the Sydney Opera House a few months ago. Can’t find any on YouTube, but it’s stunning, just beautiful. Asha also won the Freddie Mercury Award. Plus she’s the first Indian singer to win a Grammy. So we come the full circle!

    Best Regards,
    Michael Richards

    Hey Michael–

    Thanks for all the links. I went through them. You’re right, the singers do have pretty phenomenal voices, but their music isn’t really my cup of tea. I’ll probably ‘discover’ Bollywood 15 years from now when everyone else has moved on to something else.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  12. Great post, thanks for the memories! He was one of the all time greatest rock singers! It was funny, I didn’t know his real name, and when I started to read the post the first thing that popped into my mind was, hey Freddy Mercury was born in Zanzibar too!

    I was in college in the late ’70s and Queen music regularly blasted through the dorm at all hours. Loved it. I have a lot of their music in my classic rock playlist on my iPod. Still love it years later.

    Also, if you saw the movie “Wayne’s World” you’ll remember “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a prominent part of the movie. Here’s a youtube of it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTheG–2NE0

    Thanks for the YouTube. I had heard about this part of the movie from a zillion people, but I have never seen the movie. The segment is great.

  13. Paul Rogers was also the lead singer of the Firm..Jimm Page, Chris Slade and Tony Franklin and also the awful The Law..he and Kenny Jones from Le Who and le Small Faces.

  14. There are no impersonators? I tend to disagree, when I was in Ireland on the Millennium eve, I went with a friend to a night club in Bir (small town with an interesting past (housed for nearly 100 years the biggest telescope in the world and was the first town in Europe to be electrified) in the middle of the country). There was a live performing band in that club, that played all the Queen classics nearly perfectly, while it is true that the singer could not achieve the highest notes of Freddy Mercury the performance was really, really top class. The singer even looked like him (a bit shorter and more muscular ) and the band was perfect. I’ve seen worse performers on paid concerts.

    You don’t by chance remember the name of the group, do you? I didn’t say no one does Queen, I just said that Freddie impersonaters were not thick on the ground.

  15. Ha! “A Night at the Opera” wasn’t the first album I bought with my own money (that was Pink Floyd’s DSotM) but it was the second… followed by Yes “Yessongs” and then an album of Jacqueline Du Pre on cello featuring the Saint-Seans concerto. Those were the days! Thanks for the post.

    Lark

    Speaking of Jacqueline du Pre, I’ve got a CD of her performing the Elgar concerto for cello. What a magnificent, beautifully haunting piece!

  16. Thanks for this, it’s a nice diversion and some new info for me. I knew he was Indian but I didn’t know his name. My wife and I are fans of his and love seeing the taped concerts when they’re on TV. I used to listen to that album on 8 track tape when I was in college. I nearly drove my friend crazy playing that tape every single day on our way to CCNY. It was his car AND it was his tape. I love the song “You’re my Best Friend.”

    Actually, he was a citizen of India, but he was of Iranian heritage.

  17. Actually…just to give credit where it’s due, Brian May, who just got his PhD, wrote ‘We Will Rock You’.

    You are correct. My mistake. Brian May just got his Ph.D. in astrophysics, so he’s no dummy. Not a bad rock guitarist, either.

  18. If you are looking for good Freddie impersonators/Queen tribute bands you should check out:

    – Gary Mullen & The Works ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKu4EOAMjc4 ). His Freddie mannerisms are spot on and so is the voice even though he’s a little scrawny. He definitely needs more protein in his diet…
    – Queen for a Day ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGKfbj5S83I ) for the pre-moustache stadium era of Freddie (around 79). The singer’s name is Gregory Finsley. No protein shortage here…
    Those two really nail the voice!
    – Queen Nation ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_p09LAuvWs ). Good singer (does an even better Robert Plant with Led Zepplica) even though there’s no vocal resemblance to Freddie. I like the left handed Brian May though. Correct hair, attire & guitar go a long way.

    Here’s two treats:
    -Gregory Finsley of Queen for a Day but with Queen Nation as his backing band
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCVjPhnUkRM
    -Queen Nation with special guest David Bowie (sort of…)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTn0_VPBKCo

    There’s more Queen tribute bands out there. YouTube is full of them…

    Just for laughs check out this guy. He even goes so far as to wear a fake overbite!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX__j4xQEoI
    Also funny is the far east fraction:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdHLcOrIZz8
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nE9f3eC4FzM

    Some of these guys are pretty good. Now let them write the songs, and I’ll really be impressed. Thanks for the links. I had fun going through them.

  19. Hi Doc,

    Sorry Bolly’s not your cup of chai. And FM obviously moved right away from the idiom of Bollywood. But, you must remember that the Parsis are possibly the most prominent community of Bombay (now Mumbai), and my point was he must have been immersed in these marvelous singing voices, even in Tanzania. Different songs (though they sound much the same to us) but still the same singers: Asha and Latta and the rest.

