G. H. Harding
QUEEN RHAPSODY — Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody movie presents some interesting aspects about the band and singer Freddie Mercury’s life. The making of their signature song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the chemistry within the group and their electrifying Live Aid performance are all covered. But when fans watch the movie, they may quibble over certain events and details from the band’s history, which are condensed or reconfigured to save time and present things in a more dramatic manner — typical of most Hollywood biographical treatments. We’ve put together a list of some of the events and people depicted in BohemianRhapsody, and how they compare to what was previously written and documented about Queen and Mercury.
1. *When Freddie Meets Brian and Roger
How Freddie Mercury first met future bandmates Roger Taylor and Brian May, as depicted in Bohemian Rhapsody, is quite different from previous official and unofficial narratives. In the movie version, Freddie (Rami Malek) checks out Brian (Gwilym Lee) and Roger’s (Ben Hardy) previous band Smile at show in 1970 and later searches for them backstage. When he does, he learns that Smile’s singer and bassist Tim Staffell has turned in his walking papers. At first, Brian and Roger don’t know what to make of Freddie’s somewhat shy persona but are wowed when Freddie starts to sing.
But according to the authorized biographies, Queen: As It Began and 40 Years of Queen, Mercury already knew May, Taylor and Staffell when Smile was still around — the four of them even shared an apartment together. As for his shyness, May recalled his first impression of Mercury to Mojo in 2017: “Freddie was supremely confident. He believed even then that he was a rock star. It wasn’t like he was going to be a star — he was one.”
2. *Feddie’s Relationship With Mary Austin, the Love of His Life
Early in the film, when Freddie (whose surname was still Bulsara and not Mercury) was looking for the members of Smile backstage, he encounters Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and an immediate connection is established.
But according to Mark Blake’s 2011 band biography, Is This the Real Life?,Mercury met Austin in 1970 when she was working as a receptionist at a clothing store. “It took Freddie nearly six months to finally ask me out!” she recalled in Queen: As It Began. “I thought he fancied my best friend, so I used to avoid him. One night we were at one of his gigs, and after it had finished, he came looking for me. I left him at the bar with my friend to go to the loo, but I actually sneaked out. He was furious!” What is not in dispute was their close relationship, even after they broke up by the late 70’s. When Mercury died in 1991, he reportedly left Austin his home and 50 percent of his estate. “Mercury and Austin’s relationship would outlast almost all of the singer’s relationship with men,” Blake wrote in his book.
May revealed in 2017 that he was “kind of going out with [Austin]. And Freddie came up to me one day and said, ‘Are you serious with Mary? Can I ask her out?’ And he did, and they were lovers for a long time.”
3. * Jim Hutton, Freddie’s Romantic Partner
In the movie, after Freddie throws a lavish and wild party at his home, he meets Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), one of the servers at the bash, and drunkenly hits on him. Freddie later apologizes for his behavior and they share a conversation before a romantic relationship develops.
In real life, Mercury met Hutton, an Irish hairdresser, at a London club called Heaven sometime in the early-to-mid-80’s. Reportedly, Hutton later moved into Mercury’s home. According to Is This the Real Life?, Mercury told Hutton he was HIV positive and would understand if the relationship ended right there. Hutton, however, dismissed this and stuck by Mercury, even helping to take care of the singer in his final days. “I do like to think that his last few years were as happy as they could’ve possibly ever been,” he said of Mercury in the 2000 documentary Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story. Hutton died of lung cancer in 2010 at the age of 60.
4. *What Really Happened Between Queen and Manager John Reid
According to Rhapsody, Queen appointed John Reid (Aiden Gillen) as their manager around the time they started work on A Night at the Opera. His other client at the time was Elton John. Later, during a car ride sometime in the early 80’s, Freddie heatedly fires Reid for hinting that he should leave Queen to pursue a solo career.
In real life, Reid split from Queen in 1977, and the break was amicable rather than acrimonious; Jim Beach, the band’s lawyer at the time, took over as Queen’s manager and has remained in that role to this day. “We had a good working relationship with John,” Taylor said of Reid in the 2011 Queen documentary Days of Our Lives. “He was very fiery and very feisty, but so were we. So we weren’t scared of him.”
