Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Memories of Mercury
Dakota, with Queen, on tour together in 1980

Members of Dakota have fond recollections of touring with the rock legend

Special to The Times Leader

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” a full-length feature film depicting the life of the late Freddie Mercury, opens in theaters across America on Friday. It is expected to take viewers inside the complex life of the late Queen frontman, who died in 1991, at the age of 45, of AIDS.

Bill Kelly and Jerry Hludzik, both natives of Northeastern Pennsylvania, have fond recollections of Mercury. Though they came from the opposite side of the Atlantic as the British singer, the three men shared one thing in common: a true love for music. And when their respective bands crossed paths for several months during the summer of 1980, friendships were formed and lasting memories were made.

Queen, at the time, was already a huge act in the United States and around the globe.  In prior years, songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “You’re My Best Friend,” “Somebody To Love” and “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions” had lifted the band up the charts and into country’s largest arenas. But in 1980, with the release of “The Game,” the group climbed to new heights. The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart and became the band’s best-selling record. Two of its tracks, “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” each hit No. 1 on singles chart.  And Dakota - a band based out of Northeastern Pennsylvania which featured Kelly and Hludzik - opened most of the shows on Queen’s American tour.

“It’s an amazing story,” says Kelly, a native of West Wyoming. “Michael Stahl, a good friend of our band, was running front-of-house sound for Queen on their tour. They already had an opening act, but they had only done two or three shows when Queen realized that they were terrible. And so Freddie fired them. The question then came up, ‘What are we going to do about an opening act?’ And Freddie said, ‘Well, we just won’t have an opener. We’ll just do a longer set.’ Well … that lasted about two shows. Freddie couldn’t do it. He had terrible trouble with nodes on his vocal chords. He could not pull it off. After the second or third show, he came into the dressing room and said, ‘I’m screwed. I need an opening act. What can I do?’ And Michael jumped up and said, ‘I’ve got your band, buddy. I’ve got your band.’ And on the strength of his word, we got put on that tour.”

For Kelly and Hludzik it was a second brush with national recognition. In 1971, while with the band The Buoys, they notched a Top-20 hit with the song “Timothy” and were major label contenders throughout the decade. By 1980, they’d moved on to a new musical project, Dakota. The group’s self-titled album was released on Columbia Records and featured the single “If It Takes All Night.” Coincidentally, Kelly says that on the same day that they found out they had landed the Queen tour, he and Hludzik had a meeting in New York where the two had two lobbied their record label for more tour support.

“We needed some financial backing, and we were not getting it,” he says. “They refused. And as we were leaving, we said, ‘You know, there’s a very good chance we can get the Queen tour.’ And they laughed at us. I’m not kidding. They laughed at us. When we left there, Jerry and I felt like two bumbling idiots. But when we called home, there was a message from Michael: ‘Be in Baton Rouge tomorrow by 5 p.m. You have three shows with Queen.”  

 'Bohemian Rhapsody,’ a new film depicting the life
of Freddie Mercury, opens Friday 
Their reaction was euphoric.

“We were out of our minds,” he says. “Jerry and I, if nothing else - when we were after something - were like two pit bulls. And so when this came through, we were totally over-the-top excited.”

Kelly says that although the band and its crew were actually just about to go hiatus and were readying for vacation, they were able to round up the troops and make it to Louisiana by the next day. Dakota’s three shows went well, and thus an offer was made for the band to stay on the road with Queen. It would last for two months, from June through August, and also included shows in Canada. It ended with three nights at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“What a thrill to take a look at the marquee, at the Garden, and see, ‘Queen with Dakota.’ “ says Kelly. “Are you kidding me?”

Kelly says that though he had great respect for Queen at the time, his own musical tastes leaned more towards bands such as The Eagles and Poco. He adds that while he had always appreciated Mercury’s singing voice, and the tone guitarist Brian May got with his instrument, he admits he didn’t even recognize May when the musician introduced himself to Dakota backstage on the first night of the tour.

“Of course, after the tour, I became such a huge fan,” he says. “And not only of their talent, but just the type of people they were. They were the most humble, professional group of guys we ever worked with. There was no axe to grind. There was no BS involved. Anything that they could do to make us do better, every night, they did.”

Kelly says that while standing off to the side of the stage, he watched Queen’s show every night.

“I watched every single show,” he says. “I was so blown away by this little 5’8, 140-pound guy who could take his shirt off, and get out there and prance around in front of 10,000 or 15,000 people and transform into this 6’4, 210-pound guy. I’m watching this like, ‘How did this just happen?’ He was larger-than-life. And one of the nicest, most professional musicians I’ve ever been around.”

One of Kelly’s favorite memories of the tour was knowing - because of the way Dakota was treated - that the respect was mutual. Queen genuinely liked Dakota.

“So many nights, I’d look to the side of the stage, and they’d be standing there watching us,” he says. “They were just so supportive all the time. Thumbs up all the time. They’d say, ‘Great show, blokes. Great show. (Kelly inserts a British accent.) You’re making us look good.’ Stuff like that … it was really awesome.”

Hludzik, a native a Hazleton, agrees.

“Freddie enjoyed what we did, and that was kind of neat,” he says. “That was once in a lifetime. He, at that time, was the king. Looking back at it, there aren’t too many headlining acts that take that time. He could have just brushed us off. It was special.”

