The press release had gone out just 24 hours earlier and confirmed what music and media insiders had suspected for months: ”I have been tested HIV-positive and have AIDS,” said Freddie Mercury in a statement issued by his publicist in London. ”I hope that everyone will join me…in the fight against this terrible disease.”
But the singer’s five-year battle against the virus was already in its final throes, and on Nov. 24, 1991, the day after the announcement, Mercury died at the age of 45, the first major rock star to succumb to AIDS. His quiet final days — witnessed by only a few close friends — were in sharp contrast to a man who, at least on stage, often relished the spotlight.
As frontman for Queen, the bombastic British glitter-rock quartet, Mercury was an eager-to-please stage vaulter, someone capable of leading an entire stadium in a hand-clap chorus, as he did in the group’s famed 1985 Live Aid performance. The group’s grandiose anthems (”We Will Rock You,” ”Bohemian Rhapsody”) were perfectly served by Mercury’s over-the-top delivery. Yet despite a flamboyantly wink-wink approach to his own sexuality, Mercury was intensely guarded about his private life and always publicly ambiguous about his bisexuality.
There was little privacy to be had, though, by the early ’90s. Mercury’s gaunt physical condition had piqued the media’s curiosity. He and his band mates — guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor, and bassist John Deacon — emphatically denied Mercury’s health problems up until the end. ”He didn’t want to be looked at as an object of pity and curiosity, and he didn’t want circling vultures over his head,” says Taylor. ”We thought we’d announce that he had AIDS late in the day, when it was too late to really bother him.”
His decision not to become a spokesperson in the fight against AIDS irked some (”It’s easy to criticize when you’re not mortally ill,” says Taylor). Yet if there were any doubts about what Mercury’s legacy would be, they were erased the following spring when Queen’s surviving members organized a massive AIDS benefit concert in the singer’s name. Among others, David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, Annie Lennox, and George Michael performed Queen songs in front of 72,000 people at London’s Wembley Stadium. The show was a testament to the group’s cross-generation legion of fans, not to mention Mercury’s vocal virility. ”Backstage, everybody said, ‘God, Freddie actually did this, night after night, in this key?”’ says May. ”It was a reminder of what a great performer he was.”