So, everybody knows that Freddie Mercury was a gifted songwriter, a breathtakingly original performer and frontman of one of the greatest bands of all time, Queen. But there are many lesser-known Freddie Mercury facts that reveal hidden depths to the life and work of the man born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, on 5 September 1946. Here are 15 surprising things you never knew about Freddie Mercury, as told in the singer’s own inimitable style.
1: Freddie Mercury was a brilliant boxer
At school in India, the young Freddie Mercury was a good table tennis player. He used to play tennis sometimes, especially when he was on holiday, and enjoyed watching Wimbledon. He also liked watching rugby, but football and cricket did nothing for him.
“I loathed cricket and long-distance running; I was completely useless at both. But I could sprint, I was good at hockey, and I was just brilliant in the boxing ring,” he revealed.
2: He rescued tennis star Billie Jean King
Mercury said he “loved” the nightclubs in New York and went to check out a Brooklyn disco called The Gilded Grape, even though it was supposed to be very edgy. “I’d heard it was really exciting, but everyone told me I shouldn’t go – or, if I did, at least to make sure I had a fast bulletproof car waiting for me outside,” said Mercury. “Everyone tried to warn me about this club, which of course made me all the more determined to go. Not long after we got there, a massive fight broke out, which ended up at our table. Chairs were being smashed, fists were flying, there was blood everywhere. Billie Jean King was petrified, but I loved it. I told her not to worry, and as the fight raged I grabbed her and took her on to the dancefloor. It was much more fun than having some cosy dinner back at my hotel.”
3: His fashion sense scared his parents
When he was a student at Ealing Art College, Mercury began experimenting with different looks, but it didn’t go down well at home.
“My parents were outraged when I told them what I was up to,” he recalled in Freddie Mercury: A Life, In His Own Words (Mercury Songs Ltd). “I used to go home periodically and turn up in these outrageous clothes, with my fingernails painted black, and at that time my mother used to freak out! They used to say, ‘My God! Don’t let the neighbours see you. Come in here quick! Use the back door!’”
4: He designed the Queen logo
Mercury’s diploma in Art And Graphic Design from Ealing came in useful, as he designed the logo for Queen after John Deacon completed the line-up with Brian May and Roger Taylor in July 1971.
“We decided to call the band Queen and I designed the Queen crest logo,” he revealed. “I simply combined all the creatures that represent our star signs [two lions for Leo, John and Roger; a crab for Cancer, Brian; and two fairies for Virgo, Freddie]… and I don’t even believe in astrology!”
5: He didn’t need much sleep…
Despite his energetic professional life, and partying, Mercury said he could survive on little shut-eye. “I can go without sleep for long periods, that’s my nature. I can get by on just two or three hours a night. I don’t know what it is, but it’s true. I wish I could tell you. I relax in ways most people can’t understand, by just sleeping on a plane when I’m flying for 20 minutes. That’s enough for me. I recharge my batteries in that short a time and I’m up again. I have to be doing something every day.
6: … But had bad dreams
“Quite often I have vicious nightmares, like one night just before the Rainbow concert . We were sleeping in the Holiday Inn and I dreamed I went out onto my balcony and the whole thing fell down and I was in a heap on the pavement. Really, I was petrified when I woke up,” said Mercury.
7: He stood up to punk rebels
In 1977, when Queen were recording parts of the News Of The World album in London, Mercury said that two future members of Sex Pistols were in the next studio. “You can imagine us and the whole punk rock and anti-establishment thing under the one roof,” said Mercury. “Anyway, I got Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious in to listen to one of our tracks and I said that I would sing on one of their songs if they sang on one of mine, and you should have seen them. They were like, ‘We can’t sing with Freddie Mercury!’ I was wearing ballet pumps at the time, and things like that. It was quite funny. I called Sid Vicious ‘Simon Ferocious’, or something like that, and he didn’t like it at all. I said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ He had all these marks on him, so I asked if he had scratched himself in the mirror, and he hated the fact that I could speak to him like that.”
