Freddie Mercury: His Life in Pictures
In 1992, British comedian Rhys Thomas attended his first concert: an all-star tribute to late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury at London’s Wembley Stadium. “The atmosphere when everyone sang ‘We Are the Champions’ was unbelievable,” Thomas says. “I came away obsessed. I started buying all the Queen albums with my pocket money. Until I was 16 or 18, all I did was buy Queen videos and albums.”
As an adult, Thomas has produced several Queen concert DVDs, written the liner notes to the band’s reissued albums and directed the new documentary Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender. Most recently, he wrote the foreword for a book of photographs by the same name. Read on for 15 of the book’s best pictures of Freddie Mercury, along with Thomas’ commentary.
This photo was taken in Mercury’s flat, around the time the band was first coming together, circa 1970. “A lot of people forget that Freddie wrote a lot of songs on the guitar,” says Thomas. “You can see the shyness. In those days, he hadn’t found himself yet. Roger [Taylor, Queen’s drummer,] often said he used to sing like a young lamb. It’s quite nice to see that quiet side of him.”
Sheer Heart Attack
This photo dates to Queen’s third album, 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack. By this time Mercury had grown to fully love the spotlight – while his bandmates still “might have needed a bit more persuading” to step in front of a camera, says Thomas.
“The thing about that band, they were genuinely four equal members,” Thomas says. “Freddie always said, ‘I’m just the lead singer.’ As much as Queen is Freddie Mercury, it wouldn’t be Queen without [guitarist] Brian May or [drummer] Roger Taylor.”
Mercury became famous for his ballet-inspired stage outfits. “He’d started to get into the ballet,” says Thomas. “A lot of people found that ridiculous, but he got away with it. I admire that attitude – not caring.”
“This was Freddie’s late Seventies leather period,” says Thomas. “He’d moved to New York. He was finally coming out, and Queen was finally earning money. In Munich or New York, he could live his gay lifestyle without the prying eyes of the public. You could see him becoming more sexually charged, rubbing the mic on his crotch.”
“He grew the mustache in mid-1980,” says Thomas. “Fans at that point couldn’t stand it. They hated him with the mustache. They threw razors onstage.”
Into the Eighties
Changing musical trends pushed Mercury toward a solo career starting with 1985’s Mr. Bad Guy – though he continued recording albums with Queen.
According to Thomas, Mercury came out to Queen manager John Reid when they began working together in the mid-Seventies. “That was the first time he’d ever said that,” Thomas says. “He hadn’t told the band yet.”
Behind the Board
Queen work in the studio in one of many candid photos taken by Peter Hince, the longtime head of their road crew.
In the Spotlight
“He couldn’t wait to get onstage,” Thomas says of Mercury. “Like a greyhound at a racetrack.”
“That’s the greatest Queen moment of all time,” Thomas says of the band’s famous performance at London’s Live Aid charity concert in 1985. “Freddie was actually told he couldn’t sing – he had throat nodules. But he still went on. That was a turning point for Queen’s career. Freddie had gone solo, and their last album [1984’s The Works] didn’t sell well. The band was on a break, pretty much, and Bob Geldof said, ‘You’ve got to do this thing.’ They weren’t even on the bill yet when it sold out. They did a medley of five songs and blew everyone away.”
“They’ve all got a lot of charisma,” says Thomas of Queen’s members. “Freddie didn’t take himself too seriously.”
In 1987, Mercury saw Luciano Pavarotti sing. Also onstage that night was the Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballé. “He’d never heard of her, and he said, ‘That’s the greatest voice I’ve ever heard,'” says Thomas. The two singers cut an album together called Barcelona. Though the LP was not released in America at the time, the duo scored a hit in Europe with the title song. “She was his idol,” Thomas says, “as much as he loved Jimi Hendrix,John Lennon and Robert Plant.”
“People still want to hear that music,” says Thomas of Queen’s recent work with other singers including Adam Lambert and Paul Rodgers. “Whoever they’ve sung with is never a replacement, just a new voice.”
The Great Pretender
“This was one of Freddie’s favorite pictures, I think,” Thomas says of the image that graces the book’s cover. “It was also a joke – he didn’t think of himself as a king. Some people probably think he did, but he’s taking the piss.”