Song #27: “Fools Fall in Love” — Queen Bee & the Blue Hornet Band
Pennsylvania isn’t exactly known for being a musical hotbed, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. While the number of local bands that broke thru to national attention can be counted on two hands, let’s not forget Philadelphia was the birthplace of American Bandstand. It was also home for the labels that launched the Philly Soul sound, with such acts as Hall & Oats, MFSB, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Boys II Men. (Philly also had punk mainstays The Dead Milkmen, so fuck you.) Pittsburgh’s heavy hitters included Tommy James and the Shondels and Rusted Root, and western PA can lay claim to being the birthplace of both Stephen Foster and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor — how’s that for an alpha and omega of pop music?
Among my personal picks are three local favorites that definitely fall in the “almost famous” category. Philly’s Robert Hazard & the Heroes shot for new wave stardom in the early days of MTV and landed as a one-hit wonder:
Harrisburg’s Kix followed Poison to LA in search of superstardom but lost what made them unique and interesting in the first place and became just another hair-metal band. Their power ballad made them technically a one-hit wonder, and they continue to play locally to this day, but nothing ever matched the spazzy verve of their first album:
Finally, there was Pittsburgh’s Donny Iris, the musician who came closest to “making it.” Still a favorite son with a strong local fanbase, Iris’s first band, The Jaggerz, had a ’50s retro hit in 1970 with “The Rapper,” and went on to have a string of songs in heavy rotation on MTV. Alas, whether he was too ugly for pop, or the industry decided they already had one Buddy Holly lookalike with Elvis Costello, Iris was cast back into the pitt of western Pennsylvania to play arts festivals.
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However, if one’s favorite band is determined by how many times you’ve seen that group live, then my all-time favorite band would have to be Queen Bee & the Blue Hornets. I lost track of how often I saw them play over the years, after friends at Penn State introduced me to them at the Rathskeller one weekend in State College. (Question: is there a law somewhere that every college town have a drinking establishment named the Rathskeller?) Queen Bee would play this tiny room in the back of the basement, as sweaty students packed in so close around the stage — actually a rectangle marked off with gaffer’s tape — you would have to duck when the bassist or trombonist would swing their instrument about. For a deposit, the ‘skeller would “rent” cases of 7 oz. Rolling Rock ponies in hard, ancient cardboard boxes so you wouldn’t have to keep returning to the bar. This was perfect for us, as Rusty’s girlfriend at the time was rather short; she would stand on the sturdy box to see the band and distribute drinks whenever we needed beer.
A staple in the nightclubs of Pennsylvania in the late ’80s and ’90s, Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band were a workaday blues act with an extraordinary lead singer in Tonya Browne. Her voice was mesmerizing, and if we heard Queen Bee was playing anywhere, we’d make the trip. Usually it was to the Chameleon Club in Lancaster, but Maura, Chick DeFebo and I once drove the whole way to Allentown when we heard they were opening for Gilbert Godfrey (yes, you read that correctly). When they finally played the Midtown Tavern for the first time, it was the first time there was ever a line out the door. (It was also at the Midtown that lead guitarist and band founder Mark Ross interrupted a set to announce his wife had gone into labor. “My wife’s havin’ our first baby!” he shouted, and ran out of the bar to cheers from the crowd. Tonya and the rest of the band finished up the evening.)
They were always best as a live act, and Queen Bee’s three records don’t do the band or Browne’s voice justice. As one reporter said, “You kinda had to be there.” I don’t remember the last time we saw them, but the Blue Hornet Band broke up in 1999 when Tonya Browne moved to New York City to launch a solo career. Her untimely death two years later ended that dream and silenced a stellar voice. She was 36.