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May 2, 2019

The Uniqueness of Queensryche’s “Della Brown”

By Brian Heaton

When Queensryche released Empire in 1990, the lead single and title track from the record felt like a natural fit in the band’s catalog up to that point. It had a heavy riff, social commentary, and an overall dark vibe that immediately screamed “Queensryche.” But in many ways, the tune wasn’t at all indicative of the album at all.

Empire was filled with experimentation, from the hard rock-meets-pop sensibilities of “Jet City Woman,” to the acoustic, tender moments in “Silent Lucidity.” While that diversity was a hallmark of the band, the one song whose style was never repeated by the original group was Queensryche’s nod to the blues, “Della Brown.”

Clocking in at just over seven minutes, the epic track certainly raised some eyebrows from Queensryche’s mostly heavy metal fanbase in 1990. Co-written by Chris DeGarmo, Scott Rockenfield, and Geoff Tate, “Della Brown,” unlike many of the songs that came before it, is driven by the rhythm section, instead of guitar. Eddie Jackson’s bass line and Rockenfield’s drum performance are full of feel and nuance, enabling DeGarmo and Michael Wilton to weave bluesy open chords and lead guitar lines throughout the tune.

The structure of “Della Brown” also stands out. Multiple guitar solos are put in the spots that the chorus would generally go in. The quirky arrangement choice really sets the song apart, making it a wonderful oddity on a record built on the strength of its six(!) radio singles.

When asked to describe his feelings on “Della Brown,” DeGarmo was succinct, telling ROCKbeat magazine in 1991: “Atmosphere, a vibe you can’t get away from. I like that song a lot.”

Indeed, it’s that laid-back ambiance, particularly in the verses, that provides a perfect canvas for singer Tate to dial back the metal approach to singing and feature his distinct tone in a way that does American blues singers proud. Telling the story of a homeless woman on the streets of Seattle, Tate’s warm, enveloping delivery conjures vivid imagery that explodes into an emotional crescendo.

“It's a look into the life of a woman who had it all - beauty, brains and success. But things didn't work out for her, and it all slipped away,” Tate told Hit Parader in 1990. “She ended up homeless - living on the street. It's a very moody song that gets into a groove and stays there all the way through.”

“Della Brown” became a staple in Queensryche’s live set toward the end of the 1990-1992 Building Empires tour. But after being spotlighted at the band’s April 27,1992 MTV Unplugged performance, it fell into obscurity. It surfaced for a few shows in 1997 as Tate was recovering from a summer cold, but ultimately dropped once he recovered. The band fractured later that year.

Thinking back, “Della Brown” always seemed to garner strong reactions from fans. Obviously, no scientific polls are available, but just from the general tenor of conversations I remember, both in-person with random fans at pre-show gatherings, or online at various message boards, very few were on the fence—you either loved the song, or you hated it. Clearly, “Della Brown” was one of the Queensryche’s most polarizing tracks.

While doing a bit of research for this blog, I couldn’t find a lot of material that expanded on “Della Brown,” other than talking about its lyrical content. From a musical perspective, the band’s thoughts on the track remain largely unknown. No surprise there, given that the tune wasn’t a single, and reporters at the time were mainly focused on the key tracks, or the tour.

Hopefully, as details come to light in the coming year about the 30th Anniversary box set of Empire, DeGarmo, Rockenfield, and/or Tate has an opportunity to expand on the writing of “Della Brown,” and the bluesy elements and arrangement that make it such an unusual track in Queensryche’s catalog.

Editor's Note: Above photo depicts a homeless woman in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Romi Chiorean on Flickr.

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