5. *Was There a Real Ray Foster, the EMI Records Exec Who Refused to Release “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
In a somewhat uncharacteristic and straightforward role, Mike Myers appears as Ray Foster, an executive at EMI Records, Queen’s British record label. During a heated meeting with the band, Foster steadfastly refuses to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a single, noting that radio stations wouldn’t play a six-minute song. “Mark these words. No one will play Queen,” he says in the movie. Queen, and especially Freddie, don’t back down, and they walk out of Foster’s office.
There is no mention of a Ray Foster in previous Queen articles, books or documentaries, so it appears he’s a fictional character. There’s some talk that he’s loosely based on Roy Featherstone, the band’s A&R guy at EMI Records.According to Queen: As It Began, Featherstone was eager to sign the band after he heard a tape of Queen’s first album in 1973 while in France. He even sent a telegram urging the group not to sign with any other label until he returned. “I was knocked out,” Featherstone later recalled upon hearing the tape. “What stood out to me as the combination of Freddie’s voice and Brian’s guitar on a track called ‘Liar.’”
Perhaps the character of Foster in the film is a composite of several EMI record executives who were concerned about the slim chances of “Bohemian Rhapsody” getting airplay on the radio. In Mark Blake’s Is This the Real Life?, EMI executive Paul Watts recalled, “I was expecting something very special. So when they played me ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ my reaction was, ‘What the fuck’s this? Are you mad?’” Regardless, Queen were vindicated when “Bohemian Rhapsody” took off after the song was played on DJ Kenny Everett’s radio show.
6. *The Real Paul Prenter, Mercury’s Personal Assistant and Hanger-On
Outside of the press, the main antagonist in Bohemian Rhapsody is Paul Prenter (Allen Leech). He first enters Queen’s orbit as an assistant to the band’s manager John Reid, and he later becomes Freddie’s personal assistant, acting as a schism between the singer and the rest of the band. In the movie’s climax, Freddie fires Prenter, especially after he learned that Prenter didn’t tell him about the upcoming Live Aid event. In turn, Prenter talks to the media about unflattering aspects of Freddie’s personal life.
According to Blake’s book, the real-life Prenter was fired by Mercury apparently for another reason. As recalled by Queen’s former roadie Peter Hince, Prenter threw a party at Freddie’s residence, and the place got trashed. “So Freddie sacked him,” Hince recalled. “Paul started ranting, ‘I’m gonna do this!’ and ‘I’m gonna do that!’ And that’s exactly what he did.”
Both May and Taylor said in later interviews that Prenter’s impact on Freddie was harmful. “He was certainly responsible for leading Freddie off on a different path, and it would be fair to say that we parted on terms that were less than good,” May later wrote in his book Queen in 3-D. “He was a very, very bad influence upon Freddie, hence on the band, really,” Taylor added in Days of Our Lives. Blake notes that Prenter died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991.
7. *“We Will Rock You”
In one of the trailers released before the movie’s premiere, Brian is seen in the studio teaching his bandmates a piece of music that involves both hand-clapping and foot-stomping that would give people something to do in unison at Queen shows. That song became the immortal anthem “We Will Rock You.” But what’s unusual about the clip is that Freddie is seen with short hair and a thick mustache, a look that’s generally associated with him from the 80’s.
The actual recording of “We Will Rock You” took place in 1977 when Mercury didn’t have a mustache and still had longer hair, at least publicly. It is true that May wanted to write a crowd anthem after he saw audiences singing after the end of a Queen show at Bingley Hall. “On this particular occasion, they didn’t stop,” May recalled in Days of Our Lives. “When we went offstage, they sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to us. I gone to sleep thinking, ‘What can an audience do? They’re all crammed in there, they can’t do much, but they can stamp their feet, they can clap their hands and they can sing.’ So I woke up with ‘We Will Rock You’ in my head.”
8. * Queen Actually Broke Up?
The four members of Queen all had headstrong personalities and different musical ideas. Not surprisingly, they fought over what songs would end up on albums and which would be released as singles. In that respect, the movie accurately captures that tension. But a scene that takes place in the early 80’s, where Freddie announces to the rest of the band that he wants to go solo, leaves the impression that he broke up Queen.
