It started out pretty simply, him singing karaoke at his local watering hole – The Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow, Scotland. As the night wore on, and the drinks kept coming, the inhibitions faded. Eventually it was time to let ’er rip, singing songs by his favorite artist.
“I’d just get drunk and sing Queen tunes,” remembers Gary Mullen, sitting in his hotel room in Texas while on his current tour. “Somebody would yell, ‘Hey! I’ll buy you a pint if you sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’” That’s all Mullen needed to hear, and he was off doing what’s become the best Freddie Mercury impersonation – ever.
Mullen and his five-member band The Works come to the Milwaukee Theatre March 18. If you think this is just another one of those myriad tribute bands, think again.
For his uncanny impersonation of Freddie Mercury, Mullen was the top vote getter (864,838 votes) in the history of the British TV series “Stars in Your Eyes.” And 10 years after winning that contest, Mullen’s Freddie Mercury is still winning acclaim. “One Night of Queen” sells out regularly across the United States.
One of the highlights of Mullen’s decade-long tribute to his favorite band was meeting original Queen guitarist Brian May, who invited him and his band mates backstage.
“I took our bass player (Billy Moffat) with me and before you know it, Brian is sitting beside me. And I couldn’t think of anything to say,” Mullen recalls with laughter. “He’s such a lovely guy. So nice. Obviously there are so many tribute bands (he can choose from) and he personally invited me.”
Another high point in his career came in a very private way. It happened one day when Mullen was asked for his autograph, which happens quite a bit. “She said that she was Freddie’s mum’s housekeeper,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Right. I’m the Pope.’” The woman produced photos showing her standing next to Freddie and his mother.
Mullen gave her the autograph, but the story continued. “A couple of days later I got an e-mail. It was from Freddie’s mum. It said, ‘Thank you very much for keeping my son’s memory alive,” Mullen says. “You can’t top that.”
Mullen become a Queen fan, he says, when he was 4 years old. By the time Freddie Mercury died in 1991 at age 45 from complications of AIDS, Mullen was a teenager. He went on to marry, start a family and “got a day job” as a computer salesman in his native Glasgow, all while performing karaoke.
When he was encouraged to try out for “Stars in Your Eyes,” Mullen scoffed at the idea. “I didn’t want to offend all the Queen fans out there,” he reminisces. But his wife and mother secretly sent in his application to the show. The rest, as they say, is history.
While the show is all Queen music (with the permission of the Queen estate), Mullen has his favorites. “I love ‘Keep Yourself Alive,’” he says. “It just drives with that drum solo. And I love the gospel feel to ‘Somebody to Love.’ It’s a great sing-along with the audience, and we really want people to be a part of the show.”
Mullen and The Works keep the music as accurately as possible to the Queen legacy. Mullen only has four other musicians on stage: Davie Brockett, guitar; Billy Moffat, bass; Jonathan Evans, drums; and Malcolm Gentle keyboards.
So how then does the group cover the harmonic territory of 180 voices (actually separate overdubs by the original members) used in the nearly six-minute opus “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
“We cheat,” says Mullen, without missing a beat. “We leave the stage in the middle part and there’s a light show” while a tape plays the original Queen music. While some Queen purists have taken issue with this, Mullen’s all about providing the audience with the best possible experience within the show’s two one-hour sets (plus a 20-minute intermission to cozy up to the merchandise booths).
“We hope to give the audience a feeling of what a Queen show would be like with the energy of Freddie. The guy wouldn’t stand still,” Mullen says. “The beautiful thing about music is that it transcends gender, race, color, creed. Everybody – kids, mums, dads, grand mums – music just brings everybody together.”