Gary Mullen was a computer salesman in Scotland — a family man, with three kids — when a serendipitous phone call put him on course to become a world-traveling rock star.
The call came from the producers of a U.K. show called “Stars in Their Eyes,” which invited Mullen to audition for the show, featuring people impersonating famous singers.
“I was like, ‘I didn’t apply for that,’ ” Mullen said. “I thought it was one of my friends having a joke with me so I was pretty sarcastic with the gal on the phone.”
What he didn’t know was that his mother and wife had submitted a video of him performing a Queen song on karaoke.
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More than a decade after his “Stars in Their Eyes” appearance, Mullen makes his living performing Queen songs in the show “One Night of Queen,” a touring concert that comes to Cal Poly on Sunday.
In the canon of rock ’n’ roll music, Queen carved a special place thanks to Freddie Mercury’s operatic vocals, Brian May’s signature guitar sound, and unique songwriting that combined prog rock, vaudeville, funk, opera and show choir. Stadium rockers with a penchant for anthemic hits, Queen suffered a major setback when Mercury died of AIDS in 1991. While Paul Rodgers joined the band to success in 2004, the new band name — Queen + Paul Rodgers — acknowledged that the original Queen could not be re-created.
But it could be imitated, as Mullen has proven with his Mercury-like vocals and a stage demeanor that captures Mercury’s live panache.
“I’ve been a fan pretty much all of my life,” Mullen said by phone from a hotel in Seattle. “I was the classic kid in his bedroom singing, using your bed as a stage and a hairbrush (as a microphone).”
As a teen and 20-something, Mullen sang in bands, including a heavy metal group called Hellfire. When rock stardom didn’t result, the band members took day jobs and Mullen’s public performances were relegated to beer-aided karaoke nights. But no matter what song he sang, people said he sounded like Mercury.
“I was like, ‘Cool — he’s my hero,’ ” Mullen said. “ ‘I don’t hear it, but thanks anyway.’ ”
Apparently, viewers of “Stars in Their Eyes” did hear it, and Mullen became the biggest winner in the show’s 16-year history.
As the results were announced, Mullen appeared breathless and glassy-eyed.
“If you look at the footage, I look like I had been hit with a spade,” he said.
Yet, lacking a huge “American Idol”-type prize, he was poised to return to his day job and the occasional karaoke night.
“And then the offers started coming in, wanting me to perform here and perform there,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Why don’t I actually do this for a profession?’ I thought, ‘You know what — I’ll make a year of it and go back and do something else.’ And that was 11 years ago, so it’s been a hell of a year.”
While he looks more like Phil Collins than Freddie Mercury, Mullen procured a mustache and wig to play the part. Then he had to consider Mercury’s outlandish stage fashion.
“He was a thin guy of average height,” Mullen said. “Then, all of a sudden, he was this colossus onstage — like a giant peacock. So I was like, ‘Can I pull this off? Will this work?’ So I just went out and did it, and nobody threw bottles at me, so I thought, ‘Well — it’s working.’ ”
After performing as a one-man show for two years, he decided to hook up with a band. Fortunately, his friend David Brockett was a guitarist who could play Brian May songs and knew of other musicians. Since then, the act has taken to the road, traveling the world.
One of the band’s biggest shows — at the BBC’s Proms in the Park — featured a crowd of 45,000 in London’s Hyde Park. “There was a moment of ‘What the hell am I doing here? I used to sell computers. What am I doing onstage in front of 45,000 people?’ ”
But Queen was a beloved band. And Mullen and his band, the Works, aptly recreate classics such as “Killer Queen,” “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” Even Queen likes One Night of Queen, as Mullen found out when May invited him backstage at a Queen + Paul Rodgers show.
“We went backstage, and it was a total ‘Wayne’s World’ moment,” said Mullen, who took his bass player along. “You try to be cool, but it doesn’t work — you just feel like a couple of kids.”