A Gift of Music; Rosa Pryor's scholarship fund for kids hits all the right notes of encouragement


Rosa Pryor wanted to make a difference.

A decade ago, after having several heart attacks and leaving the work she loved, "I felt that there was something missing," says Pryor, whom many know as "Rambling Rose," the byline for her weekly entertainment column in the Baltimore Afro-American.

The thing is, the former singer, promoter and manager wasn't a rich woman. After a divorce, she'd worked hard to raise four kids. All she had was a passion for music and a desire to help her community.

In her small, West Baltimore apartment, where the walls are filled with certificates of appreciation, Pryor, now 54, recalls that a friend suggested she start a scholarship fund. Pryor laughed.

"I thought, isn't that for dead people? People don't start these things when they're still alive, do they?" But Pryor stopped laughing and gave it some thought. Then she got busy.

"I talked to people. I started going to the library. I made calls to the IRS," she says.

With little fanfare for almost nine years, the nonprofit Rosa Pryor Music Scholarship Fund Inc. has given out more than $10,000 to further the musical education of 35 children who could use a little financial help. The fund has a six-member board of directors and a staff of volunteers.

"The scholarship fund is the only one we know of like this," says Sandra Dobson, a friend of Pryor's who works in the public information office for the State Highway Administration.

Dobson has been on the board for three years and is now chairwoman. "Most music scholarships are for children going to college. But this provides them with exposure at a young age," she says.

Of the fund's founder, she says, "Rosa Pryor is a dynamo, and once she decides she wants your help, you don't say no."

Winners of the Pryor scholarships have included a 7-year-old who was eventually accepted to the Baltimore School for the Arts and an 11-year-old who went on to attend Peabody Preparatory.

Quincy Phillips, who won the scholarship when he was a senior at Frederick Douglass High School, is now a 22-year-old music major at Howard University. His music has taken him to Germany and Africa, where he performed as part of the Howard University Concert Choir, and India, with a trio called Exodus.

"I didn't think it was possible for me to win anything before I won that," says Phillips, who plays the piano and drums. "And winning for something that I love so much, like music? That meant everything to me."

The refuge of music

Pryor remembers the moment when it came to her, the idea to use the scholarship fund to further children's musical education.

It happened while she was driving home one evening, past the intersection of Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue.

"There was this little kid sitting on the curb. He had on these dirty pants," she says. "He didn't look a day over 10 years old. Then I saw him reach down and pull out drugs. He went up to a car. It was a drug deal."

The boy reclaimed his spot on the curb, then did something remarkable in Pryor's eyes.

"He reached down again and pulled up this beat-up old saxophone. That kid played that sax like he was a young Grover Washington. Then it hit me; I had to find a way to help young kids," Pryor says.

The music scholarship fund is specifically for children ages 5 to 17.

Just as that young drug dealer probably found refuge in the music, the same has been true for Rosa Pryor.

She began singing when she was 11 or 12 years old.

"I just started on a street corner, Lexington and Vine," she says.

"We would meet at my mother's house, in the 2200 block of West Lexington Street, to practice. We would practice in each other's basement," she says.

"It was an R&B; group, a street corner thing," Pryor says. They called themselves Little Johnnie and the Twilighters. They were four women and a man. When they moved off the street corner, Rosa would play the piano as well as sing with the group.

Never accused of being shy, Pryor began hanging out at radio stations. The late DJ Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson took a liking to the group and had it performing at schools and other locations around town.

Soon Rosa left the piano-playing to someone else, concentrating on singing.

"I just couldn't stand still. I was like a little Tina Turner," she says.

The group was performing as an opening act in Baltimore for such stars as Nat King Cole.

"In fact, he was the one who gave me the name 'Rambling Rose' because I couldn't stand still. I was Rambling Red Rose," she says.

Pryor was also a songwriter who penned a lot of the group's tunes. But then, when she was about 17, the group fell apart.

"I was not one to be a solo singer. I needed my backup singers," she says. Soon, the singing would have to stop altogether. A doctor diagnosed her with a thyroid condition and urged her to stop.

So she began promoting other acts and getting them jobs around town, combining her entrepreneurial skills with her love of the music business. "These were talented and gifted kids from the community," she says.

Through a company she started, Rosa Pryor Productions, she also helped to promote national acts such as Walter Jackson, Joe Tex and the Drifters. New club owners would come to her for promotional help. "I did that most of my life," she says.

About five years ago, she gave that up. "I felt burned out," she says. Yet, she wanted to leave some kind of musical legacy.

'Shame we can't help all kids'

In addition to being a columnist for the Afro-American, Pryor's efforts are focused on raising money for the scholarship fund. Most of the money comes from an annual benefit banquet. This year's is Saturday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Palladium, 2900 Liberty Heights Ave.

"We have done things like paid for piano lessons for a year or get a musical instrument for a kid. The money goes to a service for the kid," Pryor says.

Yvonne McKinney is a friend of Pryor's who has been a board member since the beginning.

"There is so much need for children who need this kind of incentive to practice music and who could use the money," says McKinney, a nurse.

"Rosa is doing something to help. She has been a great influence on their lives. It's just a shame that we can't afford to help all of the kids because we are so small. But we are going to get there."

Pryor is also helping to fill a gap caused by decreasing public school funds for music education. "I am pleased to be a part of this," the board's Dobson says.

Children applying for each one-time scholarship must write a short biography and an essay on goals they want to accomplish when they grow up, and they must audition.

"There were 22 applications this year," says Donna Hollie, chairman of the scholarship committee. "We are primarily looking for raw talent, kids with some natural musical talent who can be developed."

"It means a whole lot to me to win this scholarship," says 14-year-old Rudolph V. Walker III, one of this year's four winners. "I accomplished this, and it shows me that I can accomplish a lot more."

Rudolph, a singer, will use the $500 to take private lessons. He is in ninth grade at Baltimore City College High School.

Rudolph has taken group lessons before with a choir but never had the opportunity for private lessons.

He loves singing everything from country to R&B.; "If you put it in front of me, I will sing it," he says. Rudolph envisions a music career: "I believe I can do it."

Antonio Prioleau, 15, won first place and $700 for private lessons.

"I've never taken any professional voice lessons outside of church choir," Antonio says. "I enjoy singing gospel, opera, musical theater and some R&B.; God blessed me with this voice, and this means a lot to me."

It's children like Rudolph and Antonio and the others who keep Pryor working for the scholarship fund. If there are any regrets, it's that she never found the young dope dealer who gave her the notion to help children develop their musical talents.

"You know, I went back looking for that kid," she says. "I still look for that kid."

Music notes

What: Rosa Pryor Music Scholarship Fund Inc. black-tie banquet

When: Saturday, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.

Where: Palladium, 2900 Liberty Heights Ave.

Who: Keynote speaker, Robert M. Bell, Chief Judge, Maryland Court of Appeals; entertainment by saxophonist Kim Waters

Tickets: $35 (tax-deductible); donations also can be mailed to RPMSF Inc., P.O. Box 68283, Baltimore, Md. 21215

Call: 410-462-6028

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