November 23, 1991. On the day before his death, rock music legend, and lead singer of the band Queen, Freddie Mercury, informs the world he has AIDS.
It’s early 1969 on the London Underground.
22-year-old Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara taps his foot, and hums a tune, as he waits for his train to reach its destination.
When the train stops and the doors open, Freddie quickly exits. With a smile on his face, he bounds up the steps to the bustling London street above.
Freddie is heading to see a live performance of his friend Tim Staffel's band, Smile. And seeing live shows is one of Freddie's greatest joys.
Over the past several months, Freddie’s watched Smile rehearse, he’s gone to their gigs, and he’s gotten to know Tim’s bandmates. Smile recently opened for Pink Floyd at Imperial College, and the band has been gaining popularity ever since. But there’s something in the air tonight. And Freddie has a feeling that this show could be special.
Freddie makes his way down the block… and steps into a club. He weaves his way through the crowd to the front, in order to get a good view. And after a short time, the band takes the stage.
Freddie watches as Tim steps up to the mic. Behind him, Roger Taylor, who's been playing in bands since the age of 7, takes his seat at the drum kit. Then, Brian May, a recent college grad, picks up his guitar… and plugs into the amp.
The sound of feedback jolts the crowd to attention.
Brian adjusts his amp and takes his spot on the stage, nodding to Roger behind the drums. From the crowd, Freddie grins ear to ear… as Roger clicks his sticks, and Smile launches into their first song.
That night, as Freddie watches Smile’s set, he is once again impressed by Brian’s skill on guitar, and Roger’s drumming. But his friend Tim, the lead singer, leaves something to be desired. As the show progresses, Freddie envisions the choices he would make if he was Smile’s frontman. He pictures bold fashion, operatic vocals, and a choreographed stage routine. With each passing song, Freddie’s desire to be onstage with the band grows stronger. Before the set comes to an end, Freddie makes a monumental decision: he’s going to be the lead singer of a rock band, he’s going to blow his audiences away.
Within a year, Tim will leave his band Smile, and Freddie will join as their new frontman. Smile will change their name to Queen, and Freddie Bulsara will become Freddie Mercury. Together, Freddie, Brian, and Roger will help define rock music in the 1970s and ‘80s, and Queen will grow into one of the biggest bands in the world.
But at the peak of his pop culture impact, Freddie will suffer from an illness that the world is still struggling to understand. Freddie will do his best to hide his condition from the public for as long as possible. But he will reveal the truth the day before he passes away, on November 23rd, 1991.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 23, 1991: Freddie Mercury Reveals He Has AIDS.
It’s April 1970 at a London pub.
Freddie Mercury sits at a table with Brian May and Roger Taylor. The three have gotten close over the past year, and they often meet for drinks. The atmosphere is different today, though. Because Brian and Roger seem more serious than usual.
Recently, Freddie’s friend - Tim Staffell - left the band Smile. After Tim’s departure, Brian briefly considered giving up music and pursuing his Ph.D. in Astrophysics. But Brian’s love of playing guitar and his friendship with Roger kept him in the fold. And now, Brian has decided he wants to keep playing in the band, and he wants Freddie to be their lead singer.
When Freddie hears of the offer to join Smile, he lights up. He’s been fronting a local band of his own and gaining confidence as a singer, but he’s ready for something bigger. Freddie’s thrilled at the idea of joining Brian and Roger, but he makes it clear that he has no intention of simply being a stand-in for Tim. Freddie has ideas about what the band can be. He tells Brian and Roger he doesn’t want them just to be successful, he wants them to become legends.
Brian and Roger have been taken with Freddie’s passion for music from the first time they met. And they share Freddie’s desire to do something big and bold. So together, they decide to put Smile to rest and create something new.
As they start playing and writing songs together, Freddie suggests the name “Queen.” He says their band name should sound “regal” and “splendid,” something to match the heightened performance style he pictures in his head. Brian and Roger are immediately sold.
On July 18th, 1970, Queen plays their first gig at Imperial College in London. Freddie’s onstage energy is contagious. His voice is operatic and unlike anything, most rock fans are familiar with. Freddie draws on the performance styles of musicians like Little Richard, Elvis, and Jimi Hendrix instilling the show with a flare of theatricality. While Brian and Roger have never leaned into that type of showmanship before, they can’t deny that the crowd loves Freddie.
Not long after this first show, Freddie drops Bulsara and takes on a new last name: Mercury. He believes the mythological messenger of the Roman gods reflects the heightened nature of his onstage persona as a messenger of his own.
