New York Times Feature Story!

He Sounds Just Like Freddie Mercury. And That’s Good for Business.

 

By Gavin Edwards

Feb. 20, 2019

 

There are three things Marc Martel says he won’t do to impersonate Freddie Mercury. He won’t wear Mercury’s trademark yellow jacket. He won’t go onstage wielding Mercury’s favored half microphone stand. And he won’t grow a full mustache. 

Here’s the one thing Martel needs to do: open his mouth. Through genetics and musical aptitude, the 42-year-old singer is a vocal doppelgänger for the Queen frontman. That’s a gift that has led Martel, formerly the leader of a Christian band in Canada, to a lucrative second career in recent years — and a prominent but invisible role in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the hit biopic nominated for five Academy Awards at the Oscars on Sunday. It’s not the life Martel planned, but it’s landed him on “American Idol” and in front of crowds of thousands worldwide. “I keep realizing how weird a situation I’m in,” Martel said in a phone interview. “I’m trying to keep a good head about it.” 

Rami Malek embodies Mercury onscreen, but as he told The New York Times last year, “No one wants to hear me sing.” During the performance sequences in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the movie sometimes employs Mercury’s actual vocals from the Queen archives, but that wasn’t always practical — some scenes demanded a stunt vocal-cord performer.

The film’s creators have conceded that the sung vocals in the movie are largely by Mercury and Martel, although they haven’t broken down the specifics of who contributed what; doing so might distract from Malek’s performance. Martel, who received a fleeting “additional vocals” billing, acknowledged that he worked on the movie, but citing his nondisclosure agreement, would not go into detail. That leaves him with a ghostly status much like that of Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voices both of Maria in the movie of “West Side Story” (for Natalie Wood) and Eliza in the movie of “My Fair Lady” (for Audrey Hepburn), without credit.

Even though Martel doesn’t get the awards-show glamour that Malek is enjoying, he’s proud of his contributions to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The first time he saw it wasn’t at a red-carpet event: He caught it in Cool Springs, Tenn., with his wife and manager, wearing “our comfy clothes.” He had wanted to enjoy the movie as a spectator, but “I couldn’t help waiting for the next scene where I was going to hear my own voice,” he said. So the Martels bought out a movie theater showing, invited 80 of their closest friends and treated it like a party. 

Martel grew up in Montreal listening to pop (George Michael was a favorite) and Christian music (his parents worked at a church as pastor and choir director). All he knew of Queen was the scene in the 1992 comedy “Wayne’s World” where the characters rock out to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in an AMC Pacer.

He started a Christian rock band called Downhere with some friends in college; in 2001, they signed a record deal and moved to Nashville. He believes that the first person to tell him he sounded like Freddie Mercury was the Downhere bassist Glenn Lavender. It was a compliment, given how Mercury was one of the great singers in rock history, possessing a pellucid tone, a three-octave range and an operatic quality that could make even paeans to bicycle riding sound emotional. But Martel didn’t initially take it as praise. 

“That’s cool — I sound unoriginal,” he recalled thinking. But he checked out Queen’s greatest hits, hoping to learn something from Mercury (who died in 1991 of AIDS-related pneumonia): “I never thought it would amount to anything more than a fun karaoke trick.”

In 2011, however, with Downhere having run its course after seven studio albums, Martel heard that the Queen drummer Roger Taylor was putting together an authorized tribute band called the Queen Extravaganza and won a spot on vocals with an audition video of “Somebody to Love” that went viral.

Martel sounds close enough to Mercury that he can itemize the subtle differences: “I’m not British, so I don’t usually sing with an accent. I don’t have extra teeth like he did, so my Ss come out normally — his were very piercing,” he said. “But even if I don’t try to sing like Freddie Mercury, people still hear him in my voice, no matter what I do. I have this weird unique thing where I can sound like him, so why wouldn’t I?” 

Martel now steadily tours with his own Ultimate Queen Celebration and also does shows with the Black Jacket Symphony and Symphonic Queen. He said the Queen catalog has made him a better singer and inspired him to take better care of his voice — while he felt comfortable backing off a high note in one of his own songs when necessary, he doesn’t like to disappoint Queen fans who expect to hear a song the way they know it from the radio. 

