Elton John and Freddie Mercury are considered to be two of the most illustrious entertainers in history. But many may not know that the pair were actually also close friends. Now, then, John has opened up about the final months before the Queen frontman died.
Mercury – real name Farrokh Bulsara – entered the world in September 1946 in Zanzibar, Tanzania. At the time, the island was a territory under the jurisdiction of Great Britain. Yet Mercury’s family escaped from Zanzibar when the singer was 17 years old after a conflict began there in 1964.
The Bulsara brood then moved to London, England, where Mercury later studied art and graphic design at Ealing Art College. But from a young age music had actually been his passion. Indeed, Mercury had started learning how to play the piano at the tender age of seven.
So after Mercury graduated from college, he joined several bands. Inevitably, though, these first forays into music failed to prove successful. Everything changed in 1970, however, when he combined forces with guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor.
The following year, bassist John Deacon joined the threesome – and Queen was born. The band’s moniker came from Mercury, who also took the opportunity to modify his last name. The group then released their first album in 1973 but only shot to stardom around the globe following their third and fourth albums, Sheer Heart Attack and A Night At The Opera, respectively.
Of course, Queen would only go on to become more and more popular. And Mercury actually wrote several of the band’s best-known songs, including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “We Are The Champions.” These mammoth hits no doubt helped Queen on the way to sell up to 300 million albums around the world and make them one of the most successful musical groups ever.
But Fans also knew Mercury for his flamboyant, show-stopping on-stage performances. After all, the star, who additionally had a solo career, is still considered one of the most talented singers in pop history. And perhaps his most famous performance came at Live Aid in 1985. Yet this occurred just one year before Mercury publicly took to the stage for a final time with the band in Knebworth, England.
In October 1986, you see, reports claimed that Mercury had been tested to see if he was HIV positive. But while most people now know that Mercury was gay, it wasn’t actually public knowledge at the time. “He was an intensely private man offstage,” wrote Elton John in his 2012 memoir, Love is the Cure.
Naturally, then, Mercury laughed off these initial reports. “Do I look as though I am dying?” The Sun quoted Mercury as saying when pressed on the matter at the time. “I’m perfectly fit and healthy, thank you. I haven’t got any sexual disease.”
In November 1991, however, Mercury released a statement confirming his health battle after retreating from the public eye. “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,” he wrote. “I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me.”
Mercury added, “However, the time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.” But just a day later, on November 24, 1991, the singer died at his London home. He was 45.
The official cause of Mercury’s death was bronchial pneumonia, which is a complication from AIDS. And at his funeral a few days later, Elton John was among the celebrities in mourning. It seems that the two musicians had formed a tight-knit bond over the preceding years.
Their backgrounds are similar in some ways too. For instance, John was actually born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in March 1947 and later altered his name. He also grew up in Middlesex – the same area of England that Mercury’s family moved to when he was a teenager. And like Mercury, John learned how to play the piano as a child.
But John left school altogether aged 17 to start a career as a musician. The singer had his first big hit with “Your Song” in 1970, after releasing his first album, Empty Sky, a year earlier. Today, he has sold over 300 million records and has five Grammy Awards to his name.
John’s sexual orientation had also been a topic of conversation during his early career. So while the “Rocket Man” singer had revealed he was bisexual in 1976, he only came out as gay after divorcing recording engineer wife Renate Blauel in 1988. Since 1993, though, the star has been in a relationship with Canadian filmmaker David Furnish.
John and Furnish actually became one of the first gay couples in the United Kingdom to enter into a civil partnership in December 2005. Then in 2014 they tied the knot following the legalization of gay marriage. The couple also have sons Zackary and Elijah, who were born via surrogate.
John has long been an advocate for the battle to eradicate AIDS too. In 1992, for instance, he created the Elton John AIDS Foundation. And the star is now speaking out about losing his pal Mercury to the illness.
In Lesley-Ann Jones’ book Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury, John recalled their wild nights together. “Freddie Mercury could out-party me, which is saying something,” he said. “We’d be up for nights, sitting there at 11 in the morning, still flying high.”
But John provided more touching details of the pair’s friendship in Love is the Cure. The memoir focuses specifically on the star’s experiences during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. John lost several friends during the crisis, you see, and 30 million people are believed to have died of the illness worldwide between 1981 and 2009.
John confessed in the book that Mercury had told him about his diagnosis shortly after he’d received it. “I was devastated. I’d seen what the disease had done to so many of my other friends,” he wrote. “I knew exactly what it was going to do to [him]. As did he.”
