What Made Freddie Mercury the Greatest Vocalist in Rock History? The Secrets Revealed in a Short Video Essay

I wasn’t always a Queen fan. Hav­ing cut my music fan teeth on espe­cial­ly down­beat, mis­er­able bands like Joy Divi­sion, The Cure, and The Smiths, I couldn’t quite dig the unabashed sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty and oper­at­ic bom­bast. Like one of the “Kids React to Queen” kids, I found myself ask­ing, “What is this?” What turned me around? Maybe it was the first time I heard Queen’s theme song for Flash Gor­don. The 1980 space opera is most remark­able for Max von Sydow’s turn as Ming the Mer­ci­less, and for those bursts of Fred­die Mer­cury and his mates’ mul­ti-tracked voic­es, explo­sions of syn­co­pat­ed angel song, announc­ing the com­ing of the eight­ies with all the high camp of Rocky Hor­ror and the rock con­fi­dence of Robert Plant.

As a front­man Mer­cury had so much more than the per­fect style and stance—though he did own every stage he set foot on. He had a voice that com­mand­ed atten­tion, even from mopey new wave teenagers vibrat­ing on Ian Curtis’s fre­quen­cy. What makes Mer­cury’s voice so compelling—as most would say, the great­est vocal­ist in all of rock his­to­ry? One recent sci­en­tif­ic study con­clud­ed that Mercury’s phys­i­cal method of singing resem­bled that of Tuvan throat singers.

He was able to cre­ate a faster vibra­to and sev­er­al more lay­ers of har­mon­ics than any­one else. The video above from Poly­phon­ic adds more to the expla­na­tion, quot­ing opera sopra­no Montser­rat Cabal­lé, with whom Mer­cury record­ed an album in 1988. In addi­tion to his incred­i­ble range, Mer­cury “was able to slide effort­less­ly from a reg­is­ter to anoth­er,” she remarked. Though Mer­cury was nat­u­ral­ly a bari­tone, he pri­mar­i­ly sang as a tenor, and had no dif­fi­cul­ty, as we know, with sopra­no parts.

Mer­cury was a great performer—and he was a great per­for­ma­tive vocal­ist, mean­ing, Cabal­lé says, that “he was sell­ing the voice…. His phras­ing was sub­tle, del­i­cate and sweet or ener­getic and slam­ming. He was able to find the right colour or expres­sive nuance for each word.” He had incred­i­ble dis­ci­pline and con­trol over his instru­ment, and an under­rat­ed rhyth­mic sen­si­bil­i­ty, essen­tial for a rock singer to con­vinc­ing­ly take on rock­a­bil­ly, gospel, dis­co, funk, and opera as well as the blues-based hard rock Queen so eas­i­ly mas­tered. No style of music elud­ed him, except per­haps for those that call for a cer­tain kind of vocal­ist who can’t actu­al­ly sing.

That’s the rub with Queen—they were so good at every­thing they did that they can be more than a lit­tle over­whelm­ing. Watch the rest of the video to learn more about how Mercury’s super­hu­man vibra­to pro­duced sounds almost no oth­er human can make; see more of Polyphonic’s music analy­sis of one-of-a-kind musi­cians at our pre­vi­ous posts on Leonard Cohen and David Bowie’s final albums and John Bonham’s drum­ming; and just below, hear all of those Mer­cury qualities—the vibra­to, the per­fect tim­ing, and the expres­sive performativity—in the iso­lat­ed vocal track from “I Want to Break Free” just below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sci­en­tif­ic Study Reveals What Made Fred­die Mercury’s Voice One of a Kind; Hear It in All of Its A Cap­pel­la Splen­dor

Watch Behind-the-Scenes Footage From Fred­die Mercury’s Final Video Per­for­mance

Queen Doc­u­men­tary Pays Trib­ute to the Rock Band That Con­quered the World

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (20)
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  • Joe Sycamore says:

    Fred­die Mer­cury was nev­er the great­est vocal­ist in Rock His­to­ry, he was the great­est show­man who hap­pened to have a very good voice. There are many oth­er vocal­ists whose range and tal­ent rivalled and indeed sur­passed Fred­die but they lacked the sheer charis­ma and stage pres­ence of Mer­cury.

    The great­est vocal­ist in Rock his­to­ry is Paul Rodgers for­mer­ly of Free.

