Martyn Jenkins, the lead singer of Florida-based tribute band Absolute Queen, has a favorite Freddie Mercury story.
It goes like this: 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 night at 4 a.m., Mercury appeared at Ward’s doorstep, woke him up, and asked him to wheel his piano out into the courtyard—he had an idea for a song.
“Kingsley stood there in his pajamas,” Jenkins says. “He said Freddie was in 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 on July 12, likes to tell this story at concerts, right before his band performs “Bohemian Rhapsody” themselves. “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 Freddie Mercury’s final concert with Queen at Knebworth Park), and he was at the 1992 tribute concert for Mercury at Wembley Stadium. He played in his first tribute band in England in the early ‘90s.
“It was really before tribute bands even existed,” Jenkins 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/AIDS worldwide. Jenkins has played onstage with Queen guitarist Brian May, and met drummer Roger Taylor. He’s met Mary Austin, Mercury’s ex-girlfriend and lifelong best friend; and Jim Hutton, Mercury’s longtime partner.
Jenkins moved to the U.S. in 1996, and ended up settling in Tampa. After a period working for a pharmaceutical company, he played in various tribute bands, including an AC/DC band called Highway to Hell. He gave Queen a try again six years ago, but it wasn’t until more recently that he felt 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 recreate the backing vocals that Queen did on their 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,” says Jenkins. Because the last time Queen toured in the U.S. was in 1982, most of the people Jenkins plays to never got to see the original band 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 singer — Jenkins was the only one in the group 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 in the U.S. “When I was playing Queen in England you could play anything you like, because everyone knew every song,” he says. In the U.S., Queen’s most popular album by far was The Game, and especially the single “Another One Bites the Dust.” Even “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t really become a hit here 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 Bohemian Rhapsody movie came out, and suddenly his audience 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, which audiences might not know. A recent show at House of Blues in Orlando completely sold out, with 400 people getting 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.”
When Jenkins saw the film, “I was blown away,” he says. “I was crying at the end. I couldn't believe how well that they’d done it.” While of course he noticed the changes the filmmakers had made to the timeline, overall he found it true to the band’s story. “They made it about the music, and that’s what I was most impressed with,” he says.
Of course, Bohemian Rhapsody was far from a critical darling. But many of the bad reviews it racked up seemed so focused on fact-checking the film — or making fun of the prosthetic teeth Rami Malek wore to play Freddie — that they missed some of what gave it 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 probably set out to learn to play the songs themselves, inspired by the scenes of Mercury working through early versions of his songs.
Playing Queen’s music (or trying to) gives you a new appreciation for just how difficult, complicated, and original it is. It has the drama of opera, the intensity of rock, the swelling joy of upbeat, earnest pop. Sometimes it has the perfect over-the-top-ness of musical theater, where the emotion is so heightened that a character absolutely has to 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,” says Jenkins. “I was in Britain when it came out as a single—no one had heard anything like it ever before.”
The sheer variety in the music is exacerbated by the fact that the band members wrote many of their songs independently, rather than together as a group. “Brian May’s songs are all written in major keys, and all the Freddie songs are written in black keys,” says Jenkins. “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.