45 Years Ago: Queen Scale R&B Gospel Heights With ‘Somebody to Love’
Both were exhaustive studio creations that later enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity, but Freddie Mercury was actually more proud of "Somebody to Love" than he was of Queen's acknowledged 1975 classic "Bohemian Rhapsody."
"OK, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is a big hit, but as far as my writing ability is concerned, I think I can write better," Mercury later said in the Queen: The Greatest documentary series. "For my estimation, I think a song like 'Somebody to Love' from the writing aspect [is] a better song."
His reasons went more toward the personal, rather than facts and figures. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was, of course, the bigger hit. But "Somebody to Love" arrived on Nov. 19, 1976, as the greatest-ever showcase for Mercury's love of gospel R&B in general and Aretha Franklin in particular.
This has been something of a dream project for Mercury. In fact, he suspected his bandmates were growing tired of hearing him talk about it. "There's me going on about Aretha Franklin, sort of made them go a bit mad," Mercury noted. "I just wanted to write something in that kind of thing. I was sort of incentivized by the gospel approach that she had on her albums, the earlier albums."
A No. 2 hit in the U.K., and No. 13 finisher on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, "Somebody to Love" shared the layered complexity of Queen's operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody" – but with a church pew-rattling soulfulness. They again worked exhaustively on every detail: The choir, seemingly numbering in the hundreds, features only the voices of Mercury, Brian May and Roger Taylor.
Mercury initially sketched out the song on piano, then began casting it in sections. May said everyone knew right away that Queen had their next signature single. "Freddie came in very well prepared with a lot of vocal parts, and we just worked our way through it," he said in Queen: The Greatest. "There was a very good feeling. I always remember thinking, 'Yeah, this is going to be something great.'"
As the sessions continued, however, Queen realized that the song was becoming unwieldy. They ultimately decided to cut out segments to streamline things. Some of the clippings ended up on various bootlegs, but their loss did nothing to diminish "Somebody to Love."
"We tried to keep the track in a loose, gospel-type feel," Taylor told Circus magazine in 1977. "I think it's the loosest track we've ever done."
Watch Queen's 'Somebody to Love' Video
The results match the technical genius of "Bohemian Rhapsody" but with a far more emotional underpinning. At the same time, May's towering guitar figure makes clear that this is a Queen recording rather than a dusty old Atlantic Records project.
"Freddie wanted to be Aretha Franklin," Brian May said in Queen: The Greatest. "You have to bear this in mind – and that explains everything. He loved Aretha, and this was his gospel epic. It kind of followed in the steps of 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' in the sense that we were building up these multiple vocal parts, but this time we were being a gospel choir, instead of being an English choir."
Technology wouldn't work in their favor on the road, however, as Queen's vocalists were once again reduced to their real-life trio status.
"'Somebody to Love' is a big production number – very, very vocal-orientated, which is a very heavy aspect of Queen," Mercury said in Freddie Mercury: His Life in His Own Words. "That's why 'Somebody to Love' is a killer to do live. I tell you, that is very nerve-racking, and the first time we did that song, we did it so fast because we just wanted to get it over with. Those kinds of tracks have to be arranged differently. I mean, how could you recreate a 160-piece gospel choir onstage?"
Taylor admitted they initially approached live performances with an understandable trepidation. "'Somebody to Love' was hard to do because there are so many voices on the record that I didn't know if we'd be able to do it," he told Melody Maker in 1977. "I enjoy playing it now, but when we first started the tour, we were dreading it when it came round in the set."
Left alone, however, Mercury began to bring out a new rawness in the song's searching lyrics. Even Queen's roadies would gather to hear him climb to unbelievable vocal heights while singing "can anybody find meeeee" onstage.
"Among the road crew there were songs you liked and songs you didn't like," head crew member Peter Hince told Mojo in 2009. "Somebody to Love," he noted, was "always one of Queen's best. The studio version was very polished, but onstage there was so much more guts to it."
"Somebody to Love" saw a huge resurgence in popularity into the new century, as a 2009 remake by the cast of Fox's Glee went to the Top 30 in both the U.K. and America. The Voice contestant Jordan Smith's update then debuted at No. 21 in the U.S. after he sang "Somebody to Love" during a December 2015 episode.
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