What was Freddie Mercury's real name and why did he change it?

24 November 2021, 21:00

Freddie Bulsara in his college days in 1969 and Freddie Mercury performing live on stage at Wembley, 1986
Freddie Bulsara in his college days in 1969 and Freddie Mercury performing live on stage at Wembley, 1986. Picture: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns/Getty/MARCO ARNDT/AP/Shutterstock

Three decades on since the Queen frontman died, there are still mysteries about his personal life. Radio X gets to the bottom of one of the most-asked questions about the legend.

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Freddie Mercury's death on 24th November 1991 was a huge shock to the world of rock. Even though rumours of the singer's health problems had been swirling around the tabloid press for years, his admission that he'd contracted Aids just 24 hours before he passed away was still a shock.

Stories of Mercury's sexuality had long been fodder for the newspapers, and prejudice and fear over the Aids epidemic had caused the musician to retreat from public life for his last few years.

But Freddie's quest for privacy wasn't unusual, even in such tragic circumstances. The singer had always kept many secrets about his private life, his family background and his personal relationships.

For example, where did the name Freddie Mercury come from? Was it the star's real name? Or had he created a whole mystery around himself instead?

Freddie Mercury as millions knew him: the charismatic frontman of Queen
Freddie Mercury as millions knew him: the charismatic frontman of Queen. Picture: Nigel Wright/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Where was Freddie Mercury born and what was his birth name?

The man known to millions as Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on 5th September 1946 in Stone Town, Zanzibar. His father Bomi worked for the British Colonial Office as Zanzibar was a British protectorate, meaning that young Farrokh and his sister Kashmira were born British subjects.

Freddie was sent to a boarding school in Panchgani near Bombay, where he formed his first rock 'n' roll band, The Hectics. Its as during this period that Farrokh starting calling himself "Freddie". When a violent revolution in Zanzibar began in 1964, the Bulsaras fled to the UK and wound up in Feltham, Middlesex.

A young Farrokh Bulsara when he was a pupil at St. Peter's Boys School in Zanzibar.
A young Farrokh Bulsara when he was a pupil at St. Peter's Boys School in Zanzibar. Picture: ARCHIVIO GBB / Alamy Stock Photo

How did Freddie Mercury pick his stage name?

Young Freddie attended Ealing Art College in the late 1960s, where his interest in rock music grew. He met guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor in 1970, who had their own band, Smile with bassist Tim Staffell. Freddie became their lead singer and when Staffell quit later that year, the remaining trio decided to continue. However, now the frontman of a new band, Bulsara announced that he was changing his name: at their first show in June 1970, he declared he was to be known as Freddie Mercury.

Freddie pictured (on the left) with the Liverpool band Ibex in August 1969. The following year, he'd join the band Smile, which would morph into Queen.
Freddie pictured (on the left) with the Liverpool band Ibex in August 1969. The following year, he'd join the band Smile, which would morph into Queen. Picture: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns/Getty Images

When exactly did Queen play their first ever gig?

Brian May told Queen biographer Lesley-Ann Jones: "Freddie had written this song called My Fairy King and there's a line in it that says: 'Oh Mother Mercury, what have you done to me?'

"It was after that that he said, 'I am going to become Mercury as the mother in the song is my mother. And we were like, 'Are you mad'?"

There have been many theories about where "Mercury" came from. Obviously, the name signifies a planet and an element, but there is also the Roman god Mercury, the overseer of translators and interpreters.

Queen fan club secretary and biographer Jim Jenkins told Lesley-Ann Jones: "Freddie told me himself in 1975, that it's after the messenger of the gods. I remember it as if he's just said it to me."

One other theory about the name was that it was inspired by Mike Mercury, the hero of Gerry Anderson's hit sci-fi TV series Supercar, which first aired in 1961, but Jenkins discounted that idea and the show was quickly overshadowed by its better known sequel, Thunderbirds and doesn't seem to have screened when Freddie moved to London.

Mike Mercury, hero of TV's Supercar puppet series: nothing to do with Freddie Mercury
Mike Mercury, hero of TV's Supercar puppet series: nothing to do with Freddie Mercury. Picture: ITV/Shutterstock

But the name stuck and from that point on, the singer was to be officially known as Freddie Mercury - although there's no official evidence that he ever legally changed his name.

As May explained: "Changing his name was part of him assuming this different skin. The young Bulsara was still there, but for the public, he was going to be this god."

At the same time, Mercury decided that Smile should also get a revamp - at their show in Truro on 27 June 1970, the band announced themselves as Queen.

Queen in 1973: Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Brian May and John Deacon
Queen in 1973: Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Brian May and John Deacon. Picture: Michael Putland/Getty Images

Where did the band name Queen come from?

Smile had agreed to perform a charity gig in aid of the Red Cross at the City Hall in Truro in Cornwall - which was Roger Taylor's hometown. When the band members arrived at the venue - including bassist Mike Grose - Mercury took the opportunity to announce that the group were changing their name as of that very moment.

He'd picked Queen as a deliberately memorable, controversial name. "The whole point,” Mercury told People magazine in December 1977, “was to be pompous and provocative, to prompt speculation and controversy.”

One of the group's friends, Sue Johnstone, laughed at the name: "We thought it was hilarious because he was always so camp," she told Cornwall Live in 2018. "And we just laughed and thought of the gay connotation immediately, but he tried to make it more acceptable by persuading us that it was ‘regal’.”

"It’s just a name," Mercury told the magazine Circus in March 1977. "But it’s regal, obviously, and sounds splendid. I like to be surrounded by splendid things. I like to browse around art galleries, but I’m a hard-working lad and I never have the time."

Under the name Freddie Mercury and with the band Queen, young Farrokh Bulsara became one of the greatest frontmen of all time and a hero to millions.

For more information and support on HIV and sexual health, the following charities offer support:

Terrance Higgins Trust

https://www.tht.org.uk/

Positively UK

https://positivelyuk.org/

National Aids Trust

https://www.nat.org.uk/

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