    But he also was gifted as well. Look at his huge chest and his very high cheekbones, which as Joan Sutherland pointed out, meant that he had large resonating cavities in his sinuses.
    But then, if you listen to the average Indian humming, they sing much better than we do because of the exposure from childhood to such great singing on the radio.

    Enjoy the melodies of India — in 15 years’ time!

    Michael

    Interesting. Thanks for the enlightenment. I’ll take all I can get where music comes along.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  20. Mike,

    I really agree with your point about the difference between performers and singer-songwriters. My favorites are the singer songwriters. It’s just such a rare talent to do both, as Freddy had. Some that come to mind are Paul Simon, Shawn Colvin, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot.

    But I have to say that my all time favorite musician, who is a singer-songwriter, is Joni Mitchell. She is just so talented, almost to a freaky point like Freddy. She is known for inventing her own guitar tunings to the point that others couldn’t follow. I remember a few years back when Scientific American had an article about the various forms of genius, they had a picture of Joni as the example of musical genius.

    Just a quick story about Joni. I was so taken by her music when I was in college in the late ’70s ( I think it was ’78) that I organized my friends to drive up with me from Seattle to Vancouver BC to see her live in concert. This was the show where she appeared with Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius, who would become great men of jazz.

    So here we are, my friends and I, packed into my junker station wagon, driving to Vancouver from Seattle. We get to Vancouver proper, pull up to a red light next to a big limousine, and lo and behold Joni Mitchell is in the limo! We all start waving at her and she was very nice and waved back with enthusiasm! My brush with greatness! I’ll never forget that.

    One of my all time favorite Joni Mitchell songs is “River”. So melancholy and so sweet and pure and heartfelt and great vocal range. Here’s a youtube of it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVwo9IQMWM0

    Thanks for the link. I watched it and roamed through a few other Joni Mitchell videos. Pretty remarkable.

  21. After Freddy passed guitarist Brian May put out a solo album called “Back to the Light.” The Brian May Band toured a bunch of small clubs here in the US and I was lucky to see him in Providence, RI. They played a few songs from “Back to the Light” but most of the concert was Queen hard rock songs. I expected Brian May’s vocals to be weak but I was VERY impressed as he belted them out. As far as I am concerned that is the closest I am ever going to get to seeing Queen and I will die happy for it. They were, hands down, the best live band anyone has ever seen. Live Aid proves it but try to find footage of Queen Live in Rio. They were the headline act closing the one of Rio’s famous festivals/carnivals. I don’t know if they still hold the “biggest ever” record for that show but I believe there was 350,000 people there. Freddy was in Heaven.

  22. Ignore the schtick?! That is as great as the songs themselves, imo! Man, I often forget how much I love Freddy Mercury… I have a big-time man crush, what a man he was indeed. I sent this post to a bunch of people who care little to none about how much carbage they eat, and I am sure they’ll all love it. Great post, moochas gracious!

    Glad you enjoyed it.

    Cheers–

    MRE

  23. Hi Dr. Mike,

    If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your hi-fi system? I’m guessing not an iPod and earbuds. I can see you as an audio aficionado.

    Guy

    You missed the boat on this one. I love good music, and I love to listen to a great sound system. But, I don’t think we own one. And the one we have, I don’t even know how to turn on. I’m serious. I have to get MD to turn the thing on, put the CDs in, etc. I’m clueless. Same with the TV (we have a complicated system). If there happens to be something I want to watch, she has to set it up. If I want to watch something that comes on while she’s gone, I have to get her to turn the TV on before she leaves and set it to the correct channel. When it’s time to watch whatever I want to watch, I drag out of my study and go down and watch it. It’s pitiful.

  24. Count me among those who enjoyed your digression. Freddie Mercury was, without even a near-rival, the greatest rock-and-roll front man in history. The voice was peerless, and he commanded a stage like nobody else.

  25. I am so glad you posted this. I am a music teacher and I am trying to get my students to become as appreciative of the rockers of yore, as they are of Beethoven and Debussy. I never really listened to much of Queen, but I can tell you that their music was theatrical to say the least ( I loved the bow that Freddie took in the “We Will Rock You” video ). I always valued Freddie Mercury’s voice. The elementary band that i teach played ” We Will Rock You” for their Spring concert last year. When I began reading your post I thought to myself ” Hmmm, he looks just like Freddie Mercury .

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  26. Freddie Mercury was immensely talented. What made Queen stand out was their rather unique sounding vocal harmonies. This, coupled with Brian May’s rich guitar tone, made them rock legends. Their musical contribution to the 1980’s Flash Gordon, made the movie. It wouldn’t have been the same without them. Unfortunately, Mercury chose to live a sexually degenerate lifestyle that resulted in his untimely death. He could have given us many more years of great music.

  27. thank you for sharing and remembering The Most remarkable man who ever lived , there truly will never be anyone like Farrohk Bulsara /Freddie Mercury I;ll never forget him ever Freddie If you can hear me ” I still Love you “” My Bijou Keepin yor memorie alive