However, John said Mercury kept a positive outlook. “He knew death, agonizing death, was coming. But [Mercury] was incredibly courageous,” the musician wrote. “He kept up appearances, he kept performing with Queen, and he kept being the funny, outrageous and profoundly generous person he had always been.”
But Mercury grew increasingly ill. John later explained that “it was almost too much to bear” witnessing his friend that way. “It broke my heart to see this absolute light unto the world ravaged by AIDS,” he wrote. “By the end, his body was covered with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions.”
John added, “[Mercury] was almost blind. He was too weak to even stand.” And while the singer’s eventual death rocked the nation, it also crushed his friend. So although John has since become a dedicated activist against AIDS, he wishes he had done more to combat the problem at the time.
“[Mercury] touched me in a way few people ever have, and his brave, private struggle with AIDS is something that inspires me to this day,” John wrote. “But his illness, I’m ashamed to admit, wasn’t enough to spur me to greater action.”
Now, though, John is doing his part to make a difference. “I’ve railed against government and religious leaders who were indifferent to or who actively undermined the fight against AIDS,” he wrote. “They deserve every bit of criticism I’m throwing their way.”
John added, “They could have done so much more. I could have done so much more, too.” Yet the star became committed to the cause – and remains so to this day.
The Elton John AIDS Foundation works to support people living with HIV as well as striving to educate people about and prevent the illness. With the loss of Mercury as well as his pal Ryan White, it’s clearly a cause close to John’s heart. And his organization has raised over $400 million for programs benefiting people who are HIV positive across the world.
Since 1993 the singer’s charity has also hosted the Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Award Party. Plus, sales from his Love is the Cure book also go towards the foundation. And there’s one particular story from the memoir that stands out – because it gives a glimpse into what Mercury was like as a friend.
Even near the end of Mercury’s life, it seems, he remained as thoughtful as ever. “By all rights, Freddie should have spent those final days concerned only with his own comfort,” John shared in his book. “But that wasn’t who he was. He truly lived for others.”
And John got a reminder of their special relationship just a few weeks after Mercury’s death. “I learned that Freddie had left me one final testament to his selflessness,” John wrote. This happened on Christmas Day in 1991 while John was at home coming to terms with Mercury’s passing.
It was then that a friend arrived and gave something to John. It turned out that it was a gift from the “Bohemian Rhapsody” singer. The Queen frontman had in fact bought John a painting by Henry Scott Tuke, a British artist that he loved.
Mercury also left a note with the gift that referenced nicknames he and John had for each other. “Dear Sharon, thought you’d like this. Love, Melina. Happy Christmas,” it read.
John admitted in Love is the Cure that the gesture bowled him over. “I was overcome, 44 years old at the time, crying like a child,” he wrote. “Here was this beautiful man, dying from AIDS, and in his final days, he had somehow managed to find me a lovely Christmas present.”
It was Mercury’s final gift to John – and one that he’ll never forget. “As sad as that moment was, it’s often the one I think about when I remember [him], because it captures the character of the man,” the musician declared. “In death, he reminded me of what made him so special in life.”
It’s clear that John will always treasure his memories of Mercury. He even described Mercury as “a man whom [he] loved dearly, and a man who was loved by millions of people around the world.” The Queen singer’s reputation as a musical legend has also been cemented in the decades following his death. Mercury has in fact been inducted into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
What’s more, November 2018 saw the release of a film about Mercury’s life and his time with Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody stars Rami Malek as the icon, and within a few weeks of its release, the movie has earned more than $550 million at the box office, making it the most profitable musical biopic ever.
Malek also got a nomination for Best Actor at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards for his portrayal of Mercury. The movie additionally received a nod for Best Motion Picture. And there has even been talk that Malek could receive an Oscar nomination for the role.
Meanwhile, John is preparing for the release of a biopic about his own life. The film, called Rocketman, stars Taron Egerton as the singer and will be arriving on screens in 2019. The star has also announced that he is quitting touring for good – after one incredible last goodbye.
Yes, at the age of 71, John kicked off a three-year farewell tour in September 2018. In the meantime, though, fans of Mercury were touched by the reveal of his final gesture of friendship towards John. And after John shared the heartrending story, users online admitted they were deeply moved by the tale.
“Mercury might be in heaven somewhere looking down, but his music will live on forever,” one person shared on the Daily Mail website. And proving what a legacy the Queen frontman left behind, another added, “All these years later, [Mercury’s] passing still affects so many. Such a talent and by all accounts a very kind and genuine man. Thank you for the music…”