  • Bill W. says:

    Roy Orbi­son had the best voice in Rock music.

  • Billy Mills says:

    Real­ly, no. An over-hyped, not untal­ent­ed band who appeal to a taste for music-hall show­man­ship.

  • Mr Mycroft says:

    Great­est singer oh please.

  • Kitsen says:

    And what is Paul Rodgers’ range? How tech­ni­cal­ly adept is he? Is he also capa­ble of singing opera? Show tunes? Oth­er melod­ic gen­res? And who are these oth­ers who sur­passed Mer­cury in those areas? Whether or not Fred­die made you feel it isn’t what’s being dis­cussed here. Nobody had his tech­ni­cal artistry or con­trol. Nobody else can or could move from bari­tone to sopra­no and back with­out the slight­est wob­ble or catch. You’re com­ing in as a lis­ten­er and not as a singing pro­fes­sion­al. Those of us who’ve actu­al­ly stud­ied voice on a for­mal basis know what is meant by this arti­cle. It’s fine that Mer­cury was­n’t your favorite, but that is not indica­tive of any­thing that changes a word of what this arti­cle says. He was a vir­tu­oso. Rodgers is not.

  • Chazzan says:

    Use of the ven­tric­u­lar folds has been com­mon in folk and indige­nous vocal styles (and their descen­dants such as rock) for cen­turies. Poly­phon­ic’s videos tend to make my teeth itch with pedan­tic twad­dle such as this — he lec­tures with an annoy­ing air of author­i­ty while (need­less­ly?) manip­u­lat­ing facts to sup­port his the­sis.

  • William Rowland says:

    I would think that the great­est vocal­ist in rock his­to­ry would be either Aretha Franklin or Grace Slick.

  • Glen says:

    Iron­i­cal­ly, the nar­ra­tor has one of the worst and most annoy­ing voic­es I’ve ever heard.

  • LOL says:

    What a waste of words u wrote Joe Syn­camore.

  • JAJAJ says:


  • Cate says:

    Fred­die Mer­cury IS the great­est rock singer of all time, sor­ry some can’t deal with it. He had it ALL, larg­er range, more vibra­to, unbe­liev­able con­trol and nuance and those runs??? INCREDIBLE!!! There will nev­er be anoth­er like him.

  • finn says:

    die Mer­cury IS the great­est rock singer of all time deal with it bet­ter than paul mccart­ney and jimi hen­drix com­bined

  • Linnet Ashton says:

    Amaz­ing­ly, I agree with the com­ment above that says Mer­cury was bet­ter than Jimi Hen­drix and Paul McCart­ney com­bined. On the oth­er hand, Miss Pig­gy and Mon­key, if com­bined would cer­tain­ly have a greater singing voice than Paul McC.

  • Tony says:

    Paul Rodgers? What rub­bish, Paul Rodgers was a very good blues rock singer. That’s it. Fred­die Mer­cury could sing so many dif­fer­ent gen­res of music while still keep­ing a rock feel. He had a much wider vocal range than Paul as well. Paul Rodgers was very lim­it­ed when it came to singing with Queen.

  • Tony says:

    Only because you don’t like what he has to say.

  • Grant Bennett 333 says:

    I dis­agree.… Fred­dies voice is the bench­mark for voic­es . His great­est Show­man ever title is also well deserved … Freds­gotWiNG 🦅 z.…

  • Donns Naples says:

    Fred­die was and still is the best singer, song
    Writer, show­man of all time, and was the absolute
    Best live singer. He sound­ed the same live as he he did in the stu­dio. Take a look at Nobody lives for­ev­er live at Wem­b­ley , he also sang with the great­est pas­sion. Oh and nev­er took a singing les­son, he was pure pas­sion . So there is real­ly is no debate. He was absolute­ly the best. I pray he rest­ing in peace😇

  • Miguel says:

    Real­ly ? Grace Slick? In break­ing down sheer tal­ent , Fred­die was #1 , hands down

  • Freddie says:

    Dar­lings don’t fret. The neg­a­tiv­i­ty is from Amer­i­can homo­phobes who don’t know their ars­es from their stom­achs. Take them with a grain of salt. Bet­ter yet, IGNORE. I am fab­u­lous!

  • Robin says:


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