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.
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
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.
Roy Orbison had the best voice in Rock music.
Really, no. An over-hyped, not untalented band who appeal to a taste for music-hall showmanship.
Greatest singer oh please.
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.
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.
I would think that the greatest vocalist in rock history would be either Aretha Franklin or Grace Slick.
Ironically, the narrator has one of the worst and most annoying voices I’ve ever heard.
What a waste of words u wrote Joe Syncamore.
JJAJA , IDIOT!!
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.
die Mercury IS the greatest rock singer of all time deal with it better than paul mccartney and jimi hendrix combined
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.
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.
Only because you don’t like what he has to say.
I disagree…. Freddies voice is the benchmark for voices . His greatest Showman ever title is also well deserved … FredsgotWiNG 🦅 z….
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😇
Really ? Grace Slick? In breaking down sheer talent , Freddie was #1 , hands down
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!