Martyn Jenkins, the lead singer of the Florida-based tribute band Absolute Queen, has a favorite Freddie Mercury story.
While visiting the legendary Rockfield Studios in Wales, where Queen recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody,” founder Kingsley Ward led Jenkins to a courtyard outside. Ward pulled a tarpaulin off an old piano and told a tale: One day at 4 a.m., Mercury appeared at Ward’s doorstep, woke him, and asked him to wheel his piano into the courtyard — he had an idea for a song.
“Kingsley stood there in his pajamas,” Jenkins recalls. “He said Freddie was in a pink pair of pajama bottoms and a Donald Duck T-shirt, and he started right in the middle section of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ It was just him and Freddie, nobody else, and a few chickens in the moonlight, and he watched him start right in on that ‘I see a little silhouette of a man.’”
Jenkins, who will play Freddie Mercury onstage in Fort Lauderdale July 12, likes to tell this story at concerts right before his band performs the iconic Queen song. “I always tell the crowd so they get a perspective on the creativity that this man had and how spontaneously these ideas came to him,” he says.
Born and raised in Wales, Jenkins is a lifelong Queen fan. He saw the original band in concert several times (including Mercury’s final concert with Queen at Knebworth Park) and he was at the 1992 tribute concert for Mercury at Wembley Stadium. Jenkins played in his first tribute band in England in the early ‘90s.
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“It was really before tribute bands even existed,” he says. “We were an originals band, but we did a couple Queen songs. One of the guys that booked us regularly said to us one night: ‘Can you come down and play a couple Queen songs? Because, to be honest, your other music sucks, but the Queen stuff is really good.’”
Jenkins laughs. “He was brutally honest. And that’s how I first started with Queen.”
From there, he got involved with the International Queen Fan Club and the Mercury Phoenix Trust, the charity organization founded by the band in honor of Mercury to fight HIV and AIDS worldwide. Jenkins has played onstage with Queen guitarist Brian May and met drummer Roger Taylor. He’s also met Mary Austin, Mercury’s ex-girlfriend and lifelong best friend; and Jim Hutton, Mercury’s longtime partner.
Jenkins moved to the United States in 1996 and ended up settling in Tampa. After a period working for a pharmaceutical company, he played in various tribute bands, including the AC/DC homage Highway to Hell. He gave Queen a try again six years ago, but it wasn’t until more recently that he believed he had a group of musicians who could pull it off.
When Absolute Queen formed, they made an unusual choice at the suggestion of their keyboardist: They decided to re-create the backing vocals from Queen's studio albums. “We try and emulate what Queen did from an album perspective as opposed to the live setting, so it’s slightly different than what other tribute bands do,” Jenkins says. Because the last time Queen toured in the States was 1982, most of Jenkins' audiences never saw the original band perform live, so the album versions of the songs are what they know.
Of the six members of Absolute Queen — a keyboardist/synthesizer player, drummer, three guitarists, and Jenkins as lead vocalist — Jenkins was the only one who had played the music before, so the challenge was considerable. “Bohemian Rhapsody” alone took him about three months to dissect (he estimates it has about 125 vocal lines in it), and he then had to teach the harmonies to the rest of the band. “It was a ridiculous amount of work,” he says, “but now we have a two-hour set where the six of us sing live over our voices, and so it sounds huge and it sounds like the album.” He says it took about 18 months to put their current show together.
At first, Jenkins saw clear differences performing Queen stateside. “When I was playing Queen in England, you could play anything you like because everyone knew every song,” he says. In the States, Queen’s most popular album by far was The Game, especially the single “Another One Bites the Dust.” Even “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t really become a hit in America until it was used in the movie Wayne’s World in 1992. “Over here, it narrowed the kind of set that we could do compared to what I was doing in Britain,” Jenkins says.
Then, last November, the movie Bohemian Rhapsody came out, and suddenly his audiences grew — as did their knowledge of the music. In an Absolute Queen show now, you’ll hear nearly every song from the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack plus several others. Jenkins also tells stories about Mercury’s life and the band’s history that audiences might not know. A recent show at House of Blues in Orlando sold out, and 400 people had to be turned away.
“There were families, 8-year-old kids, they knew every word to things like ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ and ‘Killer Queen,’” Jenkins says. “It really made me smile. After all these years of not doing Queen, suddenly having this was a real shock, but this is one of the most pleasurable times of my life.”
“I was blown away,” he says of the first time he saw the film. “I was crying at the end. I couldn't believe how well that they’d done it.” Though he noticed the filmmakers' changes to the timeline, overall he found the movie true to the band’s story. “They made it about the music, and that’s what I was most impressed with."
However, Bohemian Rhapsody was far from a critical darling. But many of the bad reviews seemed so concerned with fact-checking — or making fun of the prosthetic teeth Rami Malek wore to play Freddie — they missed some of what gave the film heart: namely, the way it dealt with the music itself. After they saw the movie, many viewers felt like listening to Queen’s music nonstop. Some, inspired by the scenes of Mercury working through early versions of his songs, probably set out to learn to play the music themselves.
Playing (or trying to play) Queen’s music gives the performer a new appreciation for just how difficult, complicated, and original it is. It possesses the drama of opera, the intensity of rock, the swelling joy of upbeat, earnest pop. Sometimes it offers the perfect over-the-top aspects of musical theater, where the emotion is so heightened a character absolutely must start singing. Sometimes all of this is present in a single song. “If you dissect ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ it’s a ballad, then it’s an opera section, and then it’s a heavy-rock song,” Jenkins says. “I was in Britain when it came out as a single — no one had heard anything like it ever before.”
The variety in the music is bolstered by the fact that the bandmates wrote many of their songs independently rather than as a group. “Brian May’s songs are all written in major keys, and all the Freddie songs are written in black keys,” Jenkins explains. “Trying to sing and play some of these solos, you have to learn the guitar solos perfectly, because one note out of tune and it sounds terrible, in flat keys.” Then there’s Mercury’s voice, with its incredible range and particular inflections. When he sings, Jenkins isn’t trying to fool anyone or create an exact replica. “I try and change my voice to the nuances of Freddie, but I don’t try and sound like him because I can’t sound like him — no one can,” he says. “I’m still finding different ways of phrasing certain lines.”
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There’s a difference between a biopic and a documentary, between an original recording and a reenactment. Sometimes a movie, or perhaps a tribute concert, can get at a different kind of truth, making us think about what it might have been like to be in this creative process, before anyone knew what was going to happen. It can show us how high the stakes were, how unprecedented the work was, and how exciting it was to witness it in real time.
In Absolute Queen shows, Jenkins tells another story when he sings “The Show Must Go On.” “It was one of the last songs that Freddie sang,” he says. “The words are so poignant in it. The one that always gets me is he goes, ‘My makeup may be flaking, but my smile still stays on.’”
More than most people, Freddie Mercury seemed to understand the power of performance. It says a lot about him, and about Queen as a whole, that people are still excited about the music, still learning from it, and still deeply moved by it.