For 18 years, Bob Bernhardt conducted the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, leading the orchestra through the dangerous maze of Puccini's opera "Turandot," across the seven movements of Holst's "The Planets," between the dark, angry and lyrical emotions of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor.
Oh yeah, and also wading into Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Bernhardt, who was music director and conductor of the CSO from 1992 until 2011, has performed concerts focused on the music of Queen three times, once with the CSO and twice with orchestras in other cities. And, while replicating the highly technical instrumentation and multi-layered production of the band's music was daunting enough, there was one thing he has never been able to do — find someone who sings like Freddie Mercury.
"He was fearless; he was vocally fearless," Bernhardt says. "That voice is alone in its generation for what it was able to do."
The memory of Mercury is especially poignant this week because Thanksgiving Day is the 25th anniversary of his death from AIDS at age 45. Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, he also would have turned 70 on Sept. 5.
When discussing his legacy in the world of music, fearlessness comes up often, spreading across all aspects of his career, beyond his voice and into his songwriting and stage performances.
"If you're really going to be a performer that transcends generations and, in his case, transcends his lifetime, you really have put it all out there," says Richard Winham, the British voice on WUTC-FM who also has taught classes on the history of rock music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Essentially, people say, he was a living example of the belief that, if you aren't going to take it to the edge and not fear falling off, then don't do it at all.
"Maybe one of the things to celebrate about Freddie is that there was nobody like him before, and there hasn't been anybody like him since," Winham says.
Mercury's voice — one of the most-recognizable in rock — is the first thing most people mention when his name comes up.
"I would love to meet the person who says he's not on the level of a great vocalist," says Chad Harriss, a communications professor at UTC who has written essays on pop culture subjects including music and TV.
Multi-octave and rich, Mercury's voice could growl, hit pristine notes, sing gorgeous melodies and falsetto his brains out. And braced by his inborn confidence, Mercury was able to jump musical genres, singing muscular hard rock one minute, sprightly rockabilly the next, prancing pop in one song then straight into operatic vocal leaps without pausing.
"His singing on 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love' is completely different from 'Killer Queen'," yet it's always recognizable as Mercury, notes Bernhardt, who remains as principal conductor for the CSO Pops.
In February, the Black Jacket Symphony, which performs note-for-note recreations of classic rock albums and has played the Tivoli Theatre several times, is coming to Chattanooga to tackle Queen's "Night at the Opera," yes, the one with "Bohemian Rhapsody." Band founder J. Willoughby says he wanted to perform the album for years, but he couldn't find a vocalist who could do what Mercury did.
"It was literally almost impossible," he says. "Freddie is so integral to Queen. If you don't have Freddie, you don't have Queen."
After several years of searching, listening to vocalists who thought they could mimic Mercury — "yeah, not really," Willoughby says — he had filed the idea away. Then a musician friend of his "knew a guy who knew a guy" who recommended Marc Martel, a vocalist out of Nashville. Willoughby went to Martel's website, listened to him sing and thought, "Holy moly, that's the guy!"
It was an added star on his resume that Martel was chosen by Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor to sing in "Queen Extravaganza," a traveling concert of Queen material.
From Martel's point of view, Mercury stuck with a vision and never veered off that track, always staying true to who he was and what he wanted.
"I see Freddie's legacy as the great example of pouring yourself into your work. Breaking through creative barriers. Never being satisfied with the status quo — particularly in his early work. Never letting what's popular dictate how your own art should look and sound."
Unfortunately, he adds, he can't find much of Mercury's influence in today's music
"I'm finding it more and more difficult to find his fingerprints in today's music," Martel says. "Queen's hits are as ubiquitous as ever, having reached classic status, and their permanent mark on popular music is undeniable.
"But Queen were not much for subtlety, or the formulaic, and I don't hear the big voices much in the most current music. Seems like we're in an era of less-is-more. I'm not sad about it, though — music needs to change to stay alive."
Mercury's songwriting was built on the same daredevil attitude as his vocals. He wrote lyrics and arranged everything from the ferocious hard rock of "Ogre Battle" to the syrupy romance of "Love of My Life." Unafraid of exploring whatever muse hit him at the time, he could create the 1890s homage of "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon," the militaristic command of "We Will Rock You," the jaunty rockabilly of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," even the gospel of "Somebody to Love."
"He borrows from multiple genres and styles, but it all ends up being him," Bernhardt says. "That's what composers have done through history; they take what's available and what's familiar and make it new or innovate it."
Harriss says he's not a huge fan of Queen — although he admits that the first 45 single he ever bought with his own money was the band's "Another One Bites the Dust" — but he has no doubt about the lasting appeal of the band and Freddie Mercury.
"I have a 14-year-old son, and Queen is one of his favorite bands," says Harriss. "I think he's enjoys the way that Queen was able to blur lines that exist between genres."
Mercury is also considered one of the great onstage showmen, able to control stadium crowds by alternately teasing, chastising, commanding and embracing. Queen's 20-minute set at 1985's Live Aid, in front of a crowd of about 72,000, has been called the greatest rock performance of all time, in no small part due to Mercury.
"That was entirely down to Freddie," guitarist May said years later. "The rest of us played OK, but Freddie was out there and took it to another level."
"When I'm performing I'm an extrovert, yet inside I'm a completely different man," Mercury once said.
From his point of view, Winham says, Mercury stands in the upper pantheon of rock frontmen.
"As a showman, I'd say he's up there with David Bowie or Mick Jagger," he says.
And then there's "Bohemian Rhapsody."
A swirling blend of pop balladry, hard rock, symphonic music and opera, almost the entire song "was all in Freddie's mind" even before recording began, May told the BBC. It was Mercury who came up with arrangement on the multi-tracked, harmonized vocals for the a cappella "Scaramouche Scaramouche" section, certainly the most audacious element of the song. Mercury, May and Taylor eventually sang 140 vocal overdubs on the vocals.
That sort of complexity "was leaps and bounds ahead of where technology was," Harriss says. "He wasn't doing this with with computers. He was doing it the old-fashioned way. That's incredibly difficult."
So difficult, in fact, Queen never tried to perform the a cappella section live. Instead, the band would leave the stage and let a tape handle the harmonies then return all guitar thunder and flashpots exploding when the song crashed headlong into hard-rock part that followed.
"Because the middle bit is a little work of art, it's something that's painted on a canvas and you can't really reproduce that – or, at least, we prefer not to," May told Rolling Stone in 2015 "It's a choice we made early on; we thought, 'We don't want to be standing there trying to reproduce 140 voices in the studio.' You can't really pretend you're doing that onstage."
At the end
Beyond his professional career, Harriss says, Mercury was also one of the first well-known entertainers to tell the world that he had AIDS and the first major rock star to do so. Coming a few years after the AIDS-related death of former Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson, Mercury's announcement brought worldwide attention to the disease, Harriss notes.
First diagnosed with HIV in 1987, Mercury kept it a secret for years, although it was much speculated about in the British press. On Nov. 22, 1991, he released a statement acknowledging that he had AIDS.
"The time has come now for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth and I hope that everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease," the statement read. "My privacy has always been very special to me and I am famous for my lack of interviews. Please understand this policy will continue."
He died two days after releasing the statement.
Contact Shawn Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327.