Conant B. "Tony" Rose was born in Boston and raised in Roxbury's Whittier Street Housing Projects. In the late 1960s, he enlisted in the United States Air Force and saw combat in Vietnam. After his return to the states, he headed to Los Angeles, where he decided to take his love of music and inclination for the hustle to the next level. He worked for several years at record labels including WEA and RCA Records, in addition to learning the promotion and publicity game at Warren Lanier Public Relations.
By 1979, Rose returned to Boston, where the R & B scene was bubbling up with acts like the Johnson Brothers [not to be confused with the Brothers Johnson; the group, minus Maurice Starr nee Larry Johnson, was later known as the Jonzun Crew], the Energetics [later known as Planet Patrol] – who Rose had helped secure a deal with Atlantic Records while still in LA – and many others.
Almost instantly, Rose, Michael Johnson [Jonzun] and Maurice Starr became a local power trio, making moves and making music – Rose with an ear for talent and industry experience; and the Johnsons with musical virtuosity and loads of ambition. (Starr released the single “Bout Time I Funk You” locally on his Boston International Records in 1978; then nationally, with Rose's help, via RCA Records in 1979).
Besides going on the road to help expand Maurice Starr’s rep, Rose's main artistic energy in the late '70s went towards Boston's Prince Charles Alexander, a local up-and-comer who was exactly what the industry vet had been looking for - with musical talent, looks, and charisma to spare. Rose managed and produced Alexander, forming Solid Platinum Records and releasing the 12-inch single "In The Street" and the album Gang War (under Prince Charles & The City Beat Band) in 1980.
Rose's association with Alexander and the group would last throughout the 1980s, with two more successful albums: Stone Killers (1982) and Combat Zone (1984), both on Virgin Records. The group toured around the world throughout the late '80s. (Prince Charles would go on to work as a producer at Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs's Bad Boy Records in the '90s, eventually landing in his current Music Production & Engineering professorial role at Berklee College of Music.)
In 1979, Tony met model, entrepreneur and fashion mogul-in-the-making Yvonne Willis [Rose], and the two fell into each other’s orbits instantly and deeply, on both professional and personal levels. The two launched the Celebrity Awards in Boston in the fall of 1980. The Celebrity Awards were celebrations of Boston's African-American community, from musicians and media figures to innovative entrepreneurs. Shortly after the first Celebrity Awards, a second local showcase, the Designers Display Competition – a fashion-centric event that Yvonne conceived and helmed – debuted in February of 1981.
Yvonne and Tony conceived and produced three Celebrity Awards awards shows in Boston and six Designers Display events in Boston and New York throughout the mid-‘80s. As a clear symbol of their intertwined lives in both love and business, the two were married on-stage at the second Celebrity Awards show in September of 1981. The two also relocated to New York in the early ‘80s, to expand their reaches in the music and fashion industries.
By the late '80s, the Roses were back in Boston, where Tony launched his Hit City Recording Studio in the summer of 1988, recording numerous acts -- mostly hip-hop and R & B, including New Kids On The Block and other acts -- over a span of two years before selling the studio to Maurice Starr in 1990. During this same era, Rose produced a TV pilot for a youth dance program featuring young Bostonians from Roxbury and Dorchester called "Dance Slam."
After several other post-Hit City endeavors in the music business (including Castillo International Tapes and Cold Sweat Records), by the mid-1990s Tony and Yvonne put their skills for matching artists and audiences to a different industry, starting a book publishing and distribution company. Amber Books and Quality Press has put out well over 100 titles since 1996, earning Tony an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature in 2013, among other honors.
Rose himself has written multiple books on Amber, including The Autobiography Of An American Ghetto Boy (2016), America: The Black Point of View (2015) and Before The Legend: The Rise Of New Kids On The Block And A Guy Named Maurice Starr (2011). Yvonne helms Quality Press and has contributed as author and co-author on multiple books on Amber.
Tony and Yvonne Rose currently reside in Arizona. For information on Amber Books and Quality Press, visit http://amberbookspublishing.com/.