Last year he released an album of Queen covers, “Thunderbolt & Lightning,” and his YouTube covers of Queen classics have become popular enough that he finds himself recognized in public — especially outside the United States, which was never the band’s biggest market. Martel, who has concerts booked in 14 countries this year, from Ukraine to New Zealand, notes that American crowds generally don’t know the arm movements and clapping that traditionally accompany “Radio Ga Ga,” while international audiences will do it unprompted. 

Although Queen has been a part of his life for nearly a decade, Martel is still figuring out “what being a tribute artist means,” he said. “For some reason, there’s a stigma around it.” A little defensively, he cited Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and classical musicians as interpreters of other people’s work. Martel records an annual Christmas EP and still writes songs, but he doesn’t currently have an outlet for them; he dreams of a day when he can throw just one original into a set of Queen covers. 

He recalled a recent conversation with his manager, who told him, “I’d like you to consider your songwriting the way I view my golf game — I love playing golf, but it’s not what’s paying the bills right now.” That was hard for Martel to hear, but he ultimately accepted its wisdom. 

“The next five years, there’s going to be a lot of Queen,” he said, and chuckled. “But at the same time, I’m going to work on my golf game.”

21 comments

  • John Forbes

    John Forbes Atlanta, GA

    Congratulations Marc -- I have followed your career for sometime -- your super talented and a brother (I love your covers of Keith Green - Asleep In The Light) God bless - just found out your concert is sold out in Atlanta - otherwise I would be there. Peace John jforbesprd@gmail.com

    Congratulations Marc -- I have followed your career for sometime -- your super talented and a brother (I love your covers of Keith Green - Asleep In The Light) God bless - just found out your concert is sold out in Atlanta - otherwise I would be there.

    Peace
    John
    jforbesprd@gmail.com

  • Silvia Botta

    Silvia Botta North Carolina

    You are wonderful! Wow ! Congratulations 👍👋👋👋👋👋👋

    You are wonderful! Wow ! Congratulations 👍👋👋👋👋👋👋

  • Alfred

    Alfred Toronto

    Keep going Marc! Work that golf game when you have time, I would love to hear that voice in a new modern Queen-inspired musical experience.

    Keep going Marc! Work that golf game when you have time, I would love to hear that voice in a new modern Queen-inspired musical experience.

  • Janine

    Janine England

    Hi marc love you so much.....plse could u sing a winters tale plse .....mwah xxxx

    Hi marc love you so much.....plse could u sing a winters tale plse .....mwah xxxx

  • Fiona

    Fiona US

    I’m craving a Marc recording of Melancholy Blues.

    I’m craving a Marc recording of Melancholy Blues.

  • Rhonda Cattani

    Rhonda Cattani Winnipeg

    Seriously, you have been so gifted with amazing talent! God has blessed you with pipes but also with a brilliant “golf game”. I hope to hear something “Marc” again very soon. Downhere Fan Forever!!!

    Seriously, you have been so gifted with amazing talent! God has blessed you with pipes but also with a brilliant “golf game”. I hope to hear something “Marc” again very soon.

    Downhere Fan Forever!!!

  • Natalia

    Natalia Malaga. Spain

    I love your music and the works all of them. I discover your music and i fall in love with you an i wish that you would go to the conciert for Spain in the south.

    I love your music and the works all of them. I discover your music and i fall in love with you an i wish that you would go to the conciert for Spain in the south.

  • massimo romano

    massimo romano sicilia italy

    i fell in love with your voice ! thank you thank you very much

    i fell in love with your voice ! thank you thank you very much

  • Steve H.

    Steve H. Iowa

    Marc, I do love your Queen music...as Queen is (was) my favorite band...but both my wife and I would LOVE to hear a NEW "Downhere" album. You guys were so good, and we Loved the message as well. I have and will continue to buy any and everything you put out, from Downhere to all of your solo music. Thanks for doing what you do.

    Marc,
    I do love your Queen music...as Queen is (was) my favorite band...but both my wife and I would LOVE to hear a NEW "Downhere" album.
    You guys were so good, and we Loved the message as well. I have and will continue to buy any and everything you put out, from Downhere to all of your solo music. Thanks for doing what you do.

