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A half a century ago, the world first heard the voice of Freddie Mercury


Fifty years ago today, the world was introduced to one of rock 'n' roll's greatest voices.


QUEEN: (Singing) Now, they say your folks are telling you be a superstar. But I tell you just be satisfied and stay right where you are. Keep yourself alive. Yeah. Keep yourself alive.

MARTÍNEZ: Freddie Mercury led Queen until his untimely death in 1991. That iconic band dropped its first album on this day 50 years ago. Now, really, that's all the excuse we need to go back into the archive for this 2010 profile of Freddie Mercury by Shereen Marisol Meraji.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Mercury is an element that stays fluid when the temperature dips low or soars high. Mercury is the Roman messenger god, wings on his sandals, moving quickly from place to place. Freddie Mercury was the mercurial rock star who chose a stage name in perfect harmony with his voice.


QUEEN: (Singing) I'm a shooting star, leaping through the sky like a tiger, defying the laws of gravity. I'm a racing car passing by, like Lady Godiva. I'm going to go, go, go. There's no stopping me.

MERAJI: He wasn't always the unstoppable British glam rocker Freddie Mercury.


JER BULSARA: The name we selected for him is Farrokh. That was his birth name.

MERAJI: That's Mercury's mother, Jer Bulsara, from the film "Freddie Mercury, The Untold Story." Farrokh Bulsara was Parsi, a group with ties to ancient Persia. But both of his parents were from India. He was born on the East African island of Zanzibar, once a base for Persian Gulf traders.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: In this very hospital, the government hospital Zanzibar, on the 5th of September, 1946, Farrokh Bulsara first saw the dazzling light of the world.

MERAJI: The film was directed by Rudi Dolezal. He portrays Mercury as an artist who mastered his craft in the West but came of age in the East.


QUEEN: (Singing) Allah, Allah, Allah, Allah will pray for you. Hey. Mustapha, Mustapha, Mustapha Ibrahim. Mustapha, Mustapha, Mustapha Ibrahim.

RUDI DOLEZAL: For example, if you listen to a song like "Mustapha," you think, I mean, this is very strange. I mean, what kind of cultural influences? Where does it come from? If you now know that Freddie was born in Zanzibar, then went to India, then came to London, which again was like a culture shock, then you sort of can see it's like a little bit of multiculturalism that was sort of combined in Freddie Mercury and the way he used his voice.


QUEEN: (Singing) Vontap ist ahiln avil ahiln adhim, Mustapha. Aleikum Salaam. Hey.

MERAJI: Freddie Mercury's voice was untrained and unpredictable, mercurial, throttling from an earthy baritone to a wild but heavenly tenor. Singer Adam Lambert spent hours upon hours listening to Queen, trying to figure out how Mercury did it so he could do it for his "American Idol" audition.


ADAM LAMBERT: (Singing) Mama, just killed a man - put a gun against his head.

Freddie's voice is - it has such a texture to it. He kind of, like, grabs at everything. He squeezes it.

MERAJI: A virtual unknown before "American Idol," Adam Lambert finished the season belting out "We Are The Champions," taking Mercury's place beside Queen guitarist Brian May. But Lambert says no one can sing it quite like Freddie

LAMBERT: During "We Are The Champions," there's that one part where he goes, of the world. And he holds that out for a really long time. And it kind of, like, echoes off into the distance. You know what I'm talking about?


QUEEN: (Singing) Of the world.

LAMBERT: Instead of just being, like, open with, like, world and just singing it through an open throat, he kind of goes like, world - like, he squeezes it. And it's like it makes it - it gives it this, like, emotional intensity.

MERAJI: That squeeze gave Freddie Mercury the ability to hold a strong, forceful note that also trembled with vulnerability - not quite vibrato, more like a shout on the verge of crumbling into a sob.


QUEEN: (Singing) Mama, ooh, didn't mean to make you cry. If I'm not back again this time tomorrow, carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters.

MERAJI: The mercurial showman. Freddie Mercury could go from singing a ballad at a baby grand to high-stepping like a rock star, wielding a microphone that looked like it was just ripped from its base.

LAMBERT: It was about the music, but he also really captivated the audience because he was so electric. That's why he's an icon, because you remembered what he did onstage. He had a presence.

MERAJI: Freddie Mercury's stage performance was humorous, camp. But he was very serious about entertaining the fans.


FREDDIE MERCURY: (Vocalizing).


MERCURY: (Vocalizing).

JACKY SMITH: Freddie's day-O's, they used to call them (laughter), because he would do the (singing) day-O, you know, that kind of stuff. And the audience would do them straight back at him perfectly every time. And he was always quite amazed by that.

MERAJI: Jacky Smith met Mercury in 1982 after responding to a want ad for a Queen fan club manager. Twenty-eight years later, she still has the job. Smith always had a backstage pass to Queen's stadium shows. But she preferred to watch Mercury from the stands.


MERCURY: (Vocalizing).

SMITH: The atmosphere was incredible at the front. There were 120,000 people, I think, at the last show, which was Knebworth. And it was like you were still part of an intimate crowd because Freddie almost reached every single one of those people, even those right at the back.


QUEEN: (Singing) All we hear is radio ga, ga, radio goo, goo, radio ga, ga. All we hear is...

DOLEZAL: Two hundred-forty thousand hands in sync doing, all we need is, (clapping), was like, oh, my God.

MERAJI: Rudi Dolezal, director of "Freddie Mercury, The Untold Story," adds that offstage, Mercury was humble and always put his voice before his ego.

DOLEZAL: I can tell you one thing about his voice which I think is a unique story. We all know that Freddie Mercury had very strange teeth. And we would ask ourselves, well, a guy who is that rich, why didn't he change his teeth? And he was very afraid that if he would change his teeth that his particular sound of how his voice sounded would go away. So his voice was more important to him than his looks. And I think that says a lot about the man.

MERAJI: The humble showman from the East and the West with a quicksilver voice. Freddie Mercury chose a stage name that represented who he was and how he sang.


QUEEN: (Singing) Oh, I'm burning through the sky, yeah, 200 degrees. That's why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit.

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.


QUEEN: (Singing) I want to make a supersonic man out of you. Hey, yeah. Don't stop me now. I'm having such a good time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.