The real Freddie Mercury died in November, 1991, but you might rub your eyes and think he lives again when you see and hear Gary Mullen and the Works do their tribute to Queen — “One Night of Queen” — on Saturday, April 24, at McCarter Theater. One critic, reviewing a 2009 concert in Salt Lake City, even mused that Mullen might be the flamboyant singer’s reincarnation.
What really lives on are the group’s iconic songs, like “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” the playful “Killer Queen,” and of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with its mini-opera sandwiched between a ballad and a kick-ass rock anthem.
Mullen is always amazed to hear people singing along, even the youngest Queen fans who have discovered the band long, long after Mercury’s death. “Here’s a band whose singer died 19 years ago, and these kids weren’t even a glint in their fathers’ eyes, but they know all the words to the songs,” Mullen says. “We literally have an audience of all ages: Queen fans, their children, their grandchildren, students, and little kids. It goes to show that good music never dies, and guys like Freddie become icons, like Sinatra and Elvis. They live on and attract new generations of fans.”
Speaking by phone from a stop in Fort Pierce, Florida, Mullen is spending his free time in the balmy Florida sunshine, quite a contrast to his home in Scotland. “I called home, and they were talking about drifts of snow,” he says. “There’s not a cloud in the sky here. I said, ‘Sorry guys, I’m going to get off the phone and go out in the sun.’”
Perhaps he’ll cultivate a tan similar to Mercury’s olive complexion. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara, in Zanzibar, into a Parsi family from the Gujarat region of India. Although Mullen might have to get plenty pink before he gets tan, he has all the other Freddie details down: the mustache, the lean torso (which fans will see a lot of because he performs a good chunk of the concert shirtless), vintage Adidas sneakers and tight white pants.
Best of all, Mullen has the strut and the voice to bring Mercury back to life. Put that together with dazzling lights, great staging, and a rocking band — Davie Brocket on guitar, Jonathan Evans on drums, bassist Billy Moffat, and keyboardist Malcolm Gentle — and you have a fantastic live show.
Mullen says they cover a range of material, from some of Queen’s earliest hits like “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Now I’m Here,” to songs that were never performed live. They even do a version of Elvis Presley’s classic “Jailhouse Rock,” which was one of Mercury’s favorite songs.
“We started doing some of the stuff from the ‘Made in Heaven’ album,” he says. “These are songs that never got a chance to be performed because the album came out after Freddie died.”
Always a huge Queen fan and a naturally gifted singer, Mullen says he started singing almost as soon as he began talking. “I didn’t speak for the first few years of my life, and once I started, they couldn’t shut me up,” he says. Raised by a single mom and a large, musical extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins, Mullen reflects that his “mum” played the radio to soothe him as a baby, and that’s where his love for music began.
“I don’t like silence, and I think it’s because of having this music in my life so early on,” he says. “There was always music around, always someone with a guitar or playing the piano or family parties where we’d all sing and play together. But when I was four, I saw the video for ‘We Are the Champions,’ and that did it for me with Queen. I bought their LPs and CDs. I have quite a collection of Queen back home.”
At one time, Mullen, 36, might merely have been the best karaoke singer at the Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow, but fortune and talent have turned his barroom notoriety into international fame. He dazzled the local crowd with his rendition of Queen songs and people began to urge him to try out for the ITV talent show “Stars in Their Eyes.” The show, which ran from 1990 to 2006, was like “American Idol” — the viewing audience votes on their favorites — but differed in the fact that performers truly imitated and embodied famous singers.
Mullen’s wife and mother secretly sent away an application to the show, and after an audition, he was offered a place in the finals. Mullen then went on to become the overall winner of “Stars in Their Eyes” in 2000, as Freddie Mercury. He polled 864,838 votes in the show’s live grand finale, more than double the votes that the runner-up got, and an all-time record number of votes cast for an artist on the show.
Since then, Mullen and the Works have been selling out their concerts around the world. For almost a decade, One Night of Queen has rocked audiences from the United Kingdom and Europe to Australia and New Zealand, and more recently, South Africa. This is their second tour of the United States, and the group has future hopes of performing in Japan and South America. A gig in Brazil would be especially appropriate for Mullen and the Works, since Queen broke a worldwide attendance record for a concert there in 1981.
They are especially beloved in Britain, where Mullen and the Works have twice performed at London’s Hyde Park, for the huge “BBC Proms in the Park” concerts, playing to some 45,000 fans.
Audiences around the world seem to have a favorite Queen song, and in the United States, interestingly enough, it’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” (Which, careful readers and rock fans will know, was hilariously satirized by Spinal Tap, with their own song, “Big Bottom.”) “As soon as (Americans) hear those first chords of the song, the place just goes nuts,” Mullen says. “It’s like someone unhooks something and everyone goes mental. People get up and cheer. But that’s what the show is all about: having fun and singing along. If you want to get up and dance, that’s OK; and if you want to take your clothes off, that’s OK too.”
The only part of “being Freddie Mercury” that bothers Mullen is the separation from his family. He’d like to bring his wife, 12-year-old son and two daughters, ages 6 and 9, on the road, but the One Night of Queen phenomenon just moves too quickly.
“With technology I can get on the Internet and see them, and it’s just like I’m there,” he says. “It’s interesting though, because they see that I don’t have a nine-to-five job and that’s OK. I encourage them to be creative, and they really are. My one daughter is a great dancer, who wants to be a choreographer when she grows up, and my son is a real rock-and-roller, who also wants to be a film director. They’re as crazy as I am, and I miss them terribly.”
Mullen and the Works are deeply respectful to Queen and have earned thumbs-up from Queen’s guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor. Mullen was even invited to Taylor’s 60th birthday party last summer but was too busy touring to attend. “I was so bummed out,” he says. “Afterwards, someone from the Queen fan club wrote to say, ‘Roger said hi,’ and I thought, ‘Oh no, how could I have missed this?’ I understand it was a great night. Yeah, Roger is advancing in age, but still rocking away.”
Although he has been singing since his youth, Mullen has only recently gone for formal voice training, and that’s mostly to learn how to sustain his voice on the road. “Since we’ve been doing four or five shows a week, it’s become quite physical,” he says. “The tight pants help me hit those really high notes, though.”
One Night of Queen, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Saturday, May 15, 8 p.m. (originally scheduled for Saturday, April 24, but postponed because of the volcanic ash affecting international flights). Gary Mullen and the Works perform Queen’s hits. $40 to $48. For more information visit www.onenightofqueen.com. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.