Rosa "Rambling Rose" Pryor-Trusty steps out of City Café and sits down at a table under an umbrella to light a cigarette. It's a beautiful fall day and she's dressed to the nines as usual, her short bob as perfect as her smile. She hands over her latest book, 538 pages of photos with the old-timey title African-American Community, History & Entertainment in Maryland (Remembering the Yesterday's 1940-1980).
With more than 50 years in the entertainment business, as a singer, musician, bandleader, manager, and newspaper columnist, Pryor-Trusty lived this history one Saturday night at a time in the taverns and dancehalls and theaters and clubs of Baltimore and beyond. She started at age 13 when she befriended two fast-talking DJs.
Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson and Fred "Rockin' Robin" Robinson used to broadcast from WEBB's AM studio in Walbrook. "You could see them through the window," Pryor-Trusty says. She would drop in and watch and listen. "They'd put the headphones on me and I'd sit there bopping to the music." Then they heard her sing, she says, and "next thing I know, they were taking me to New York." The DJs managed Pryor-Trusty and her band, which she says she assembled from locals. "Little Johnny and the Twilights" was what she called it-named for the only guy in the group. Pryor-Trusty wrote and sang "Thanks Mr. DJ" on their first 45.
"I'm looking for a copy of that," she says.
A tomboy by day and a lady by night, Pryor-Trusty loved singing in church-and fighting. "Loved it," she says. "The only thing I never did was start a fight." Defending and avenging classmates whom bullies picked on gave her all the action she wanted. "My mother said she never heard of a child being suspended from kindergarten."
Pryor-Trusty taught herself to play the piano in the family home on the 2000 block of West Lexington Street, she says, even though none of her eight brothers and sisters-or her parents-took an interest.
"I'm the only person in the family who was into music," she says, adding that it's true even now, with four children, 27 grandchildren, and 17-she thinks, who can keep track?-great-grandchildren.
As a girl she got her father, a steelworker, to get her a tenor saxophone even though the school wanted her to play the flute. "Everyone had a flute," she scoffs, a faulty lighter thwarting her attempt to smoke. "I wanted to be different."
And she loved that R&B sound. The sound of that sax coming through the radio.
She went to sit with the DJs. "I was very persistent in getting what I wanted," she says. "I always wanted to know the people behind the scenes."
Pryor-Trusty became "Rambling Rose" more than 50 years ago, she says, when Nat King Cole gave her the name and wrote a million-selling song about her.
"I was with him when he wrote it," she says.
She was in New York with her group, scheduled to appear in a show in which Cole was the headliner. Rehearsals were scheduled but the hurry-up-and-wait nature of the thing did not suit Rosa, then still in junior high by her estimation. "So I made myself busy," she says. "I heard music, so I started going down the street into these little bars and clubs."
This went on for most of a week, she says. Each time the rehearsal was ready, someone would have to go out and find Ms. Pryor. So on the last day, she came in and her manager told her that Mr. Cole wanted to see her in a practice room. "I didn't really know who he was," she says. "I knew he was more important than me because he was going on last."
She says Cole was at a white baby grand with a pen and some sheet music. "He told me I was the ramblinest woman he'd ever seen," she says. And then he played some of this (she sings in her husky voice)" "'Ramblin' Rose, Ramblin' Rose, why I love her, heaven knows. . .' And he said, 'Rosa, what do you think of this?'"
"I wasn't paying attention," she says. "I said, 'Oh, you love me, that's so sweet.' He says 'Well, I'm going to finish this.'"
Five or six months later, she says, she hears the song on the radio and the legend of Rambling Rose was born in Baltimore. She says she trademarked it and even got a Texas writer to stop calling herself "Rambling Rose."
It's all of a piece, and almost too good to check. But the song Nat King Cole made famous in 1962 is credited to the brothers Noel and Joe Sherman. Pryor-Trusty says whenever it was written and whoever wrote it, there was Nat King Cole working on sheet music and singing it to her on that day more than half a century ago.
Pryor-Trusty's singing career was relatively short, she says, as a throat ailment took the bite out of her belter's voice. But there were moments. "I'd come out to sing, and I carried a long-stem rose, which was my trademark," she says. "I'd always give it to someone, a guy, in the audience. And I'd wear a red dress that was cut down to my ying-yang, and built like a brick shithouse."
Soon enough Rambling Rose was mentoring young musicians and getting them gigs. She also tried her hand at radio-shortwave and CB. "I was the first female on the air with most, all these guys. I had a van; it only broke down every other block. It had a bed on it" and a mural on the side, because: 1970s!
In 1991 she founded the Rosa Pryor Music Scholarship Fund, Inc. to pay tuition and purchase instruments for aspiring musicians, ages 5 to 17. "It gives these kids the ability to get to the next level, if they are gifted," she says, adding, "I don't consider rap or hip-hop singing."
Pryor-Trusty sends in a column each week to both The Afro and The Baltimore Times-never the same column to the separate newspapers. She claims 380,000 readers. And those readers have given her much of the material for two books.
In 2003 she published African-American Entertainment in Baltimore, a 128-page volume chronicling the life of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue corridor over half a century, from 1940 through 1980.
She put together this year's tome, four times as thick, because "the general public told me I had to," she says. "More people got in touch with me saying 'Why am I not in the book?' So I had to do another book."
Pryor-Trusty took many of the photographs in the book (and repurposed a lot of publicity stills), but many more came from others, including an uncredited shot of "Little Melvin" Williams by City Paper contributing photographer John Ellsberry.
"People would call, they'd say, 'I'm a certain age and I can't go into the basement anymore' [but there's a cache of photos down there]," she recalls. "I was going into people's basements, attics, garages, and in some of the worst neighborhoods."
"Little Willie Adams was the first one who helped me, he and his wife, Victorine." He had the records of Club Casino, which he owned and operated for many years.
Then Charlie Tilghman stepped up. "That's why I have a chapter in my book about the Sphinx Club." Founded in 1946 and closed in 1992, it was one of the first, if not the first, black-owned nightclubs in the country.
The new book was a labor of love, she says, edited almost entirely by herself and her husband of 12 years, William "Shorty" Trusty, whose good sportsmanship comes clear on page 233, where he is depicted in his "King for a Day" sash in 1953.
The book is self-published under the Xlibris imprint, but Pryor-Trusty didn't realize she was self-publishing even after her first book was published by a conventional book publisher. "I didn't know the difference," she confesses. "I had the other one published. This one, they charge me for every copy."
She concedes there are typos and other small problems. She regrets not adding an index. But overall, African-American Community, History & Entertainment in Maryland (Remembering the Yesterday's 1940-1980) is an important document. You'll find everything from the Oakaleers, who with Frederick "Money Guitar" Johnson became the Swallows and hit the charts with "Will You Be Mine?" in 1951, to Shirley R. Diggs, a chauffeur, barbecue owner, and later a car salesman till age 94.
From the Arch Social Club to the Bandoleros Motorcycle Club, the 40 Club to the Nomads Van Club (Rambling Red Rose, a charter member), the book is a trove of hidden Baltimore history.
"The reason I did this book was to preserve our legacy," Pryor-Trusty says. "So people can go and look at this book and see how people lived and worked and partied in the 1940s through the 1980s."