A tribute to Freddy Mercury -- We recall the life of Queen's lead singer

A tribute to Freddy Mercury

Mercury was the Roman god of commerce and eloquence. Graphic artist Frederick Bulsara knew that 20 years ago when he decided to recast his identity, and as Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the British rock band Queen, he lived up to the name. Late last month, when the flamboyant 45-year-old died of AIDS complications less than a day after announcing he was suffering from the virus, he proved that he was mercurial to the end.

From their first, self-titled album in 1973, Queen — Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor — cleverly drew upon prevailing rock & roll trends, from the music-hall tradition beloved by the Beatles, the Kinks, and every true Brit, to the theatricality of David Bowie and the bash and boom of Led Zeppelin. Their signature style — which combined the extravagance of glam rock with heavy metal’s melodrama — reached its apogee in 1975 with ”Bohemian Rhapsody.” In that tour de force, Mercury worked out his obsessions with opera over the course of six minutes and several octaves — a feat never equaled by the glass-shattering vocalists who appeared in his wake.

Queen pioneered the complex layering of background vocals and, guided by Mercury’s unerring visual flair, set the standard for video, which helped them land 25 hits on the U.S. charts, including ”Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and four platinum albums, including News of the World and The Game.

By the dawn of the ’80s, however, Mercury’s onstage preening seemed less like campy good fun than rock excess and poor taste. The band, like the athletic teams who adopted ”We Are the Champions” and ”Another One Bites the Dust” as anthems, seemed to take the messages of these songs a little too literally.

Last year, Queen signed a $10 million contract with Hollywood Records, but the album that followed, Innuendo, had only limited success in the U.S. Nonetheless, the band’s enduring influence can be heard in Vanilla Ice’s ”Ice Ice Baby” (which sampled their 1982 hit with Bowie, ”Under Pressure”) and in Metallica’s Grammy-winning version of Queen’s ”Stone Cold Crazy.”

In 1981, Mercury told Britain’s Melody Maker that he didn’t want to change the world. ”Leave that to the politicians,” he said. ”I’m (just) somebody who sings his songs well and performs them properly.”