Not just any kid, obviously. The honor belongs to the son of Reinhold Mack, the legendary German producer who worked with Queen for five albums, starting with 1980’s The Game. Mercury and Mack met in 1979 when the band left their native England to record in Munich. Mack, who was working in Los Angeles at the time, flew in at short notice to work with the “Bohemian Rhapsody” superstars.null
“I came straight from the airport into the studio and there was the most gargantuan amount of equipment,” he tells PEOPLE. “The door flung open and Freddie comes down the stairs. Behind him [were] maybe six, seven people, like a tribe of bodyguards, wardrobe, cook. Freddie said, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Well, uh, I thought I was supposed to work with you.’ He said, ‘Um, no, not really. But since you’re here…’”
Mercury suggested they get to know each other better over some beers at the Chinese Tower, a landmark biergarten nearby. “Freddie was a gentleman. The gay thing wasn’t really on my radar, but at the time he was wearing ballerina slippers, a Hawaiian tropical shirt and matching shorts! We had a couple of beers, it was all very nice and then [we went] back to the studio.”null
Once they arrived, Mercury started to play a new song he’d written just a short time earlier in the bathtub of his Munich hotel. “He took an acoustic guitar and said, ‘Don’t mind me. I can’t play guitar’ — he could actually play a fairly decent rhythm guitar — ‘But I had this idea.’ That was ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love.’”
The track, Mack’s first co-production with the band, would be Queen’s first No. 1 in the U.S. He would also preside over their next stateside chart-topper, “Another One Bites the Dust,” though the change in sound from raw rock ‘n’ roll to electro-R&B ruffled some feathers in the group. “Freddie loved it, [bassist] John [Deacon] loved it, [drummer] Roger [Taylor] loved it — [guitarist] Brian [May]not so much,” Mack admits. “There were weird noises and backwards things I put there, but I didn’t mean to tell Brian where and what to play. I guess I just rolled over him and he never had the heart to say, ‘I’d like to do it like this.’ Then all of a sudden the company said, ‘We gotta release this. This is a hit.
Sessions for 1982’s Hot Space dragged on as they experimented with the synth-based sounds that were sweeping the dance clubs. According to Mack, the lengthy recording dates led his newly pregnant wife Ingrid to joke, “It’s easier to conceive and give birth to a child than get this album done!” Thus began a playful bet on the outcome of an unusual race: If the baby was born before the album was complete, Mercury agreed to be his godfather.null
The singer ultimately “lost” the bet, and the child was named “John Frederick” — or “Little Freddie” — in his honor. When the boy was born, the elder Fred sent a special gift to the Macks. “Freddie wanted to send some flowers and his aide called from the florist and said, ‘What should I get?’” Mack remembers. “Freddie said, ‘For f—’s sake, just buy the entire store!’”null
Mercury would share a bond with all three of Mack’s sons for the rest of his life, leaving them notes with messages like, “Just go for it — my love is with you always,” written in his handwriting. “He would swim in the pool and play table tennis with the kids. He was really good at table tennis,” says Mack. “Many times they went shopping with him.” Sometimes they had movie nights with the Macks and Freddie curled up on the couch with hot cocoa. “The nicest thing was when he said, ‘Oh, this is actually like a real family.’”null
Later, when Little Freddie started school, Mercury made sure to check in often. “He would call and ask, ‘How is he doing? Is he eating well?’” Occasionally he would even help some of the older kids with homework. “He’d be on the phone making his suggestions,” Mack laughs.
One day Mercury asked Mack’s older son Julian what he wanted for his birthday. “Julian said to him, ‘All I want is for you to show up to my party in the costume from the ‘It’s a Hard Life’ video.’ And he did! Well, he didn’t come to the door in the costume. I heard him changing in my bedroom [muttering], ‘I can do this on stage. I can do this at this party…’”
Even after Mercury left Germany and returned to London, he and Mack stayed close. “He was a good friend. He was totally normal, no star thing,” Mack says. The producer was a frequent visitor at Garden Lodge, Mercury’s elegant neo-Georgian home in the upscale Kensington neighborhood. “He made sure when I was in London that I was staying at his place, and made sure I got English sausages and fried eggs and toast. He always pointed out that he was an extremely boring person. I tried to say, ‘It’s absolutely not important to swing from chandeliers at your house, you know.’
The generosity that Mercury showed to his children also extended to Mack himself. “He had this picture, a [Salvador] Dali, signed by Dali. I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s really nice.’ And he said, ‘Yeah? Keep it!’”
Despite having worked with dozens of top acts, including Electric Light Orchestra, Deep Purple, T. Rex, Billy Squire and Black Sabbath, Mack insists that this giving spirit was unique to Mercury. “He was the first one, in my entire time in this business, to say to me, ‘You know what? I’m rich. You should be rich, too. I’ll make that happen.’” (Mack was quick to add, “I mean, I’m not really rich, but you know…it helped a lot!”
Reflecting on his friend, who died of AIDS complications in November 1991 at the age of 45, Mack recalls a more solemn movie night that they shared. “We saw Amadeus about eight times, just sitting with him on the couch,” he remembers. “At the end when Mozart gets thrown into a ditch and covered with chalk he said, ‘Look, this is what’ll happen to me. Just make sure that they don’t f— up my music.’”