8: Small planes scared him
Queen jetted round the globe during 13 major tours, but Mercury did not like it when they had to travel on a small jet in South America. “I was terrified. I don’t like flying in anything smaller than a jumbo jet, and this thing we went in was so small,” said Mercury. “I was told we had photographers and the like at the other end waiting for us to arrive, so I couldn’t possibly let them see how shaken I was. My knuckles were white from gripping the arm rests. But when we arrived I stepped out of that machine with a smile on my face looking like I did it every day. No one was any the wiser.”
9: He was asked to star on Broadway with Linda Ronstadt
Mercury loved going to the theatre, ballet and opera, but did not want to tread the boards himself. “I could never do a season in a theatre, as it were. I would run out,” said Mercury. “They asked me to do Broadway once – La Bohème with Linda Ronstadt – and I thought, You’re kidding! It’s totally off tangent, but they asked me to do it. They thought I could sing operatically. The first thing that came into my mind was that I can’t do matinees and they don’t realise that I can’t sing for six or seven days a week on the same stage: I’d be bored to death.”
10: He loved to sing in the nude
Mercury battled hard to cope with vocal cord problems – and found that rehearsing without clothes helped. “I have to go easy on the red wine because of my throat nodules. To warm up, I do what I call ‘mock operatics’. I do it naked, though, because there’s a certain piquancy about that. With clothes on, it doesn’t work, so I sing in the complete raw. I went to throat specialists – I think I saw them all – but they always tell you to just rest and not do the tour… or have an operation. I came very near to having an operation but I didn’t like the look of the doctor and I was a bit perturbed about having strange instruments forced down my throat.”
11: He was a “demon” at Scrabble
Mercury said he was “pleased” with his vocals on the 1991 album Innuendo, adding, “‘Innuendo’ is a word I often use in Scrabble – I’m a demon at Scrabble! For Queen, it’s a perfect title.”
12: He was nearly in a supergroup with Elton John and Rod Stewart
“Rod Stewart, Elton John and I were going to form a band, once upon a time, called Hair, Nose And Teeth – after the three of us… it’s nice when you’ve had a lot of wine and you talk about it and say, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ but the next day, when you’re sober and Elton says, ‘I’m not gonna sing with Rod,’ and Rod says, ‘I’m not gonna sing with Freddie,’ and I say, ‘Well, I’m not gonna sing with Elton!’ you realise it’s never going to happen,” said Mercury.
13: Elton John once gave him property advice
Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor used to sell clothes at Kensington Market when they were young and poor, so the Queen frontman enjoyed the fact that he went on to earn enough to buy an eight-bedroom house in Kensington, one of London’s more exclusive areas. “It’s full of marble floors and mahogany staircases,” said Mercury. “It even has a garden that is three-quarters of an acre… in Kensington! Can you believe it? An Arab offered me four million pounds for it. I told Elton John and he said, ‘Quick, sell it to him and live in a pre-fab!’ But it’s my dream home and I don’t care how much it costs me.”
14: He filled his house with expensive art
When Dave Clark talked to uDiscover Music about his friend Mercury, he spoke of the Queen singer’s love of art, adding, “I always remember he had a Picasso painting in the loo.” Mercury would frequently go to auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “I have to be surrounded by something, even if it’s just objet d’art. So, I collect a lot, and my whole house is filled with beautiful Japanese art and antiques,” said Mercury.
15: And art inspired his songwriting
When the band were making their 1974 album Queen II, Mercury said he wrote the song ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ after being inspired by a painting he had seen at the Tate Gallery in London. “That is very, very unusual for me. Being arty, or whatever, I go to art galleries a lot and I saw this picture in the Tate by Richard Dadd, who was a Victorian artist I liked. I was thoroughly inspired. I did a lot of research on it and what I tried to do was to put the words into my own kind of rhyme, but I was using his text, as it were, to depict the painting – what I thought I saw in it.”