Every year, one cannot help remember Freddie Mercury on September 5, his birthday. And while one obviously looks back on his dazzling frontmanship, it is his vocal pyrotechnics that echo in one’s ears.
Reputed to have that rare four-octave vocal range, Mercury’s voice could escalate, within a few short bars, from a deep, dark growl all the way up to a bright, shining coloratura (via various chromatic shades of tenor). Rolling Stone ranked Mercury 18th on its list of the Greatest Singers of All Time, but many fans, as well as rock critics, would angrily take to the streets to protest that lowly ranking. To hear Mercury sing Bohemian Rhapsody or Killer Queen is to understand.
In his first band at school in Panchgani, the Hectics, the buck-toothed Mercury was known as a crazy singing piano-player who was inspired by Little Richard – but the band’s real star was another child named Bruce Murray. It was only in later years that Mercury’s voice developed fully into what rock journalist Caroline Sullivan once described as “a force of nature, with the velocity of a hurricane” – a voice that cut, almost God-like, through Queen’s mix of Brian May’s guitar, cranked up to 10, and Roger Taylor’s blasting drums.
But what exactly was it that made Mercury’s voice so unique?
Mercury believed it had something to do with his buck teeth, and the special resonance that their configuration gave to his voice. This was paradoxical, because he had been terribly self-conscious about his teeth since childhood (having been cruelly nicknamed Bucky by schoolmates) – and yet he refused to get orthodontic treatment to fix his malocclusion, fearing that it would rob his voice of its special magic. To try and disguise the problem, he grew his trademark mustache, and even developed the poignant habit of holding his hand up to his mouth when talking to people.
Last year, a team of European scientists set out to discover a scientific explanation for the magic of Mercury’s voice – or specifically, as they put it, “to develop an acoustical analysis of his voice production…based on a perceptual and quantitative analysis of his sound recordings”.
Unique ‘vestibular folds’
The scientists first analysed a body of Mercury’s music, including Freddie Mercury: The Solo Collection and 23 other recordings. Then, particularly intrigued by the distorted notes Mercury produced to create his signature growl sounds, the team did a unique simulation exercise: selecting rock singer Daniel Zangger-Borch to simulate Mercury’s singing voice, they filmed his larynx with a high-speed endoscopic camera as he pushed his vocal system into overdrive.
The team’s report, published in the journal of the British Voice Association, is, expectedly, filled with abstruse audiological terms like “subharmonic phonation” and “mean fundamental frequency modulation rate”. But what it essentially boils down to is this: Mercury was probably not a natural tenor, as we generally believe, but a baritone who sang as a tenor, using exceptional voice control.
The report then went on to reveal that Mercury produced his singing voice in a way that is markedly different from other singers: he did this by not merely vibrating his vocal cords, but also activating his vestibular folds, a pair of mucous membranes located just above the vocal cords. These membranes are called “false vocal cords” because they are usually not involved in the production of voice. But, by mobilising them, Mercury created a rare audio phenomenon called “subharmonic vibration” – which is what gave his voice that signature growl.
Strangely, however, the study seemed unable to verify Mercury’s legendary four-octave range, saying that from the analysed data it could neither conclude, nor rule out, the possibility of such a phenomenon.
And what about Mercury’s belief that it was his buck teeth that gave his voice its magic? The report makes no mention of this, but experts are divided in their opinion on this. So it is just as well that he never risked his multi-million dollar voice with orthodontic treatment.
The big ‘What if’?
The great what-if that we can’t help asking today is: what if Mercury hadn’t died when he did? What would he have gone on to do with his fabulous voice, and prodigious talent?
Opera singer Montserate Caballé, with whom he collaborated on Barcelona, says that in his last years Mercury was exploring his passion for classical music, and that the two of them had, in fact, talked of working together on The Phantom of the Opera. Tim Rice, who co-wrote some of the lyrics of Barcelona, adds that given the way he was going, Mercury might have even evolved into a great writer of opera.
So what would that have meant for the future of Queen? Some close friends, like Tim Rice, believe that no matter what avatar the restless Mecury morphed into next, he’d have never abandoned Queen. But, others like his long-time aide, Peter Freestone, dismiss that idea, insisting that “he hated the idea of bands getting back together. Oh, no, no, no.”
But who knows?
Till the very end, Mercury pushed his voice to the limit. When Queen was recording The Show Must Go On, just before he died, Mercury was so ill he could hardly walk. But, as Brian May recalls, “He went, ‘I’ll f***ing do it, darling’ – vodka down – and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal.”