According to books, articles and documentaries, it was unanimously agreed among all four members that they needed to take a break after 1982’s Hot Space.And it wasn’t only Mercury who recorded his first solo album, Mr. Bad Guy,during this period; May had his Star Fleet Project record, and Taylor prepared for what would become the 1984 album, Strange Frontier. (Taylor had also released a solo single, “I Wanna Testify,” in 1977.) Queen later regrouped in 1983 to record The Works, generally considered a return to form after Hot Space.
Also in the movie, when the band meets to discuss performing together again at Live Aid, Freddie agrees that all future songwriting credits would be shared equally in order to appease his bandmates. In reality, the members of Queen didn’t share songwriting credits for an entire album until 1989’s The Miracle. “It was breaking up the whole time!” May said to Mojo in 2017. “All of us left the band at some point, and not just one time — all the way through. But we always came back.”
9. *Mercury’s HIV Diagnosis
One of the most poignant moments in Bohemian Rhapsody is when Freddie learns he’s HIV positive after a consultation with a doctor — which, in the movie, happens before Queen’s Live Aid appearance in 1985. One day, after Queen rehearses for the big event, Freddie bravely tells his bandmates about his condition and they immediately rally around him.
But in previous narratives, both official and unofficial, Mercury’s HIV diagnosis happened sometime after Live Aid or the band’s 1986 Magic tour, and that the other members of Queen didn’t know about the singer’s illness until 1987 or 1988. “As soon as we realized Freddie was ill,” May told Mojo in 1999, “we clustered around him like a protective shell. We were lying to everyone, even our own families, because he didn’t want the world intruding on his struggle. He used to say, ‘I don’t want people buying our records out of sympathy.’ We all became very close.” Despite being hounded by the media about his frail health, Mercury didn’t publicly reveal that he had AIDS until Nov. 23, 1991, the day before he died.
Reviews have generally been good for the movie which unspools Friday; with star Rami Malek getting numerous positive mentions. I was always a huge fan and even more so now.
One of the hidden behind-the-scenes dramas is that original director Bryan Singer, was fired and one Dexter Fletcher was brought in. Singer’s credit still appears on the film (which I totally do not understand) and Fletcher has gone onto to do the forthcoming bio-pic on Elton John (yes, former-John manager John Reid will be in this one too!). Believe me, the amount of ink that Fletcher has already generated on this bodes well for his John-pic.
Facts are very often mixed and mashed-up for the screen … I’m already anticipating this for the John-pic. Stay tuned.
STATON’S HEARTS — Via Rolling Stone: In October 2017, Candi Staton was at a Nashville recording studio, working on a new song called “The Prize Is Not Worth the Pain.” As her band stretched out the disco-funk tune into an extended jam, the singer began improvising phrases and one-liners. At the very end, Staton eventually arrived at the hard, declarative truth she had been working toward the whole time:
“I am somebody,” she growled with a preacher’s conviction, “all by myself.”
When Mark Nevers, Staton’s producer, heard her sing that line, a lightbulb went on.
“It was just shocking,” he says. “I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s what this whole record’s about.’”
I am somebody all by myself. Candi Staton has been striving to live up to that promise throughout her career, while moving freely among a variety of scenes and eras. Her work has taken her from the golden-age gospel circuit of the Fifties to the historic R&B recording studios of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the early Seventies and the iconic New York clubs of the late Seventies, where Staton reinvented herself as a disco hitmaker with songs like “Victim” and “Young Hearts Run Free.”
In the Eighties, Staton emerged once again, this time as a contemporary gospel entertainer and dance-music luminary before eventually — with her acclaimed 2006 Nevers-produced comeback LP, His Hands — assuming the role of a latter-day roots/Americana pioneer.
Along the way, Staton has endured unimaginable personal trials, overcoming trauma as a young child and suffering through several abusive marriages. But by 2016, it had seemed as though the singer had finally arrived at some long-overdue peace. She had married for the sixth time, and was feeling more content with her professional and personal life than ever when, this past August, less than two weeks before her new album, Unstoppable, was set to be released, she received a fateful phone call as she was driving to rehearsal with her band.
