To mark the unveiling of a blue plaque honouring Freddie Mercury, and to celebrate what would have been his 70th birthday, we’re exploring his life, music and legacy.
From the Spice Islands to Middlesex
Freddie Mercury started life as Farrokh Bulsara on the island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania). He attended an English-style boarding school in India at the age of eight and by all accounts, excelled at sport and the arts. Farrokh studied music, became a talented pianist and soon adopted the name Freddie. He returned to Zanzibar in 1962 but due to political unrest, the Bulsara family left the island for England.
Freddie and his family found a home in Feltham, now part of the London Borough of Hounslow, where his blue plaque now stands. His sister – Kashmira Cooke – recalls the move well:
“Mum and Dad felt this would be a good place to start our new lives. Once Dad found a job, we moved into 22 Gladstone Avenue. The house had no central heating – only one coal fire in the main sitting room.
We were not familiar with coal fires and had to be shown how to light it. So the first thing Mum and Dad put in the house was a new central heating – which meant no more coal fire to clean and light it each morning for me and Freddie.
Freddie was always sketching for his college art work and sometimes asked me to model for him. He loved watching Tom & Jerry and used to collect cuttings of Andy Capp cartoons from the daily newspaper.”
Kashmira also remembers Freddie spending hours in the bathroom grooming his hair, tapping his fingers and humming, as if thinking of his next best song. Clearly, there was a rock star in the making.
Inspiration and ambition
The Bulsaras really couldn’t have arrived in England at a better time; British music was enjoying a golden era. Bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones dominated the airwaves and, of course, Beatlemania was still in full force. A young American by the name of Jimi Hendrix – who also has a blue plaque – arrived in the country in 1966. His innovative fusion of blues and experimental rock had a profound influence on Freddie.
Kashmira remembers Freddie playing Hendrix records “repeatedly”. It must not have been a huge surprise when Freddie entered the music scene himself. He played with several bands before being introduced to drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May, who invited Freddie to join their band Smile. Freddie joined the duo and christened them with a new name – Queen.
“I thought up the name ‘Queen’… It’s just a name, but it’s very regal obviously, and it sounds splendid…It’s a strong name, very universal and immediate” – Freddie Mercury
Around this time, Freddie adopted the surname of ‘Mercury’ and the trio met up with bassist John Deacon. The rest, as they say, is history.
The summit of rock ‘n’ roll
We could write a treatise on the success of Queen. The band has released a total of 18 number-one albums and 18 number-one singles. They progressed from a seventies hard rock group to one of the biggest stadium bands in the world. Their performance at Live Aid was nothing short of phenomenal and Bohemian Rhapsody – one of the most popular and yet enigmatic songs ever written – has topped the charts on two different occasions.
The quartet all brought something different to the band and all contributed to the writing. Freddie’s true talent was in his vocal abilities. He had a four-octave vocal range and delivered most songs as a tenor. Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé expressed her opinion that “the difference between Freddie and almost all the other rock stars was that he was selling the voice.”
The mesmerising and flamboyant persona for which he is famous was just one side of Freddie. Away from the stage, Freddie could be quite introverted and shy. He would remain passionate about his right to enjoy a private life up until the day he died.
Illness and legacy
When the AIDS epidemic began to take its toll in the mid-1980s, rumours persisted that Freddie had tested HIV-positive. He constantly denied them, although sadly he did later contract the disease. A committed professional, Freddie continued to write and perform music, returning to the studio in the autumn of 1990 to record the pointedly entitled Innuendo, which entered the UK charts at number one. True to his character, Freddie kept his illness secret from the public. On 23 November 1991, Queen Manager Jim Beach issued a public statement from Freddie:
I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me. My privacy has always been very special to me and I am famous for my lack of interviews. Please understand this policy will continue.
Freddie died just over 24 hours later at the age of 45. His legacy, however, is eternal and endearing. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has not, on at least one occasion, sung with joy and vigour to Bohemian Rhapsody or Don’t Stop Me Now with friends in a hazy nightclub at 2am. Freddie’s music, lyrics and voice are still beloved across the world. Thousands have been raised in Freddie’s memory in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Statues have been erected and new generations of musicians continually rate Freddie as their greatest influence.
The blue plaque unveiled at his family home in Feltham is now part of this remarkable legacy and we’re delighted that we can honour such an incredible entertainer, person and sprit in such a way.
I’ve taken my bows, my curtain calls. You’ve brought me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it, and I thank you all – Freddie Mercury.
Making Freddie Mercury’s blue plaque
English Heritage’s blue plaques have been hand-crafted by skilled artisans Frank and Sue Ashworth at their home and studio in Cornwall since 1984. We visited them to find out more about the process of making a blue plaque, and to ask their thoughts on commemorating Freddie Mercury.