Celebrity Awards Slideshow, 1980 - 1982
Tony Rose interviewed by Brian Coleman
September 3, 2017
HOW DID THE IDEA FOR THE CELEBRITY AWARDS START?
When I was in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, I met these guys in the RCA building. They wanted to do a citywide talent show. I helped to do that, I covered the city of Los Angeles, I went to schools and talked to headmasters and principals, to promote it. I dealt with the bureaucracy of City Hall. We dealt with a lot of people, there were four of us, and I learned a lot. It was sponsored by the City of Los Angeles, they put up the funds.
During that project, I learned how to, as I might have said back then, capture a city. Capture a city's attention. I understood how to use all of the advantages that were available to do something on a citywide basis. You had to use publicity, radio, TV, all of that. We did that in Los Angeles, and that city was four times the size of Boston. It was a huge undertaking. But I was never afraid of work.
HOW DID THE LA SHOW GO?
It was very successful. We just did one. I can't remember the name [of the event]. But it was .... 1975." [Pauses before saying year, but seems certain]. A lot of times, once I did something I was off to the next thing. I don't know if I remember who even won the talent show [in LA].
When I got back to Boston [late ‘70s], I met a person ... my wife Yvonne [now Rose, then Willis]. I married a person who was similar in that she wasn't afraid of work, and wasn't afraid to meet hundreds of people [to make something happen]. And so, in Boston, something clicked. I had the idea to do the Celebrity Awards show, and on one of our times together I mentioned it to Yvonne, and I asked if she would help me. She said, “Yes.” And she asked me if I would help her do a show she wanted to do, based on fashion. So, both ideas came together at around the same time.
WHAT WERE SOME LOCAL PRECEDENTS TO THE CELEBRITY AWARDS
There wasn't anything in Boston for me [inspiration-wise, for the Celebrity Awards]. But Yvonne probably got inspiration from Smiler Haynes [the local African-American fashion icon and entrepreneur, who had awards / celebration shows in the mid-1970s in Boston]. Smiler was her idol. And we gave Smiler several awards.
For me, I just knew it was time to have an awards show for African-Americans. That was my interest.
WHAT WAS THE RELATIONSHIP AND CHRONOLOGY BETWEEN CELEBRITY AWARDS AND DESIGNERS DISPLAY
The Celebrity Awards were first, in October 1980, at Narcissus. And the first Designers Display was in February .
WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THE FIRST CELEBRITY AWARDS? HOW DID IT GO?
When I first mentioned it to people, they said, “Finally!” There were a lot of ads and sponsors and City Hall supported it. We had a lot of friends, and I knew a tremendous number of entertainers by 1980, because I had a hit record [Prince Charles’s first single, “In The Street,” was released on Rose’s Solid Platinum label in 1979], from artists to media.
[The TV show] “Soul Train” was on at that time, on Channel 68, and I met the general manager of the station. He was wonderful. So, we had access to “Soul Train” when it came to advertising, and being on the station.
We had a lot of community people, even beyond the entertainment world. They worked for us, and came on board as staff. We wanted to keep everyone working and involved. We were doing the Club 51 parties back then [at Yvonne’s house in Roxbury – 51 Thornton Street]. We wanted to keep things cycling. The Celebrity Awards, then Designers Display. And we kept busy, with the record company, too.
At one time I had dreams of turning Boston into Motown, and making it into an entertainment center. Because it wasn't, at that point. We made that happen, we brought everyone together, to give everyone a forum to shine and utilize their talent. That's what it was about.
WAS HAVING IT BE AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOCUSED A REACTION TO HOW THE CITY DEALT WITH LOCAL TALENT UP UNTIL THAT POINT?
My thinking was, and it still is in some ways, like the book business. Because I am African-American, if I do a book or publish writers who were, when the book came out, it is relegated immediately to a [smaller / different] market. You aren't put into a national bin, you're put into a smaller segment. It was the same thing [back in the late ‘70s]. Something like the Celebrity Awards was always relegated in a smaller section. I wasn't given the whole city. Coming up, to make things easy on myself, I always used the path of least resistance.