In July, Staton had been putting on deodorant one morning when she noticed a lump on her left breast. She had waited a few weeks for the lump to go away, and when it didn’t, she went to the doctor. Now her doctor was on the phone, informing her that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“This is the big one, the granddaddy of them all,” she says of the diagnosis.
I was in a state of disbelief,” she continues. “I was like, ‘Did you just say ‘carcinoma’? I was in shock. I’ve always taken such good care of myself. How in the world did this happen to me?”
Staton took some time to live with the news by herself. “I’ve been through my crying spells and my depression and my anxiety,” she says. But almost immediately, the singer decided that she would go ahead with her August and September tour dates in support of her new LP.
“You go through your down days, you go through your pity days, but then you come up the next day and you say, ‘I’m not going to take this,’” she says. “‘You’re not going to take my life. I’m going to fight.’
“I do think, ‘How many other curveballs are going to be thrown in my path before I leave this Earth? Haven’t I had enough?’ I’ve had to fight from the day I was born all the way up until now, and now that I’m in my older age, I’m like, ‘I just don’t get a break, do I?’”
The diagnosis made Staton more determined than ever to spread the message of Unstoppable, a record that preaches hard-earned strength and self-assured confidence.
Though the album has come to serve as a statement for Staton’s own personal journey, the genesis of Staton’s project can be traced to the 2016 election. Not long after Donald Trump was elected, Nevers, who hadn’t recorded with Staton in close to a decade, reached out to the singer, realizing the world needed to hear from an empowered voice like hers now more than ever.
“The first thing Mark said to me was, ‘I just want a woman’s record. A woman who is assertive, a woman that’s not afraid of strength, to step out and show the world that they’ve got strength,’” Staton recalls. “So that’s what happened.”
Staton began looking back on a decade’s worth of songs she had been writing that addressed these types of ideas. There were songs with titles like “Confidence” and “Stand Up and Be Counted,” songs that demanded accountability and promoted self-worth. Her new album, she decided, would have a wide-ranging sound that encompassed the variety of styles she had been working in her entire life.
“Gospel and country and blues, all music, really, except jazz, have the same chord changes,” Staton says. “It’s just what you put into it.”
Unlike its recent, rootsier predecessors, Unstoppable incorporates more of the funk, disco and gospel-house that Staton spent the majority of her career singing.
“I think this is the record Candi has probably been wanting to make since the Seventies,” says Nevers. “She’s touched on it every now and then, with different songs throughout the years, but she’s never put it all into one package.”
Among those who know her music, Candi Staton is regarded as one of the great unheralded American voices of the latter half of the 20th century, a singer who has influenced everyone from Florence Welch to Jason Isbell and Mary J. Blige. “Candi’s a legend,” says David Macias, who released Unstoppable via the prestigious roots-music imprint Thirty Tigers, “although probably for too few people.”
“There are a lot of good singers, a lot of great technical singers that don’t interest me in the least because their voice doesn’t have that natural quality to it, and they have to make up for it by dancing around the notes, and that’s not something that Candi does,” Isbell, one of Staton’s foremost admirers, told me for a 2016 story I wrote on Staton for No Depression.
“When she’s emoting, vocally, it’s very, very soulful and tender, but it’s not overwrought. She doesn’t sound like she’s working too hard for it. It sounds like it just naturally comes out of her, and sometimes that’s the hardest trick to pull off.”
Staton’s most loyal following is in Western Europe, where she tours the festival circuit each summer performing “Young Hearts Run Free” and “You Got the Love” — songs that Staton refers to as “the national anthems of Europe.” But in the States, despite some late-career triumphs and a resurgent interest in the music of Muscle Shoals, Staton remains largely unknown outside soul and disco record-collector circles.
When we meet up to talk before her September show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Staton has Muscle Shoals on her mind. The last time she was in the city, in 2014, was to perform her song “I Ain’t Easy to Love” on David Letterman.That song, which featured next-generation Shoals artists Isbell and John Paul White, appeared on Staton’s album Life Happens, the last-ever record to be produced by legendary Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall before his death in January 2018.
