A Kind of Magic: Freddie Mercury Through the Lens of Photographer Richard Young

As the world awaits the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, the cinematic tale of Freddie Mercury and Queen, we spoke to photographer Richard Young about documenting the singer’s dazzling live performances, lavish parties, and quiet, candid moments.

From Andy Warhol to Whitney Houston, Richard Young has photographed all the greats. Throughout a career spanning over 40 years, he has been a staple at concerts and parties around the world, photographing and befriending pop culture giants. Of all the celebrities he’s met, however, none has made a more resounding impact on him than Freddie Mercury, an artist as generous with his creative gift as he was with his friendship, loyalty, and sense of humor.

All images by Richard Young.

Having Ourselves a Real Good Time

Young’s first connection to Queen came in 1978 when he was called to shoot behind-the-scenes stills of the band’s latest music video, “Bicycle Race.” The video included 65 naked women riding bicycles around Wimbledon Stadium and ended up being banned in multiple countries. Richard didn’t get to meet the band then, yet it was clear to him that a face-to-face encounter needed to happen.

His chance came that New Year’s Eve. Rod Stewart – sick with a throat infection – had cancelled a concert Richard was attending just hours before showtime. So Young headed over to Monkberry’s, a nightclub in London. Between drinks and flashes, in walked Mercury and his entourage, alongside Ron Wood and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones – and Rod Stewart.

“Apparently he had a very speedy recovery,” jokes Richard.

Monkberry’s Club, London with Ron Wood and friends – 1978

Freddie took a liking to Richard from day one. “I kept getting calls from his team: ‘Freddie wants to go to the opera house! Bring your camera!’” One thing became clear from the get-go – Freddie liked to party.

Richard quickly became Queen’s official photographer, shooting all their concerts, video shoots, and private parties at Freddie’s. Young began to develop a genuine friendship with the frontman. By 1985 Freddie, who liked to nickname his male crew with female names, had christened Richard as “Muriel” (after English TV presenter Muriel Young) and invited him to his legendary birthday parties – night-into-day affairs of costumes, excess, and music. Richard vividly remembers Mercury’s 39th birthday party that year in Munich.

“Freddie rang me: ‘Come to my birthday party in Munich! Everybody’s dressing in drag. Everybody.’”

Up for the challenge, Richard’s wife Susan found him a lovely black dress for the occasion, made him up, and bought him an auburn wig to set the whole look off. When Richard arrived to the party, everyone was dressed in drag…everyone except for Freddie, that is.

Freddie’s 39th Birthday Party, Munich – 1985
Freddie’s 39th Birthday Party, Munich – 1985

“It was a crazy period,” remembers Young, “The parties in London, Ibiza…Freddie’s parties were legendary. And you could always count on Elton John and Rod Stewart being there.”

Freddie and Elton John – 1980
Freddie and Rod Stewart – 1989
Freddie and Boy George – 1985
Freddie’s birthday party in Ibiza – 1987

We Will Rock You

As hard as Queen played, they worked even harder. And Freddie was the heart, face, and soul of one of the world’s most vibrant live performances. “He could hold 100,000 people in the palm of his hand,” Richard recalls. He saw this time and time again, as Queen played to sold-out crowds at Wembley Stadium and well over a quarter of a million Brazilians at Rock in Rio. Their 1986 show in Budapest was one of the first Western rock concerts behind the Iron Curtain, with 80,000 fans in attendance and another 45,000 outside the People’s Stadium listening over the loudspeakers. “Not once did I see him get nervous…he was extremely confident and one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with…his energy and joie de vivre…he was a one-off rock icon never to be replaced. ”

Queen in concert in Dublin – 1986
Queen in concert at NEP Stadium in Budapest, Hungary – 1986
Queen in concert at NEP Stadium in Budapest, Hungary – 1986
Live Aid Concert at Wembley Stadium, London – 1985
Queen in concert at NEP Stadium in Budapest, Hungary – 1986

Freddie’s natural charisma and theatrical persona were only heightened by his intrinsic gift for songwriting (he wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Killer Queen,” “Somebody to Love,” “Bicycle Race,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and “We Are the Champions,” among others) and a once-in-a-generation tenor singing voice, which opera singer Montserrat Caballé described as “delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right coloring or expressive nuance for each word.” Mercury, a long time opera fan, recorded an opera album with Caballé, Barcelona, the title track of which became the theme song for the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Queen in concert at NEP Stadium in Budapest, Hungary – 1986
Freddie and Montserrat Caballé at Barcelona Pop Festival, Spain – 1987

Breaking Free

Mercury had the uncanny ability to appeal to the masses while also being a hero for the marginalized. “He was the ultimate individualist,” claims Richard, “and everyone respected that.” Though originally remaining coy with the media about his sexuality, Young says there were “no secrets there” within his group of friends.

“He expressed his sexuality all the time and especially through photography. His costumes, his fashion, his expressions…he was so open and had a sense of humor about it.”

Mercury became a style icon in the 1980s, constantly reinventing his persona and gravitating towards the edges of what society considered appropriate male attire. He never used a stylist and wore everything from catsuits to drag suits, sporty looks, and jeans and leather. ”I think once or twice I saw him a suit and tie,” laughs Young, adding that his favorite Freddie look will always be the sporty white trousers at the 1986 Wembley concert.

“Adidas was his thing…the shoes, sportswear…he felt most comfortable on stage in sportswear.”

Queen Concert, Wembley, London – 1986
‘Queen’ video shoot for ‘the Great Pretender’ – 1987
Queen video shoot for ‘the Great Pretender’ – 1987
‘Queen’ filming video – 1986
Queen filming video – 1986

If I’m Not Back Again This Time Tomorrow

Mercury died in 1991 of complications from AIDS. Though tabloid rumors about his health ran rampant for years, Freddie did not admit his condition until the day before his death. “I didn’t know about it, no one else knew,” Richard admits, “he kept it very private.”

During Freddie’s final years, however, his health was visibly declining. “It became very clear. [The Queen party at the Groucho Club] really knocked it home that something was wrong. He lost a lot of weight, he looked very gaunt. One didn’t have to spell it out.”

Freddie with Liza Minnelli at the Groucho Club, London – 1989
Freddie with Queen at the Groucho Club, London – 1989

Friends Will Be Friends

After his death, it didn’t take long to realize the impact Freddie had left on the world. The 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert for AIDS awareness was attended by 72,000 people and included performances by George Michael, David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, Seal, The Who, and Liza Minnelli, among others.

Yet Freddie’s impact went beyond just music. “He was the most generous person you could ever wish to meet,” tells Richard, “…there was a real warmth and friendship between him and his band mates and his friends were very loyal to him.”

Freddie’s memory has stuck with Richard to this day, not just photographically (“He would take any picture I wanted…some of the portraits we took, he’s just looking straight down the barrel”) but also personally. “His friendship, his warmth, his generosity, his humor,” Richard recounts as the qualities he’ll always remember Freddie by.

“But I’m still annoyed that he didn’t come in drag and everyone else did. I’d put my makeup on!”

Freddie’s tribute concert at Wembley Stadium – 1992
Freddie backstage in Rio De Janeiro – 1985
Freddie’s 40th Birthday Party, Britain – 1986
Queen in concert in Dublin – 1986

Click here to see more of Richard’s photos. His current exhibition, “It’s a Kinda Magic,” is showing at the Richard Young Gallery, 4 Holland Street, London.

www.richardyounggallery.co.uk

@richardyoung110