As lead guitarist for the British band Queen, Brian May, OBE, helped to establish their penchant for highly theatrical but always hard-driving rock that made them one of the most popular groups of the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to providing Queen with an astonishing sonic array of styles and sounds with his one-of-a-kind, handmade "Red Special" guitar, May also wrote many of their most enduring anthems, including "We Will Rock You," "I Want It All" and "Tie Your Mother Down," while also creating ornate arrangements and orchestrations that bridged the gap between rock-n-roll, classical composition and opera. When Queen called it quits after the tragic death of lead singer Freddie Mercury in 1992, May released two modestly received solo albums in 1993 and 1998, while also recording music for television and film. But Queen remained his best-loved progeny, and he returned to the group with bassist and close friend Roger Taylor and new singer Paul Rodgers in 2004, which drew huge audiences to their world tour. After bringing that edition of the group to a close in 2009, May focused his attention on collaborations with newer performers like Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert, while also completing a doctorate in astrophysics he began in 1972 before rock stardom beckoned. Throughout his four-decade career in music, May remained a hugely influential figure on generations of performers, including Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, while his body of work with Queen remained one of the highlights of '70s-era arena rock.
Born July 19, 1947 in the English village of Hampton, London, Brian Harold May was the only child of electronics engineer Harold May and his wife, Ruth. He developed a keen interest in music from an early age, learning to play the banjolele, or banjo ukulele, and piano before his seventh birthday. However, the influence of British guitar hero Hank Marvin of the Shadows caused him to shift his affection to that instrument. Initially, he played a Spanish acoustic model, but in 1964, the teenaged May and his father began building a homemade guitar, constructed largely from wood taken from an 18th century fireplace mantel. The resulting instrument, dubbed the "Red Special," was designed to have a greater range of pitches and sounds, as well as the ability to naturally produce feedback, which, prior to its construction and the rise of such sonically adventurous players as Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck, was not a desired effect in a guitar. The Red Special, which would become May's signature instrument for the next three decades, had its initial workout as part of a band called 1984, which he formed with fellow Hampton Grammar School student Tim Staffell. The group played shows on the London club circuit, including opening slots for Hendrix, Pink Floyd and T. Rex, before splitting in 1968 due to May's studies at Imperial College, where he majored in mathematics and physics.
His time out of the spotlight would be brief. That same year, he reunited with Staffell and drummer Roger Taylor to form a new group called Smile. The group recorded three tracks for Mercury before Staffell's departure forced them to disband in 1970. However, Smile had earned a devoted fan in Farouk Bulsara, a friend of Staffell's who appealed to May and Taylor to continue the band. Bulsara, who later changed his name to Freddie Mercury, was soon recruited to sing for the group that, after adding bassist John Deacon, became Queen, one of the most successful rock acts of the 1970s and 1980s. May's contributions to the band expanded far beyond his role as lead guitarist. He wrote many of their iconic hits, including "We Will Rock You," "Tie Your Mother Down," "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "I Want It All," and anchored Queen's trademark soaring harmonies with his lower-range vocals. May also served as arranger for many of the band's most complex creations, including a guitar mini-orchestra for "Good Company" and a vocal canon on "The Prophet." Most significantly, May's work with Queen encompassed a vast palette of guitar styles, including a shuddering tremolo on "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Stone Cold Crazy," slide and acoustic guitar, and tapping on the fretboard before it was popularized by Eddie Van Halen. The unique design of the Red Special also allowed him to produce an array of effects, including the synthesizer sounds on "Get Down, Make Love" and chimes on "Bohemian Rhapsody."
In 1983, May released his solo debut, the four-song EP Star Fleet Project, for which he was joined by Eddie Van Halen and several top studio musicians. When he reconvened with Queen in 1985, May's role within the group took on a protean quality, with some albums receiving more of his attention than others. A highpoint for May and the band that year occurred when Queen brought the house down at the Live Aid concert for hunger relief, organized by fellow Brit Bob Geldof. Music historians later voted their mini-concert of four songs as one of the greatest live performances in the history of rock, which brought the band back into favor with audiences after a bit of a languid period. Despite their resurgence, the late 1980s and early '90s were a particularly difficult period for the group, due largely to Mercury's diagnosis with HIV, which prevented them from touring in support of any records after 1986's A Kind of Magic. Armed with the knowledge that AIDS held a hugely negative stigma at that time, May, along with the rest of the band, protected their frontman's privacy, refusing to comment on Mercury's rapidly shrinking physique and increasing reclusiveness. May also found himself the focus of tabloid interest after the dissolution of his marriage to Chrissie Mullen, who was the mother of his three children, after reports of his affair with actress Anita Dobson were leaked to the press. The scandal preceded the deaths of both his father and Mercury, which brought Queen to a prematurely tragic end in 1991 and left May in a prolonged depression for several years.
He found solace in a long-gestating collection of solo material which eventually surfaced as Back to the Light (1993), his first full-length release outside of Queen. That same year, he reunited with Taylor and Deacon to complete Made in Heaven (1995), which featured a slew of vocals recorded shortly before Mercury's death. The album was a modest success in the United States, and May soon returned to the studio to complete his second solo effort, a collection of covers tentatively titled Heroes which, after the addition of some new original material, became Another World (1998). May subsequently worked on various screen projects, including music for television commercials and a mini-opera for the 1996 film "The Adventures of Pinocchio." In 2001, he and his former Queen bandmates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by longtime devotees Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters. Demand for the band's back catalog remained high into the new millennium, prompting May and Taylor to team with former Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers to form Queen + Paul Rodgers in 2004. Following May's appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005, he enjoyed exceptional success on a global tour with the new group, prompting them to try their hand at a studio album. The resulting effort, The Cosmos Rocks (2008), was a modest hit, but spurred another round of touring before May, Taylor and Rodgers put the group on indefinite hiatus, with Deakin officially retiring from the band around that time.
The following year, May and Taylor backed "American Idol" (Fox, 2002- ) winner Adam Lambert - whose vocal range was often compared to that of four-octave Mercury - at several live dates, while May also contributed to a track on Lady Gaga's massively popular Born this Way (2011) album. In the midst of so much musical activity, May also found time to finally complete the doctorate he had abandoned in the early 1970s to perform with Queen. He officially earned his Ph.D in astrophysics in 2007 before his appointment as Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University the following year. May co-authored three books on astrophysics, including The Cosmic Tourist with Sir Patrick Moore and Dr. Chris Linott in 2012. A lifelong collector of Victorian stereophotography, which was an early form of 3-D imagery, he published A Village Lost and Found (2009), which concerned the work of stereophotography innovator T.R. Williams. The book was awarded the Saxby Medal by the Royal Photographic Society in 2012. That same year, May and Taylor performed with singer Jessie J at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
By Paul Gaita