Hall jump-started Staton’s career when, in 1969, she began recording a mix of country, blues and R&B at the producer’s FAME Studio. “There’s a tear in Candi’s voice in everything she sings,” Hall once wrote of the singer.
That work earned Staton two Grammy nominations and 16 R&B hits during a seven-year span with Hall. But none of Staton’s singles ever quite crossed over into the pop market, and for a variety of reasons, she never became a household name in the world of Southern soul.
Her entire life, Staton has drawn comparisons to Aretha Franklin, who also made her biggest initial impact in the world of soul and R&B at Muscle Shoals. Nevers considers Staton as “basically the Southern Aretha Franklin.” When Staton meets with Rolling Stone in New York, it’s just a few weeks after Franklin’s passing.
Staton and Franklin kept in touch throughout the years, e-mailing back and forth from time to time. “She was a big e-mailer,” Staton says. Shortly before Staton took the stage on Letterman back in 2014, she received an e-mail from Franklin. “I’m watching you,” it read.
On another occasion, Staton says that when she sat in with Paul Shaffer’s band on Letterman simply to sing backup vocals when coming out of commercial breaks, Franklin, watching once again, became enraged that her friend wasn’t receiving more of the spotlight. According to Staton, Aretha called Shaffer personally and yelled at him. “What’s wrong with you guys?” Franklin told the bandleader. “She’s a great singer. Let her sing!”
At this point, Staton has become accustomed to dealing with the loss of close friends and lifelong acquaintances. But another recent problem that’s been nagging at her lately, she tells me, is her ongoing legal dispute with her former label, Warner Bros., which released several of Staton’s disco albums in the mid-to-late Seventies, during the most well-known, and commercially successful, period of her career.
Her problems with Warner, she says, are twofold. For one, despite scoring several enduring hits like “Victim” and “Young Hearts Run Free” and selling hundreds of thousands of records internationally, Staton hasn’t received a single dollar in royalty payments from Warner Bros. since 1980, the year she stopped working with the label. According to recent royalty statements obtained by Rolling Stone, Warner Bros. claims that Staton still hasn’t earned back the money the label spent on her records in the Seventies.
“They sporadically send statements where they show that they are applying the royalties [Staton] is due to her un-recouped debut to the company,” says Bill Carpenter, Staton’s longtime associate. “We question the debt, period.”
Even more pressing, says Staton and her team, is Warner Bros.’ refusal to transfer the ownership of her master recordings from the late Seventies. Staton, and her lawyer, say Staton is the legal owner of those recordings, according to the 1976 Copyright Act, which stipulates that after a period of 35 years, artists can reclaim the copyrights to their own work for recordings made after 1978. For Staton, those include some of her signature recordings, including hit singles like 1978’s “Victim” and 1979’s “When You Wake Up Tomorrow.”
“Candi followed the rules, she terminated her contract and she recaptured her rights,” says Brian Levenson, Staton’s lawyer, who says that Staton should have had legal ownership of her master recordings ever since January 2016. “The issue is that Candi is the owner of those recordings and Warner is still trying to profit from them. They’re still selling those recordings.”
Warner Bros. did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
“I’m still fighting,” Staton says of her legal disputes.
Staton’s short promotional tour for Unstoppable went well, considering the circumstances. At 78, Staton is still a compelling, commanding live performer and entertainer: part R&B preacher, part disco diva. The most moving moment of her recent New York show, her first in the city since 2006, was when Staton transformed the 1964 soul standard “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” typically delivered as a passive devotional, into a declarative anthem of persistence and survival. Staton hadn’t yet shared her medical news with the world, but she sang the song as a promise and a reminder, both to her fans and to herself, of all the strength and guidance she’d soon be asking for in the months to come.
“It was amazing that I got through that tour,” she tells me afterward.
Having completed the tour, Staton has turned her focus toward treatment. She will soon begin chemotherapy and will undergo surgery in 2019. For now, she’s canceled all her remaining 2018 tour dates in order to fully devote herself to the long, strenuous battle toward recovery.
“I’ve slowed down a lot,” she says.
When I ask Staton if she can envision a future where she stops touring, and perhaps performing altogether, she doesn’t hesitate.