And throughout the early 1970s, Freddie Mercury’s Queen garners attention from critics and a growing fan base. Soon, a record deal follows. And in 1974, Queen releases their first UK Top Ten hit. On stage, Freddie is indeed larger than life, and his passionate fan base can’t get enough.
But the confident, brash frontman is different when he’s not performing. In private, Freddie is shy and even insecure. Most of all, he feels alone, despite the fact that he’s in a serious relationship.
Freddie was drawn to Brian’s friend, Mary Austin, almost instantly. The two live together, and Mary often joins Freddie when Queen goes on tour. Later in life, Freddie will say, “All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible. For me, she was my common-law wife… We believed in each other, and that’s enough for me.”
But in the mid-1970s, as Queen begins its meteoric rise to superstardom, Freddie’s relationship with Mary isn’t enough. Though he’s done his best to hide it, Freddie has been attracted to men for as long as he can remember. And keeping that part of himself secret is taking its toll on his emotional health.
While Mary remains his partner in public, Freddie pursues men in private. But more often than not, he finds himself engaged in one-night stands. Freddie wants more.
Professionally, he writes about his desire for meaningful connection in songs like Queen’s 1976 hit “Somebody to Love.” Personally, he deals with his loneliness by turning to alcohol and drugs.
Freddie fuels his way through the late 1970s on a classic combination of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
By the early 1980s, the sold-out stadium tours, hit records, and TV appearances make it clear to Freddie that Queen has achieved more than most bands could ever dream. But Freddie is still not satisfied. He wants to leave an indelible mark on the world of music, and he’s confident he has the talent, and the drive, to keep going for years to come.
But in the summer of 1982, Freddie hits a wall. After finishing a grueling American tour, Freddie feels unusually exhausted. It’s not the typical tiredness that comes from pushing himself onstage night after night. And after visiting his doctor, Freddie is told that he has the flu. But the sickness won’t go away. And every time Freddie thinks he’s finally over it, new symptoms arise.
Freddie has heard of the disease called AIDS. The stories about the strange illness have been circulating through the gay communities of New York and London for some time. And Freddie grows concerned. Still, he keeps his fear to himself and pours his energy into his music.
But as time goes on, his condition only gets worse. In 1985, doctors tell Freddie that he is too sick to perform. But Freddie does not heed their warning. Instead, he will give one of the most famous live performances in the history of rock music and secure his place as a legend.
It’s July 13th, 1985 at Wembley Stadium in London, England.
Freddie Mercury stands in the wings with his bandmates and listens to the roar of a crowd of 72,000 people. Freddie’s throat burns, his tongue is covered in white residue, and he’s dripping with sweat. Doctors have told Freddie not to perform today. But there’s no way he’s gonna miss this show.
In 1985, singer and music promoter Bob Geldof spearheaded Live Aid, a multi-venue concert to raise awareness and spark fundraising for the famine in Ethiopia. While stars including Madonna, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan play Live Aid in Philadelphia, Queen joins the likes of David Bowie and U2 at Wembley here in London. For weeks, Freddie has been pushing his bandmates and doing his best to fire them up. He’s made it clear that he wants Queen to outshine everyone on both sides of the Atlantic.
Queen gets the signal that it’s time to take the stage. Freddie fights off the pain in his throat and runs out to meet the crowd with a wide grin on his face. For the next 20 minutes, Freddie holds the entire stadium in the palm of his hand. He leads them in choruses of Queen’s hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions.” Freddie soaks in the cheers. And no one watching would ever know that the man bursting with energy and holding those impossibly high notes is dealing with a deadly disease.
By the time the Live Aid ends, it’s clear to everyone, including the event’s organizer Bob Geldof, that Queen is the standout:
"GELDOF: Everyone had been amazing. But this seemed to me to be of another order."
"INTERVIEWEE: Through the backstage area of all the stars, you have the unspoken feeling, they’re doing it. They’re stealing the show."
Queen’s Live Aid performance remains an inspiration for some of the biggest stars in music, even today. Reflecting on watching Live Aid on TV as a teenager, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl will sum up what many felt back in July of 1985:
"GROHL: Live Aid was huge, man. How many bands played that thing? Everybody. Queen smoked them. They just took everybody."
Following Live Aid, Queen is re-energized, and Freddie Mercury is happier in his personal life than he’s been in years. While Mary still appears with him at public events, Freddie has started a serious relationship with a man whom he loves dearly.
