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On This Day in Music... April 20, 1992: Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness Reaches an Audience of a Billion

The star-studded event featured George Michael, Guns N' Roses and David Bowie, and helped bring worldwide attention to the AIDS crisis.

freddie mercury tribute
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David Bowie, Roger Daltrey and Axl Rose perform at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.

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Freddie Mercury was neither the first nor the last music icon to succumb to AIDS-related causes during the disease's devastating spread in the 1980s and '90s. But his shocking death on Nov. 24, 1991 -- just a day after he publicly revealed he had contracted the virus -- galvanized the global music community in both grief and resolve.

Rumors about Mercury's health had circulated for years during the late 1980s, and they only grew more prevalent after Queen's appearance at the BRIT Awards in 1990, during which the usually irrepressible frontman seemed noticeably thinner and more frail. Yet for years Mercury denied he had contracted the HIV virus, until finally releasing a statement on Nov. 23, in which he said: "I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it correct to keep this information private to date to protect the privacy of those around me. However, 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."

Mercury was hardly alone in wanting to keep his diagnosis private. Though HIV and AIDS had been widely discussed for years at this point, the punishing society-wide combination of fear, misinformation and virulent homophobia often compelled those ailing from the disease to suffer in silence, understandably worried about being ostracized or discriminated against.

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Source: MEGA

Mercury passed away on Nov. 24, 1991.

According to Queen guitarist Brian May, the idea to honor Mercury with a massive sendoff began to sprout the night of his death, and over the next several months preparations went into overdrive. London's Wembley Stadium -- the venue for Queen's already-legendary performance at Live Aid less than a decade earlier -- was chosen as the location, and promoters began negotiations to broadcast the concert worldwide. And perhaps most importantly, the event was to be a vehicle to raise awareness about AIDS, with all proceeds going toward research and relief efforts.

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freddie mercury funeral
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Queen guitarist Brian May attends Mercury's funeral in 1991.

The show opened with Queen's three surviving members -- May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor -- delivering a short eulogy to Mercury, followed by a rapid-fire series of mini-sets from Metallica, Def Leppard, Spinal Tap and Guns N' Roses (more on that later), as well as a speech from Elizabeth Taylor about AIDS prevention. But the real fireworks came after an intermission, at which point May, Deacon and Taylor accompanied a who's-who of rock royalty through a dozen of Queen's best-loved songs. Among the highlights: Annie Lennox joined David Bowie to perform his Queen collaboration "Under Pressure"; the Who's Roger Daltrey and Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi tackled "I Want It All"; and Robert Plant emerged to sing "Innuendo" and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

For the penultimate song of the show, Axl Rose and Elton John both took the stage for an explosive run through "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen's operatic epic that had been enjoying a fresh round of popularity thanks to an appearance in Wayne's World just a few months earlier. Rose's presence at the event had already drawn disapproval from several AIDS awareness groups and gay rights crusaders thanks to the lyrics of Guns N' Roses' "One in a Million," which include a gay slur as well as fairly callous reference to AIDS itself. Rose was never particularly convincing or eloquent when pressed on the subject, yet he was an unabashed worshipper of both Mercury and John, who was then perhaps the most notable openly queer pop star in the world. As uncomfortable or ambiguous as the moment may have felt for some, it was also possible to see Rose's participation as a small but important step toward progress; that early breakthrough in which antagonists start to become allies. (For his part, May referred to that particular performance as "a moment to take to my grave" while revisiting the concert in 2021.)

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Annie Lennox and David Bowie perform 'Under Pressure' at the tribute.

While Rose and John's performance dominated much of the discourse, theirs would not prove to be the concert's most enduring moment. Those honors go to George Michael, who delivered a showstopping, intensely emotional rendition of "Somebody to Love" that has become nearly as beloved as the original recording itself. (Unbeknownst to the Wembley audience, or indeed to almost everyone, Michael's partner Anselmo Feleppa was himself battling AIDS at the time, and would pass away the following year.)

Michael later remembered of the performance: "It was probably the proudest moment of my career, because it was me living out a childhood fantasy: to sing one of Freddie’s songs in front of 80,000 people."

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Proceeds raised from the concert would be used to kickstart the Mercury Phoenix Trust, which remains active and operational to this day. In the months that followed there were quibbles about exactly how much money the benefit actually generated, although Queen publicist Roxy Meade freely insisted, ”the emphasis was always made that this was not a fund-raising exercise. The accent was on awareness."

"Raising awareness" is a slippery idea, and the term has often been used and abused by philanthropic efforts that do little more than allow the participants to pat one another on the back. But in this particular case, awareness actually was raised, at a time when simply putting HIV/AIDS prevention at the top of the headlines was a victory in itself. In addition to the 80,000 or so people who crowded Wembley Stadium, the concert was broadcast by television and radio to 76 different countries, reaching an estimated audience of one billion. How many of those one billion people knew little to nothing about AIDS before -- or believed one of the many different conspiracy theories that flowed freely at the time -- only to suddenly hear Elizabeth Taylor explaining the importance of condom usage?

Mercury's death in 1991 came mere weeks after NBA great Magic Johnson voluntarily revealed he had contracted HIV, and suddenly millions who had previously attempted to downplay or ignore the epidemic found it increasingly difficult to do so. A year after the Freddie Mercury Tribute came the million-strong Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, the casting of the HIV-positive Pedro Zamora on The Real World, and the release of the film Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for portraying an attorney battling AIDS. The culture underwent a dramatic shift in its understanding of the disease in just a few short years, and the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert played an indelible role in that process.


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