While mention of Queen usually conjures up images of its legendary frontman, Freddie Mercury, the band was actually the musical creation of guitarist Brian May, many years before Mercury wowed the world with his three-octave vocal range.
Raised in the Feltham, Middlesex, section of London, a teenage May was smart and dedicated enough to build his own guitar, the legendary Red Special, with his father in 1963. The following year, he joined classmate Dave Dilloway to form a band called 1984, adding harmonica player and vocalist Tim Staffell before their first public gig in October.
As detailed in Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury, 1984 was a cover band that played hits by groups like The Shadows, The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones, displaying enough craftsmanship to land a gig on the same bill as supernova guitarist Jimi Hendrix in May 1967.
May, who was studying astronomy at London's Imperial College, soon quit the band to ostensibly focus on his schoolwork. But he also yearned for more creative musical expression, and he joined forces with his old bandmate Staffell, now attending the nearby Ealing College of Art, and fellow Ealing student and organist Chris Smith to launch a new group that became known as Smile.
The trio became a quartet when London Hospital Medical College dentistry student Roger Taylor responded to the group's advertisement for a drummer. Formerly the centerpiece of a popular Cornwall band called The Reaction, Taylor impressed the others with his chops and energy, and by the fall of 1968, Smile was professionally up and running.
Mercury sang in other bands before Queen
Meanwhile, Staffell and Smith had become friends with a unique character named Freddie Bulsara. Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, Mercury had emigrated with his conservative Parsee family to Feltham, Middlesex, in 1964, before enrolling at Ealing in 1966.
Largely remembered by classmates as shy and quiet, Mercury nonetheless stood out for his exotic looks and budding taste for outlandish fashions. He also possessed a sharp sense of humor and an endearingly campy side, traits that made an immediate impression on May and Taylor upon their first meeting in early 1969.
Before long, Mercury was an established member of the Smile entourage, instructing its members on how to perform and lobbying to become the lead singer while following them around on gigs. He grew especially close to Taylor and moved in with the band after graduating from Ealing in 1969.
That summer, Mercury became the lead singer of a cover band called Ibex. Eventually changing its name to Wreckage, the group struggled to find its footing and disbanded by the end of the year, though not before its frontman stumbled upon what would become his signature move of parading around with the top half of a mic stand.
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Mercury, May and Taylor launched Queen in 1970
As Wreckage flailed, the fortunes of Smile also waxed and waned. They cut a single for Mercury Records, "Earth/Step on Me," which quickly vanished after its August 1969 U.S. release and a gig at London's Marquee Club that December fell flat.
By early 1970, Smile had been dumped by its label and lead singer Staffell. Mercury was then involved with another group called Sour Milk Sea, but this venture soon petered out as well.
Thus created the opportunity that had been staring everyone in the face for some time, and in April 1970, Mercury, May and Taylor agreed to move forward with their musical aspirations together.
First up was the band's name. It was Mercury, favoring the simplicity of a one-word name, who came up with Queen, which referenced his androgynous nature and regal aspirations for success. He also set about completing his own transformation from shy London immigrant to rock star, with a nod to the Roman mythological messenger of the gods, henceforth becoming known as Freddie Mercury.
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The band found its missing piece in bassist John Deacon
Queen played its first formal gig at a Cornwall Red Cross benefit on June 27, 1970, with Mercury singing and strutting, May on guitar, Taylor on drums and Mike Grose on bass.
This arrangement didn't work, and after a few shows, Barry Mitchell took over on bass. In early 1971, the job was briefly entrusted to Doug Bogie.
The missing link was uncovered after a chance meeting with bassist John Deacon at a London disco in February. An electronics student at Chelsea College, Deacon was a few years younger but a seasoned performer with a Leicestershire band called The Opposition. Quiet and a quick learner, he fit right in with a headstrong group that was stubbornly plowing ahead with its musical dreams.
Indeed, it would take quite a bit of stubbornness for Queen to ride out the two-and-a-half years until their self-titled debut album hit stores, but the pieces were in place, setting the stage for the emergence of one of the most innovative and popular rock bands of the decade and beyond.