“It will come. It’s coming,” she says. Staton pauses for an instant, perhaps taking in the weight of what she’s just said, before repeating herself once more: “Its coming.”
In recent years, as Staton has gradually slowed down her touring schedule, she’s shifted her focus to speaking out on the issues nearest and dearest to her. For decades, Staton has been an advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual violence, but only in the past few years has she decided to share the most traumatic secret from her own life in hopes of helping others.
Staton’s 2016 memoir, Young Hearts Run Free, opens with a harrowing depiction of one of Staton’s relatives sexually abusing her as a young child. “This was the beginning of my downward spiral trying to maintain a normal relationship,” she writes.
Today, Staton describes her childhood trauma, which she did not share with anyone in her life for more than 40 years, as the origin point of so much of the abuse and violence she suffered throughout her first five marriages and divorces, including her marriage to Southern-soul hitmaker Clarence Carter. “He held tightly to my clothes, and then started beating me in the face,” Staton writes in Young Hearts Run Free of an alleged assault from Carter during their early-Seventies marriage (Carter did not respond to a request to comment).
Staton recorded Unstoppable just a few weeks before the beginning of #MeToo, but the singer had never waited for the rest of the world to care about her own story.
“I always tell people I was a #MeToo person long before that came about,” she says today. “I do this not because I want my dirty laundry out. I do this to save another generation from what I had to go through, because I’m not going to be on this Earth forever.
“You keep it a secret, and then it starts to sprout into other areas of your life,” she continues. “You don’t trust people. You don’t trust men, and it’s like it grows roots and starts to affect everything else in your life that’s happened to you.”
Despite her own advice, when Staton first received her breast-cancer diagnosis, she was tempted to keep the news to herself. “The first thing that goes through your mind is that you want to keep it a secret,” she says. “But you can’t get through it alone. You need help. I need that positive energy.”
The moment Staton realized she wanted to share her diagnosis with the world was the moment she realized she could, once again, became a source of inspiration, strength and guidance for others. In the months since learning about her breast cancer, Staton has already taken it upon herself to encourage everyone in her life to get mammograms. “If I can help save as many as I can save from this dreadful disease,” she says, “I will do it.
“This is going to be my new thing,” says Candi, who has decided that she will begin preaching and singing at the chapel of her cancer treatment center. “I’m going to preach and scream about it.”
A few weeks before her first round of surgery, Staton says that she’s found peace, once again, in her own strength as she faces the difficult path that lies ahead.
“I’m pretty settled now,” she says. “I’m ready to deal with this thing.”
SHORT TAKES —On the most recent Law And Order SVU episode, “Exile” I heard a distinct reference to Harvey Weinstein! Ripped from the headlines indeed … The group Change were one of the most successful post-disco dance/soul groups in the late 70’s and early-90’s. Famous for their hits “The Glow of Love” and “Searching,” the group is arguably most famous for helping to launch the career of a young Luther Vandross. Change was the brainchild of DJ Jacques Fred Petrus, who worked with producers Mauro Malavasi and Davide Romani to craft a new sound in soul with the demise of disco. These Italians combined with the best American talent in New York City they could find, including Vandross and Jocelyn Brown. Change’s debut album in 1980 The Glow of Love was a major hit in post-disco America, featuring not only “The Glow of Love” and “Searching” but also “A Lover’s Holiday” and “Angel In My Pocket.” Eight more albums followed, featuring more excellent dance tracks such as “You Are My Melody” and “Change of Heart.” The group’s album Turn On Your Radiowas their last, and the band came to an end with the death of Petrus. But now, the group is back and they’re sounding as fresh as ever. Malavasi and Romani have reunited to produce their new album Love 4 Love which is just out. The first single from the album “Hit or Miss” came out and it’s safe to say the Italian duo hasn’t lost their ability to create excellent mid-tempo grooves. We’ll have a full review come Monday …
NAMES IN THE NEWS — Mark Berry; Bruce Carbone; Ray Caviano; Anthony Sanfilippo; Debbie Gibson; Roger Friedman; Heather Moore; Ken Dashow; Zach Martin; Curtids Urbina; Tony Smith; Brad LeBeau; David Salidor; and, CHIP.