By the time Freddie Mercury arrived in his favorite American city for a sold-out 1978 Halloween night concert at Municipal Auditorium, Queen had already crossed that threshold from popular to international superstardom. A Night at the Opera, featuring Queen’s tour de force “Bohemian Rhapsody,” had seen to that just two years earlier.
Moments before the show began, a huge gondola tilted forward to act as a curtain and Freddie Mercury, making these sweeping arm motions, emerged out of the blue and green lights and smoke and bolted onto the stage “like a rooster, striking ballet poses, under an astral guitar blare that neatly skirts the edges of rock & roll,” wrote Circus Magazine’s Mark Mehler that night.
As box office manager for Beaver Productions, George Friedman was in charge of paying the band, and recalls that night vividly. “Queen were good players. They played hard. They weren’t druggies. They were serious about the show. They knew the spotlight was on them. They knew Freddie was getting everybody’s attention.
“Freddie was very much a showman but also a brilliant musician. He played it hard. He was a skinny, little, pocket-sized guy, but he was so charismatic. He was a hit right out of the box that night. It was a very high-energy show.”
“The melodies are undistinguished, but the constant tempo changes of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘We Will Rock You’ keep an audience awake for nearly two hours of uninterrupted music,” wrote Mehler in Circus. “The lighting show is one of rock’s most ambitious. Eerie purple lights shine out over the heads of the audience, making their hair seem cloudlike and inanimate. At the midpoint, Freddie is a whirling dervish, dominating every corner of the stage.”
“His voice showed signs of wear so that he had to change his vocals to avoid high parts. Indeed, from time to time, the music suffers from not being able to duplicate the multi- tracked recorded vocals,” wrote Figaro’s Christopher Young. “But Mercury does have a certain presence and he pulls it off.”
Mercury starts the first encore in black-sequined orange hot pants “dancing around like Peter Pan,” said Circus. He wears a “revealing white body stocking” for the second encore. “As he wails ‘We Are the Champions,’ his voice warbles with mock emotion and he grasps the microphone for support,” wote Mehler. “At the apex of the triumphant denouement, the top executives of Elektra Records, who have sat smiling throughout the show, arise as one and walk out. Moments later, the show closes with a taping of ‘God Save the Queen’. Body and souls spent, Freddie ambles off stage, drained and spark-less.”
Figaro’s Christopher Young concluded, “Beaver [Productions] must really be a pinchpenny outfit not to have come up with a free pass for me to this concert. I mean my little $8.50 can’t mean that much to them, but it sure put a hole in my wallet for the week.
“It’s okay though, because they played for a little over two hours, and there was no boring warm up group, and although I would rather have been at a good Halloween party, this concert was worth the money.”
What Young probably did not know is that one of the more depraved, intemperate, lewd and licentious post-concert parties in rock history was only minutes away from beginning at the Fairmont Hotel as the audience poured out of Municipal Auditorium and into the Halloween night in New Orleans.
Queen was celebrating the release of their new album, Jazz, and they had come to the ideal city on the perfect night for a Halloween bash.
“We just wanted to have a bit of fun,” Freddie Mercury said in an interview. “The [album] title suggests one or two promotional possibilities….New Orleans was the obvious place to launch it.”
PR exec Bob Gibson told Queen’s manager Jim Breach that he had no idea how much it would cost to stage this soiree in the Crescent City. “I was very cocky when I was young [and I told Queen’s management] ‘I don’t want to hear the word “budget,”’” said Gibson in an interview. “It’s going to be successful and you know what I’m capable of.”
After several trips to New Orleans, Gibson decided that the Fairmont would be the perfect location for the party because it had a giant ballroom. “We wanted to create an environment where whatever you wanted to do was sanctioned, and we decided to play up the Halloween aspect of it. The room was very stark and bare, very high ceilings, so the first thing we did was to rent 50 dead trees.”
“The Fairmont was a clean, modern-looking hotel, but with the trees it ended up looking like a skeletal forest. It had a kind of witchcraft theme,” EMI’s Bob Hart said in an interview.