But even as Freddie seems to be thriving, he continues to hide his secret from the public. He's losing weight. He’s tired, he suffers from pounding headaches, his throat almost always feels like it’s on fire. Freddie has also developed purple lesions under his arm and on his chest.
At the time, reliable AIDS tests are only just starting to become available and it’s not known whether he’s officially diagnosed. But there’s no doubt he’s aware of the symptoms of AIDS, the late stage of HIV infection. By 1985, the number of cases has increased from the previous year by 90%. And in response, many in the gay community are speaking out.
But politicians and the media have largely shied away from talking about the disease. Until, on September 17th, 1985, President Ronald Regan finally says the word AIDS on television. And on October 2nd, the reality of the disease reaches a mainstream audience.
"ANCHOR: Good evening, I’m Roger Grimsby, here now on the news. Actor Rock Hudson dead. His year-long battle with AIDS at an end. He was 59."
The news of a former Hollywood star dying from AIDS grabs the public’s attention. But not everyone is sympathetic. Over the next year, Freddie witnesses the panic, hysteria, and vitriol directed at those suffering from AIDS. He fears that if the public believes he has the virus, his fans will turn against him. Freddie also worries that his friends and loved ones will face backlash if his condition is known.
So, in 1987, when a tabloid story claims Freddie is battling AIDS, he vehemently denies it. Still, those closest to him know the truth. And to his friends and loved ones, Freddie admits that he no longer has the stamina to play live. He continues to work on solo projects, but he comes to terms with the fact that he’ll never tour with Queen again.
Freddie is heartbroken and angry. By the 1990s, he struggles at times to even think about music. Much of his life is spent visiting doctors or resting in bed. But soon, Freddie will be forced to confront his own mortality. With time running out, Freddie will decide that his story might help others who are struggling with the illness. So instead of retreating further into himself, Freddie Mercury will decide to break his silence and reveal the truth.
It’s November 23rd, 1991 at Freddie Mercury’s home in London.
Freddie lies in bed, frail and exhausted. He spent the day before laughing and joking with his current partner, and some of their closest friends. Freddie knew it was likely the last time he would see many of them. But Freddie was happy, and he even had a gleeful spark in his eye. Today, though, that spark is gone.
The bedroom door opens and Freddie’s long-time friend and manager, Jim Beach, steps into the room. Freddie and Jim talk for a while, sharing memories of the good old days. The conversation is light at first. But Freddie can tell that Jim has something serious on his mind. Freddie tells his manager to come clean and say what he wants to say. So Jim tells him he believes it's time for Freddie to release a statement confirming, he has AIDS.
Freddie still worries about the problems a public statement could cause for his loved ones. So even as media speculation about his health has grown, Freddie has refused to comment.
But Jim argues that Freddie needs to make a statement. Freddie is loved and revered all over the world. He could use his platform to speak out, to tell the truth, and help those fighting against the growing AIDS crisis. As Freddie listens to Jim, he starts to see the wisdom behind his words. He realizes that once he’s dead, the truth about his illness will come out anyway, whether he releases a statement or not. He might as well use his fame, and status, to do some good.
With Jim’s help, Freddie crafts a statement to be released publicly later that night. It reads in part, “Following the enormous conjecture in the press over the last two weeks, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me. The time has come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.”
While Jim makes arrangements for the statement’s release, Freddie spends the night surrounded by a handful of people who love him most. The following day, Freddie passes away at 45 years old. Music fans around the world mourn the loss of a man who many considered to be one of the most talented performers of his generation.
Five months later, on April 20th, 1992, some of the biggest names in music hold a tribute concert for Freddie at Wembley Stadium. David Bowie, The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, and Annie Lennox are just a few of the artists who perform alongside Brian May and Roger Taylor in front of more than 70,000 people. The event raises millions of dollars for the fight against AIDS and raises awareness around the globe. Following the concert, the Mercury Phoenix Trust is established in Freddie’s name. And over time, the trust will donate millions to AIDS research.
Freddie Mercury’s life and career continues to resonate decades after his death. Many critics and fellow performers still consider Freddie’s voice to be one of the most unique and powerful in music history.
Freddie dreamed of becoming a rock legend, and he achieved that goal. But his legacy stretches beyond music. At a time when powerful politicians and media figures were reluctant to talk about a disease that was affecting hundreds of thousands of people, Freddie Mercury brought much-needed attention to the cause when he publicly revealed his condition on November 23rd, 1991.
Next on History Daily, November 24th, 1971. An unidentified man, known only as DB Cooper, hijacks a Boeing 727, extorts $200,000 in ransom money, and parachutes to an uncertain fate.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.