Kelly shares another story that reveals Mercury’s humility.

“We got to Detroit, and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ was just exploding on the radio,” he says. “One of the TV stations in Detroit decided they were going to come in and do a feature on the band, and a part of it was going to be filming Queen in rehearsal, during sound check. And so of course what that did to us was completely eliminate our sound check. We had none. Well … Freddie felt so bad that it interfered with us getting a sound check that he had all of the guys carrying our gear. So picture Brian May grabbing a couple of my guitar stands and a guitar and putting them in place and Freddie carrying cymbal stands and putting them in place. I’m watching this thinking. ‘This is Queen. And they’re helping us get our gear together so we can do our job.’ It’s totally amazing. Where do you ever hear of any headliner doing that? They were wonderful.”
Actor Rami Malek portrays Freddie Mercury in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ 

One of the great traditions in rock and roll comes from when two bands that are on tour together are getting along well and enjoying each other’s company. Usually, that results in some pranks and hijinks. And the Queen/Dakota tour was no exception.

“Usually when an opening act spends time with a headliner, you can tell that you’re in good standing when they start pulling practical jokes on you,’” says Kelly.  “Well, Freddie had a section of his stage that they called his ‘Tooth.’ It was an extension that went out beyond the stage, and it’s where he would go out and prance around. It was made of this really shiny, slick material. Freddie came up to me one night and said, ‘If you want to go out and dance around on the extension, feel free.’ I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? Absolutely.’  

“There was a song called ‘Restless’ on the ‘Dakota’ album, and it had a fiery-type of solo,” he adds. “I’d run out, just as I was starting the solo, and hit my knees, and slide out to the edge of the stage. Of course when you slide out to the edge of the stage, 10,000 people go nuts. It’s kind of fun. So one night, we’re in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I hit the deck, on Freddie’s stage extension, and I’m sliding, and I’m sliding, and I’m sliding. I get to the very edge of the stage and I’m about to go off, and I kick my legs out, and somehow end up sitting on the edge of the stage, instead of going off into the crowd. I look down, and there were three members of Queen’s crew getting ready to catch me. What they had done was super-polished the surface, so that when I hit it, I went flying.”

Kelly laughs at the memory.

In addition to celebrating his music, the “Bohemian Rhapsody” film - which was done in cooperation with surviving members of Queen - is also expected to delve into Mercury’s sexuality. Though it was more taboo nearly 40 years ago, and Kelly says it was obvious that Mercury was gay, he adds that it wasn’t given much thought by anyone on the tour.

“It was what it was,” says Kelly. “He had a couple of different guys, and when they’d come out, we knew that was the local boyfriend or whatever. It was never an issue. It was no big deal. I was so na├»ve. I was in a conversation with Brain one night, and the whole thing about ‘queen’ being a gay reference hit me for the first time, and he just got the biggest kick out of that. He laughed at me for being so naive.”

Kelly says that at the time of “The Game” tour, both May and Queen bassist John Deacon were married, while drummer Roger Taylor was a “lover of fine women” and enjoyed meeting them at shows. Still, there was one night, at Madison Square Garden, when Mercury’s decadence crept into the backstage area.  

“There were two tents set up backstage,” says Kelly. “If you were heterosexual you went into one tent, and if you were gay, you went into the other. The heterosexual tent had beautiful women, who were topless, and were your waitresses. They’d come over and pour you a beer or get you something to eat. And of course all they were wearing were little black leather panties. And on the other side, in the other tent, they had these good looking stud guys in great shape and they’re wearing these little leather short pants.  And that was for the gay crowd. That was the only blatantly sexual thing I saw on the tour.”

Hludzik also remembers that night and being backstage, in the straight tent, with his father.

“He was happy,” he says with a chuckle. “He enjoyed it.”

"He was larger than life, And one of  the nicest, most professional
musicians I've even been around." - Bill Kelly, on Freddie Mercury
By all accounts, Dakota enjoyed every minute of its time with Queen. And Hludzik says that as recently as just a few years ago, he and his wife were guests of May at a show in Philadelphia where the group was performing with vocalist Adam Lambert. Backstage, he even got to spend some time with his old travel mate.

“He was super nice to us,” says Hludzik.  “He could not have been any more kind. He was such a gentleman.”

That, too, is how Kelly will always remember Mercury.

“The greatest compliment I ever had as a singer came from Freddie Mercury,” he says. “We were in Baltimore, and had just finished sound check, and as I was walking backstage I noticed that Freddie had been listening and watching. And he came up to me and said, ‘Man, how do you do that night after night after night?’ With all of the Dakota stuff, I sing atmosphere-high, all the time. I said, ‘That’s how I’ve had to sing to put food on the table for the past 10 years.’ It was tough, because he was really struggling with the nodes on his throat, and he’d get very down on himself that he couldn’t do more than two shows without taking two days off. And so it was just a wonderful compliment that he gave me.

“Freddie was such a flamboyant personality,” he adds. “And humility doesn’t necessarily come to mind when you think of him. But with my one-on-one interactions, I found him to be humble and sincere.”

This story also appeared in The Times Leader.

(Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs every Sunday from 9-10 p.m. on The River. Reach him at

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