Fresh off the concert performance, Queen—Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon— came strutting into the Fairmont Hotel ballroom led by a trumpet playing Dixieland Jazz Band while more than 400 guests, including 80 reporters from around the world and over 50 EMI executives, were already chowing down on everything from oysters to Shrimp Creole to stuffed crabs and washing it all down with champagne served up by impeccably uniformed waiters.
Beaver’s George Friedman says it was an extravagant scene. “They had a transvestite, cross-dresser band,” he says. “The band was good. It was loud. The dance floor was packed up. They didn’t know who was who in there. They had these huge videos of 50 people naked on bicycles to debut the single ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ off the new album. It was a really weird scene.”
“The tables were laden with pyramids of food…like a bizarre medieval fantasy banquet for a king,” Sounds journalist Sylvie Simmons would say later. “Unfortunately, being vegetarian I couldn’t eat any of it. So my choice intake had to be liquid.”
Queen’s publicist was charged with the mission to round up every available “freak and eccentric” from the many houses of ill-repute in and around Bourbon Street and bring them back to the Fairmont as soon as humanly possible. The mission would force many Bourbon Street bars to close that night for a lack of employees.
“As Queen arrived, a flock of transvestites, fire-eaters, dancing girls, snake charmers and strippers dressed as nuns, appeared from the wings,” writes Mark Blake in his 2011 biography Is This the Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen. “The Rolling Stones’ disco hit ‘Miss You’ blared out of the speakers, as various female revelers shed their clothes on the dance floor. The festivities rolled on until daybreak with groupies dispensing blow jobs to music bigwigs in a back room, and one party girl stripping off to ‘smoke’ a cigarette in her vagina. Or so the story goes.”
Peter Hince, Queen’s head of crew, told reporter Johnny Black, “You’d be wading through the crowd and suddenly come across women tangled up with snakes, or jugglers, transsexuals, all kinds of extreme acts. Everything was going off at the same time. Freddie was signing naked girls’ bums. We wheeled out all these crates of booze and started partying on the bus. Some of these ‘girls,’ shall we say, decided they wanted to come on the bus with us. Next thing you know, one of my guys is down on his hands and knees, sticking his head up one of their skirts. Then he comes out and says: ‘This one’s definitely a girl, but look at this!’ He’d found a backstage pass in her knickers!”
Around 3 a.m., Mercury and company decided they needed some fresh air and went for a middle-of- the-night stroll down Bourbon Street.
“Freddie was in a great mood. I was pointing out what I considered cute boys, and Freddie was saying: “No, they’re gay,” Sylvie Simmons said in an interview. “Then we waved at them and it turned out sure enough, they were gay. I don’t remember him getting off with any of them though.”
Morning had broken, and with it the arrival of a $200,000 bill from the Fairmont. One week later, the Sun newspaper published a photograph of Freddie Mercury autographing a stripper’s bare bottom. The headline of the story: “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”
“Over the last three decades, the tale has taken on a life of its own to include all manner of bacchanalian excess: public sex, naked mud wrestling, a nude woman on a salver of raw meat, and most infamous of all, dwarfs, sometimes described as ‘hermaphrodite dwarfs,’ ferrying cocaine on trays strapped to their possibly bald heads,” writes Mark Blake in Is This the Real Life. “The one about the dwarfs and the bald-heads and the cocaine is not true,” a laughing Roger Taylor told Blake in 2008. “Actually it could have been true. If it’s true I never saw it, but I have to say that most of the stories from that night are not that exaggerated.”
EMI record company executive Bob Mercer had caught a flight to New Orleans especially for the post-concert party and told Blake that he doesn’t buy the story about the dwarfs and cocaine. As far as he knows, he was the only person at the party that had any blow. “Because all night I kept getting tapped on the shoulder by certain people and I kept having to go with them to my hotel room,” Mercer said. He would go to his room for the last time around 6 a.m. only to discover that he had been robbed.
A hungover Queen held court the next day at an early morning press conference. “The party was deliberately excessive,” said Brian May. “Partly for our own enjoyment, partly for friends to enjoy and partly for the hell of it. Roger Taylor added, “The trouble was, as time went on, we just got better and better at having a good time.”
Elektra Records Chairman Joe Smith said later, “It was definitely a Freddie party. He was testing the limits of what he could get away with. And people were kind of dazed because there had never seen anything quite like it.”