Rumors are currently floating that theatrical rock legends Queen will soon pick up where they left off in 1991 when frontman Freddie Mercury died of AIDS. No matter who the group chooses to replace the distinctive Mercury, its sound is sure to change as a result. But lead guitarist Brian May's magisterial musicianship will still be a major part of the mix.
May was born 52 years ago today in London. As a teenager, he began hand-carving his own guitars, whose strings he would pick with a coin. This unusual method contributed to his trademark echoes and tones, which would become an integral part of Queen's music.
May studied astronomy and physics at London's Imperial College and played in a band, the Others, which released the single "Oh Yeah." In 1966 May formed Smile with drummer Roger Taylor and bassist Tim Staffell. Smile released a U.S. single, "Earth," before Staffell quit to join ex-Bee Gee Colin Petersen's group Humpy Bong.
Staffell suggested that his roommate, former Sour Milk Sea and Wreckage vocalist Mercury, join Smile, renamed Queen, as lead singer. John Deacon later came aboard as bassist.
Engineers Roy Thomas Baker and John Anthony were impressed enough with the group's demo to help Queen sign with Trident Audio Productions. Elektra soon signed the band to a U.S. record deal.
After releasing their eponymous 1973 debut LP, featuring the single "Keep Yourself Alive," Queen scored a top-five UK smash with their second album, Queen II (1974). The same year's Sheer Heart Attack helped Queen become superstars in Britain and broke them in the United States with the #12 hit "Killer Queen."
Queen's A Night at the Opera (1975) cemented the band's reputation. The operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody" topped the UK singles chart for nine weeks and became a top-10 U.S. smash. The LP reached #1 in Britain and #4 in the U.S., and also spawned the hit "You're My Best Friend." The next year's A Day at the Races did similarly well, as "Somebody to Love" became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
With May's ringing guitar histrionics, Mercury's outrageous preening and the band's elaborate vocal harmonies, Queen became a global sensation both on record and onstage. News of the World featured the double-sided smash single "We Are the Champions"/"We Will Rock You," which is used to this day to pump up crowds at sports events.
In 1978 May played guitar on skiffle great Lonnie Donegan's LP Puttin' on the Style. Queen's Jazz made the top 10 in both the U.S. and UK, thanks to the humorous double-sided hit "Fat Bottomed Girls"/"Bicycle Race."
"Crazy Little Thing Called Love," from 1980's The Game (Queen's first album to top the chart in the U.S.), became Queen's first #1 single in the U.S. and was quickly followed to the top by "Another One Bites the Dust." Queen then had a hit single with David Bowie in "Under Pressure"
But after the dance-based Hot Space (1982) and 1984's The Works, featuring "Radio Ga-Ga," Queen's popularity began to fall in the States as the band stopped touring there. May's 1983 Star Fleet Project featured Eddie Van Halen.
Following two poor-selling albums in the U.S., rumors that Mercury had AIDS began to spread. The band was still a major force elsewhere and completed Innuendo before Mercury's death. The rest of the band staged an all-star tribute to Mercury at England's Wembley Stadium in 1992.
The comedy film "Wayne's World" then brought Queen massive success again in the U.S., as "Bohemian Rhapsody" featured in one of the movie's more memorable scenes shot to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1993 May issued Back to the Light and Queen released the Five Live EP, featuring their performance with George Michael at the Mercury tribute concert. Five years later, May issued Another World, featuring Jeff Beck and the Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins.
Earlier this year, May played guitar during a Taylor concert in England. In April Taylor told Britain's Press Association that he and May have discussed heading into the studio this year to "write a song and see what happens. The plan ... is to write the song first and then find the best voice for it."
Other birthdays: Allan Gorrie (Average White Band), 53; and Kevin Haskins (Love and Rockets, Bauhaus), 39.