Greatest English Language Singer: An Overseas Indian!

Letter from New Delhi

Most pop music fans know the all-time great Freddie Mercury, but hardly anyone knows that he is an overseas Indian called Farrokh Bulsara from the East African island of Zanzibar.

He is one of the greatest pop singers of the 20th century. The fans know him as Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the famous rock band Queen. But hardly anyone connects Freddie with a Parsi called Farrokh Bulsara, his original name.

Among the greatest English language singers of the 20th Century compiled by BBC Radio, Freddie was the highest ranked hard rock vocalist. His number ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ topped the UK singles charts in 1975 and 1991 and he was voted as Britain’s favourite single of all time in a Guinness poll in 2002. He was rated second in MTV’s list of the 22 greatest singers of the past 25 years. In 2003, he was rated second only to Maria Carey in MTV’s Greatest Voices in Music. He had the unique distinction of being featured on the Millennium postage stamp in England. No other Parsi – or even an Indian – performing artist has attained these honours.

Farrokh was born on 5 September 1946 on the small spice island of Zanzibar, off the Kenyan Coast. His parents were Bomi and Jer Bulsara. Bomi Balsara worked as a High Court cashier for the British government. In 1954, at the age of eight, Farrokh was sent to St Peter’s English boarding school in Panchgani, near Mumbai, India. Here his friends began to call him Freddie, a name the family also adopted. He learnt piano at school and performed well influenced by the emphasis on melody in Indian film music. In 1962, Freddie finished school and returned to Zanzibar. Two years later, the Bulsaras migrated to England due to political unrest in Zanzibar.

At Ealing College in London, Freddie became a good friend of a bass player Tim Staffell who played for a band called Smile. Tim took him along to rehearsals of his band and Freddie got on well with its members. Inspired by Smile, Freddie began to experiment with music.

Initially, he began to practise with Tim, another art student, Nigel Foster, and with Chris Smith. Freddie and Chris started writing bits of songs that they linked together. Freddie first met Ibex, a Liverpool band on 13 August 1969, who had come to London. Freddie’s enthusiasm was such that just ten days later, he had learned the band’s set, brought in a few new songs and had travelled to Bolton, Lancashire, for a gig with them. This was his debut public performance on 23 August at one of Bolton’s regular afternoon ‘Bluesology’ sessions. On the 25 August, Ibex appeared in the first ‘Bluesology Pop-in’, an open-air event in Bolton’s Queen Park. Bolton’s ‘Evening News’ reported on the event with Freddie and his photograph.

Later Freddie began to search for another band and found Sour Milk Sea after seeing a ‘Vocalist Wanted’ ad in the ‘Melody Maker’. They offered him the job and in late 1969 Freddie became the lead singer with Sour Milk Sea.

Freddie had a great voice with a great range. But it was not only his voice that made his performances so attractive to people but his charisma, a natural gift that was in perfect harmony with his voice, his appearance, his delicate taste and his musicianship. In April 1970, Tim Staffell decided to leave Smile and Freddie joined them as the lead singer. Freddie decided to change the name of the band to Queen and he also changed his last name to Mercury.

Freddie wrote the first Queen song that entered the British charts, ‘The Seven Seas of Rhye’ – the first big hit ‘Killer Queen’ and the most famous Queen song that was on the top of charts for nine weeks, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. When in 1975, Queen toured Japan, crowds of screaming fans followed them everywhere.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a song written by Freddie Mercury for the band’s 1975 album ‘A Night at the Opera’. The song remains one of Queen’s most popular songs. The single was accompanied by a promotional video, which many scholars consider groundbreaking. In 2004, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2012, the song topped the list on an ITV nationwide poll in the UK to find “The Nation’s Favourite Number One” over 60 years of music.

On 7 October 1979, Freddie performed with the Royal Ballet. He had never done any ballet before but it was something he had always wanted to try. Freddie performed with great skill in front of an enthusiastic packed house that gave him a standing ovation.

In 1980, Freddie changed his image. He cut his hair and grew a moustache. At the end of 1982, the Queen players agreed they needed to take a break from each other and announced they wouldn’t be touring in 1983. As Freddie had been thinking of making a solo album, he booked studio time at Musicland in Munich and began work in early 1983. With his background in applied art, he designed his own stunning costumes for his shows.

In Munich, he was introduced to Georgio Moroder who was working on a re-release of a silent science fiction film ‘Metropolis’. Georgio wanted a contemporary musical score for the film and asked Freddie to consider collaborating on a film track. Freddie agreed. The result was the song ‘Love Kills’. He released this song as a single on 10 September 1984 and was followed by another single ‘I Was Born To Love You’ on 9 April 1985. Three weeks later, Freddie’s first solo album ‘Mr Bad Guy’ was released on CBS Records.

13 July 1985 was a special day for Queen and Freddie. It was the day of their memorable performance at Live Aid at Wembley Stadium, London, in front of 72,000 people broadcast to over one billion people worldwide. Queen secured its place in music history as every journalist, fan and critic unanimously agreed that Queen stole the show.

The early 1987, Freddie took the opportunity to go into Townhouse Studios to do some solo work. It resulted in a remake of the classic Platters’ song ‘The Great Pretender’ released on 23 February. Freddie attended a performance of Verdi’s ‘ Un Ballo’ in Maschera at the Royal Opera House in May. For the first time, he heard Spanish opera diva Montserrat Caballé and the sheer power and beauty of her voice mesmerized him.

In March 1987 Freddie flew to Barcelona to meet Montserrat Caballé. He gave her a cassette with some of his songs. The diva liked his songs and even performed one of them at London’s Covent Garden. Freddie was delighted. In early April, Freddie began work on the album to record with Montserrat Caballé. In May the island of Ibiza staged a huge festival at the noted outrageous Ku Club. Freddie was the guest of honour and closed the event with Montserrat Caballé singing the song he had written for her and her home city, Barcelona. He was a sensation.

On 8 October 1988 Freddie and Montserrat appeared at the huge open air La Nit Festival in Barcelona. They performed three tracks from their forthcoming album: ‘How Can I Go On’, ‘The Golden Boy’ and ‘Barcelona. The long-awaited album, ‘Barcelona’, ultimately come out on 10 October. Then he fell seriously ill and he died in 1991 at the age of 45.

In a special edition featuring ’60 Years of Asian Heroes’, TIME listed him with Gandhi, Nehru, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa in the gallery of greats. Wrote TIME, “No other Asian musician or pop culture figure has enjoyed the same universal appeal that Bulsara was able to achieve.”

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi


* Published in print edition on 1 August 2014

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