  • Alex

    Alex Vancouver, B.C.

    Hey Marc, when are you going to have a concert out here on the West coast. We love you out here (p.s. Queen w/ Adam L. has sold out a show with tickets ranging from $700 to $1000 out here. I'm sure you'd do well). You're fantastic. Can't wait to see you one day.

    Hey Marc, when are you going to have a concert out here on the West coast. We love you out here (p.s. Queen w/ Adam L. has sold out a show with tickets ranging from $700 to $1000 out here. I'm sure you'd do well). You're fantastic. Can't wait to see you one day.

  • Helen Moura

    Helen Moura São Paulo, Braail

    Marc, você é maravilhoso ! Amo ouvir você cantando, é magnificio! Quando você virá para BRASIL? Estou anciosa para assistir o seu show pessoalmente!!😍

    Marc, você é maravilhoso !
    Amo ouvir você cantando, é magnificio!
    Quando você virá para BRASIL?
    Estou anciosa para assistir o seu show pessoalmente!!😍

  • judy stahlman

    judy stahlman pa. usa

    marc. i just ordered 2 of your cds. thunder & lightening and impersonater. CAN'T wait to get it hope its signed ☘☘i love your music and everything about you and Crystal. i read everything i can get my. hands on.

    marc. i just ordered 2 of your cds. thunder & lightening and impersonater. CAN'T wait to get it hope its signed ☘☘i love your music and everything about you and Crystal. i read everything i can get my. hands on.

  • Deborah Pierro

    Deborah Pierro Millville

    Your concert last night was fab! You are super talented. The band is great, too!

    Your concert last night was fab! You are super talented. The band is great, too!

  • Linda tompkins

    Linda tompkins Port Orange fl

    We have our tickets to see you in Daytona beach in October!!! CANNOT WAIT!!!✌️❤️

    We have our tickets to see you in Daytona beach in October!!! CANNOT WAIT!!!✌️❤️

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  • Jerry

    Jerry LI NY

    I had the pleasure of seeing Queen with Freddie 4 times starting with Night of the opera tour. Marc is truly amazing in capturing Freddie’s vocals .. he’s spot on. Adam Lambert is very talented no doubt but Marc should b fronting Queen. Can’t imagine anyone sounding closers to Freddie than Marc..👍👍

    I had the pleasure of seeing Queen with Freddie 4 times starting with Night of the opera tour. Marc is truly amazing in capturing Freddie’s vocals .. he’s spot on.
    Adam Lambert is very talented no doubt but Marc should b fronting Queen.
    Can’t imagine anyone sounding closers to Freddie than Marc..👍👍

  • Karin Grabuskie Christie

    Karin Grabuskie Christie Raleigh NC

    Marc you are amazing and you have a gift. Keep sharing with the world. You gave me and my best friend in Raleigh the best concert ever at DPAC. I love Freddie's vocie and you capture that magic. You are your own person and I would buy anything Marc. The world loves Freddie and you bring his voice to life for us , let us have that as long as we can, WE THANK YOU FOR sharing your gift with us. See you in VA in FEB !! Cannot wait to see the show AGAIN!

    Marc you are amazing and you have a gift. Keep sharing with the world. You gave me and my best friend in Raleigh the best concert ever at DPAC. I love Freddie's vocie and you capture that magic. You are your own person and I would buy anything Marc. The world loves Freddie and you bring his voice to life for us , let us have that as long as we can, WE THANK YOU FOR sharing your gift with us. See you in VA in FEB !! Cannot wait to see the show AGAIN!

  • Kay Carroll

    Kay Carroll West TN

    Oh my word! Oh heavens! What a SPECIAL GIFT you have! Just “found “ you from a friend, and you are absolutely incredible! And that no way describes your talent!!! I do not usually go “gaga” over talent....... but..... I am Agag! Thank you and thank you for sharing you beautiful talent of music! May GOD continue to bless you!

    Oh my word! Oh heavens! What a SPECIAL GIFT you have! Just “found “ you from a friend, and you are absolutely incredible! And that no way describes your talent!!! I do not usually go “gaga” over talent....... but..... I am Agag! Thank you and thank you for sharing you beautiful talent of music! May GOD continue to bless you!

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