Of all the strutting, magnetic, charismatic performers the rock and pop world has seen over the past half century or so, Freddie Mercury was definitely up there with the best of them. Mercury, who died in 1991 at the age of just 45, was best known as the frontman of British rock group Queen. Besides his riveting stage presence, Mercury had a helluva – one might even say unique – voice. Well, almost.
Marc Martel, for one, sounds quite like the late vocalist and showman extraordinaire. The 45-year-old Montreal-born Christian rock singer is due back here, for a third time, to show Israeli audiences just how much he sounds like Mercury, with gigs for the Ultimate Queen Celebration lined up for July 27 (Haifa Congress Center) and July 28 (B-Side club in Tel Aviv).
Someone who was very close to the late megastar certainly thought so. In September 2011, Martel entered a competition to join Queen’s original drummer Roger Taylor’s official Queen tribute project, the Queen Extravaganza. He not only won the contest, the video of him singing Queen classic “Somebody to Love” became an overnight viral sensation, and it led to Martel going on a six-week tour with the Taylor entourage. He continued to perform in the show through to 2016. He also did sterling work for the silver screen, providing the vocals for some of the hits in 2018 movie Bohemian Rhapsody, the world’s highest grossing musical biop.
Then again, it did take the Canadian a while to get into Mercury and Queen. “I came across their music quite late, considering I’ve been a musician most of my life,” he confesses. “We had a lot of music in the house, but not Queen,” he laughs.
It was movies, rather than records or the radio, that eventually brought the British rockers into Martel’s evolving consciousness.
“The first time I remember hearing a Queen song, I was sitting in a theater with a friend of mine, watching [early ’90s comedy] Wayne’s World and I saw that infamous scene with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I remember the song itself making an impression on me.”
Still, it was not exactly love at first sound bite and it still took a while for him to fully enter the Queen orbit.
“At the time I was too young to draw any comparisons between my voice and Freddie’s,” he recalls.
That all changed when Martel started getting in on the rock act himself.
“I really dove into Queen’s repertoire when I started my own band and began playing shows. People immediately began comparing me to Freddie Mercury.” Martel could have had worse role models. “I thought, why don’t I see if I can learn a thing or two from this guy?” he chuckles.
We all have our idols when we are kids, but this clearly wasn’t a matter of Martel digging Mercury’s vocals and trying to imitate him to get more exposure on his local rock scene. He didn’t even get himself any formal training in the field.
“I never took voice lessons, but I always loved to sing,” he says. “But I took piano lessons from a very early age and, as soon as I could, I started learning pop songs off the radio and singing while playing. That was a very natural transition for me.”
The young man was a born mimic.
“My singing lessons were basically listening to the radio and figuring out if I could do the things these amazing artists were doing. There were people like George Michael and Richard Marx, any male artist that I heard that had a higher voice. That was my voice lessons.”
Anyone the youngster heard was prey for his mimicry tendencies.
“I remember, in the nineties, I spent a little too much time listening to Pearl Jam and I started sounding like [vocalist] Eddie Vedder.” But, as the jazz cats are fond of saying, he really needed to find his own voice. “When I hear some of my early records I kind of cringe. That really wasn’t my natural voice.”
Paradoxically, it was when Martel identified that propensity that he discovered his Mercury-like vocal quality.
“That was when the bass player in my band told me I naturally sound like Freddie Mercury, and that I should look to him because I could learn a lot. He said I should do that and I won’t sound like I’m faking it.”
There’s nothing like going with the flow.
“The truth is, no matter what I sing, whether it’s Queen or not Queen, people always hear Freddie Mercury in my voice so I don’t think that’s a bad thing to do.” Not bad at all.
It was that Wayne’s World soundtrack that did the trick.
“It was kind of a mind-blowing moment for me as a young musician. I’d never heard anything like that,” says Martel. “I’d heard opera before, I’d heard pop and rock and roll before. But I’d never heard all that in one song.”
That, and the unusual vocals, grabbed Martel and never let go.
“Also there was the singer. For a while I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.”
Martel eventually got a pretty good handle on Mercury the singer, as well as on the man behind the voice.
“I’ve heard lots of stories [about Mercury], maybe stories that aren’t necessary public knowledge,” he laughs. “I feel a little bit privileged there. But I still wouldn’t claim that I feel that I know who Freddie Mercury really was. I know a few of his life stories, some legendary moments of his life and maybe a few more intimate moments of his life. But he still seems like a very complex individual to me.”
What isn’t too complex is the matter of the song list for the forthcoming Israeli gigs.
“You know, when you do a tribute show it’s hard to get away from the hits,” Martel declares. “We switch a couple of songs each year, to keep it fresh for us, to keep it fresh for hardcore fans. We recently added ‘Bicycle Race’ and ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ (off the band’s 1978 release Jazz and 1973 self-titled album, respectively). And there’s ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ (from 1974 release Sheer Heart Attack). That’s a real fun song which probably most casual Queen fans have never heard,” Martel chuckles.
But, if you are not a die-hard Queen fan and still want to make it over to the Martel shows, fear not.
“You still have to have [hits] ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ and ‘Don’t Stop Me Now.’ We aim to please as far as possible, and throw in just enough ‘fresher material’ to keep it interesting for everyone.”
There doesn’t seem to be much chance of anyone getting bored at the Haifa Congress Center and B-Side later this month.
For tickets and more information: https://queenmartel-israel.co.il/