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A Stilled Voice

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WHETHER STRUTTING ACROSS A STAGE IN skintight spandex or talking openly about his bisexuality, Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the glam-rock band Queen, projected his personality at about 30 decibels above outrageous. But there was one thing the flamboyant performer tried desperately to keep quiet, and he almost succeeded.

Just over a week ago the 45-year-old singer, who wrote and performed the rock classics “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions/ We Will Rock You,” responded to more than a year of whispers about his failing health. “Following the enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have AIDS,” Mercury said in a statement released through his publicist. “I felt it correct to keep this information private to date in order to protect the privacy of those around me. However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope that everyone will join me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.”

A day later, Mercury bowed out of the battle. He died Nov. 24 of pneumonia brought on by AIDS.

“We have lost the greatest and most beloved member of our family,” said Mercury’s bandmates in a prepared statement. “We feel over-whelming grief.” The rest of the music world shared their sadness. “This is a tragedy,” lamented pal Phil Collins. Said British rock pundit Jonathan King: “Freddie could be stunningly tacky, but he’d do it with class and style.” Fans of the singer, meanwhile, left flowers outside his 28-room mansion in the Kensington section of London.

Born Frederick Bulsara in Zanzibar (now Tanzania), where his father, a British subject, worked as an accountant, Mercury attended boarding school in Bombay as a teen, then returned with his family to England. In 1971, at age 24, he joined guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor to form Queen.

The group developed a bravura sound best captured in 1975’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a marriage of heavy metal and grand opera. By the early ’80s they had gained an international audience with such hits as “Another One Bites the Dust” and the rockabilly-flavored “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

In 1989 Mercury dropped from sight, becoming a near recluse inside his mansion and refusing to tour or even make a video to promote Queen’s 1991 release, Innuendo. Still, reports of his ill health were vehemently denied. In October 1990 guitarist May said of his friend, “He definitely hasn’t got AIDS.”

As death approached, Mercury reportedly made arrangements to bequeath a third of his fortune to AIDS research. He is also said to have recorded AIDS prevention videos to be released after his death. “He realized the end was coming and faced it with incredible bravery,” said longtime friend Mary Austin. Eulogized rock critic Paul Gambaccini: “Freddie was to rock music what the supernova is to astronomy. He shone brilliantly, then burned himself out.”