How The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert Became the Biggest All-Star Gig of the '90s

George Michael performs at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
George Michael performs at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert / Michael Putland/GettyImages

On July 13, 1985, London's Wembley Stadium hosted the legendary Live Aid charity concert, which provided the setting for what would become Freddie Mercury’s most iconic performance—a dazzling display of showmanship in which Queen's mustachioed frontman had the entire crowd in the palm of his hand. Sadly, just seven years after the famous "Ay-Ohs" of that day, that same stage became the setting for Mercury's musical eulogy. 

The seeds for The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert were first sewn in the late-night hours of November 24, 1991. That was the day Mercury died of complications from AIDS—just 24 hours after publicly revealing his diagnosis. Mercury's bandmates—Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor—and their manager, Jim Beech, wanted to give their longtime musical collaborator a suitably grand send-off. They were also determined to bring more awareness to the illness that took Mercury's life, while raising money to help fund further HIV and AIDS research.

As one of the biggest-selling and most influential groups in rock history, the surviving members of Queen could call upon some pretty impressive guests for the occasion—and thanks to Mercury’s fondness for mixing in glamorous showbiz circles, some very eclectic talents, too. Where else could one see metal giants Metallica, ‘80s soul singer Paul Young, and Hollywood royalty Liza Minnelli on the same bill? Not that the 72,000 people who sold out the concert in three hours were aware of just how diverse the line-up would be. In fact, not a single name had been confirmed when tickets went on sale. Queen fans are nothing if not trusting. 

Under Pressure

Admittedly, not everyone was happy when news emerged of which acts had signed up. AIDS activist group ACT UP took particular umbrage with the inclusion of Guns N’ Roses due to the group’s perceived homophobia on their Appetite for Destruction album. Axl Rose didn’t exactly do himself any favors by showing up in a T-shirt that was tastelessly emblazoned with the phrase “Kill Your Idols,” either. (He eventually changed into a football jersey.) Still, the show's conveyor belt approach meant that even if you didn't love one particular act, you wouldn't have to wait too long for someone more appealing to take the stage. 

Elton John And Axl Rose perform at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.
Elton John And Axl Rose perform at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. / Michael Putland/GettyImages

A show of two halves, the Tribute Concert—which took place on April 20, 1992—opened with a welcoming message from Queen before giving a who’s who of ‘80s and ’90s rockers the chance to pay their respects to Mercury and his talents. Some artists showed a more obvious affinity for the band: Extreme, of "More Than Words" fame, raced through a hit-packed medley featuring everything from “Fat Bottomed Girls” to “Another One Bites the Dust,” while Def Leppard invited May to join them for a cover of “Now I’m Here.” Meanwhile, other artists appeared to use the all-star gig as more of a promotional opportunity for their latest albums by simply playing their own hits. U2, appearing via satellite from California, dedicated a live performance of their tune, "Until the End of the World," to Mercury.

Much of the first half of the show's schedule seemed to have been organized via a random entertainer generator, with a brief appearance from rock parodists Spinal Tap, a South Africa-filmed performance from Afropop collective Mango Groove, and an AIDS prevention speech delivered by Elizabeth Taylor. The second half, however—which followed a brief intermission—was a little more logical, and no doubt what most attendees had come to see, as the remaining members of Queen took the stage. 

The Show Must Go On

Def Leppard perform at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.
Def Leppard perform at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. / Michael Putland/GettyImages

The first post-interval number, “Tie Your Mother Down,” was a significant milestone in Queen's history in more ways than one. It was the first time the band had played in public since Mercury’s death; May sang the opening verse and chorus. And with Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott taking over vocal duties for the rest of the song, it was also the first time they’d played with a different frontman. Elliott later admitted that, at the time, he didn't realize how significant his performance had been.

Of course, Elliott was one of no fewer than 15 performers who stepped into Mercury’s shoes on that night, the reasons for which May explained in 2020 on the YouTube series Queen The Greatest. "The task of finding one person who could do everything that Freddie could do would have been pretty much impossible," he said. "The whole range of Queen songs is considerable. It’s a very, very colorful catalog with all kinds of different sorts of vocal approaches needed.”

Most of these approaches paid off. Seal (“Who Wants to Live Forever”) and Lisa Stansfield (“I Want to Break Free”) both represented the new vanguard of pop with aplomb. One of several returnees, Extreme’s Gary Cherone (“Hammer to Fall”) was the closest in spirit, commanding the stage in a manner which suggested he’d been taking tips from the footage of Mercury that had been played throughout the first half of the concert. And Elton John and Axl Rose made for an unlikely dream team on Queen’s signature number, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

(John was less enthused, however, about sharing the stage with everyone else on the closing number “We Are The Champions.” “I felt that I didn’t want to get involved in the bunfight," he said. "It was a very moving day, but I just felt kind of numbed by it.”)

The title of most impressive stand-in undeniably went to George Michael. The pop icon reminded everyone of his natural charisma and effortlessly soulful voice across three powerhouse numbers, two of which (“These Are The Days of Our Lives” and “Somebody to Love”) would appear on his UK number one EP Five Live. Queen would later employ Free’s Paul Rodgers and then American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert as permanent replacements for Mercury, with contrasting results. But everyone who walked out of Wembley Stadium that night believed that Michael was the most obvious successor to Mercury’s throne. 

Few were left thinking the same about Robert Plant, though. The rock god needed to rely on a lyric sheet to get through “Innuendo,” the band’s final UK chart-topper and one ironically inspired by Led Zeppelin. Plant was apparently so embarrassed by his showing that he asked producers to omit it from the 2002 DVD release of the concert. David Bowie, meanwhile, bewildered audiences when he suddenly dropped to his knees for a recital of “The Lord’s Prayer.”

“A couple of my pals were sitting near Spinal Tap and they were speechless with disbelief,” Bowie himself later said.

Don't Stop Me Now

An a-list lineup of performers gather for The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.
An a-list lineup of performers gather for The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. / Michael Putland/GettyImages

These unexpected antics helped to keep eyeballs across the world glued to the event and perhaps, in turn, save many lives, too. As George Michael stated live on stage, approximately 40 million people were predicted to contract HIV/AIDS by the turn of the millennium; the actual number proved to be just under that at 36.1 million

The funds raised by The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, however, didn’t quite match the level of awareness. Although initial reports claimed the concert had raked in $35 million, certain insiders told People Magazine the figure was closer to $8 million. In fact, a few believed the event struggled to break even. Nevertheless, whatever remained in the pot was enough to launch The Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charitable organization designed to continue the fight against AIDS and, as a result, become an essential component of the incomparable Mercury’s legacy.