It was hard enough to put on an event like that, I didn't want to make life even harder. So, why not go to the people and places of least resistance? And the people who needed [the attention] the most were the African-American artists and entertainers [in town]. There are certain things in life that come along and you know they are for YOU to do. You are the somebody to do it, you can't say, “They should do it.”
TELL ME ABOUT THE CITY HALL INVOLVEMENT YOU MENTIONED
I didn't go to the Mayor's office or anything. I knew Bruce Bolling, who was big at that time [in local government]. Charles Yancey was just coming up at the time, he was running for office and he knew everyone. So, I went to the people I knew from the community. And they helped with some legwork, talking for me.
The City of Boston was in the mix, and I think we got some funding from time to time. If we got $500 at the time that was a lot of money, it could get me from Point A to Point B. Then I needed to figure out how to get to Point C. I think they let us use “City of Boston” in some of materials we used.
DID YOU EVER CONSIDER OPENING IT UP WIDER AFTER THEY WERE SUCCESSFUL?
I don't think we ever thought about that. That wouldn't have been the path of least resistance. As time went on, things got bigger because the acts got bigger. My own act, Prince Charles. New Edition was getting bigger. Maurice Starr. Michael Jonzun was getting bigger, with Jonzun Crew. As they got bigger, I was able to use their names.
WHO WERE THE OTHER PEOPLE INVOLVED, BESIDES YOU AND YVONNE?
It was just me and Yvonne, we were the two main people. We did all that, we made all that noise.
THE FIRST BALLOT SAYS THAT YOU USED "SMART'S PUBLIC RELATIONS."
Avery Smart was a friend of mine. I had known him for a couple of years. He wanted to start a PR firm, so I made him our PR guy and he was very helpful. He was a good talker and a good guy. He did one show with us, the first one. I think he might have helped me as an MC of the first show, too.
HOW DID THE FIRST ONE GO [OCTOBER 1980]? WHY DID YOU WANT TO DO ANOTHER ONE?
I had worked for Warren Lanier Public Relations in LA, I trained under Warren. I called them looking for an act, and they said Redd Foxx would be available, for $10,000, for me. And we got him [booked], but he had another commitment. We already had him on our promotion and everything, so I kept him on there. There was some sleight-of-hand there, this is how promoters are. [Laughs]. I had Redd Foxx on all our promotion, then he had another commitment. They gave me back my money and I invested it in LaWanda Page. I actually thought she was better, and they were tied together anyways because of the TV show [“Sanford & Son”]. Nobody really cared. I promoted her on TV and radio, closer to the event, but not too much.
People still came out. Show tickets were $25 and nobody asked for their money back. I remember that. People came to see LaWanda and she had a great time. In fact, she said something to me when she came off the plane, and I'll never forget it. It was her trademark, she said “Give me my money, sucker!” [Laughs]. I picked her up at the airport in a limousine.
LaWanda did about 5% of her act, she hardly did anything. She sat there and drank the whole night. But I didn't care, because she was there, and the people saw her and loved her. Afterwards everyone came up and got her autograph.
I loved doing it at Narcissus, it was a beautiful club [in Kenmore Square], I went there all the time. I knew the manager real well. And Yvonne knew the people there really well, too.
DID IT GO AS WELL AS YOU HAD HOPED? ANY ISSUES?
It was huge, it was packed, from the bottom to the top. Everything went off as planned, we had great press, made a lot of money. We showed that we could bring acts into Boston, and that was unusual at the time, for a local promoter. At the same time, Alan Haymon was coming out, he wanted to be a promoter. We weren't in competition with him because he hadn't really done anything big yet. He brought in Chic, I think.
It was an awesome accomplishment that got a lot of response and helped make our name. I was running the record company [Solid Platinum] so it was important for my name to get out there. Hit City Music [HCM] Productions, my company, it really helped us a lot.
OK NOW ONTO THE FIRST DESIGNERS DISPLAY COMPETITION [FEBRUARY 1981]
Everything became bigger after the first Celebrity Awards. We built on the whole thing.
The first Designers Display was at John Hancock Auditorium [in Copley Square]. That was Yvonne, she knew about the venue and she was able to reserve it. She found places where we wouldn't have to put money up, we could reserve it. That was great about the places we used. We didn't have to pay them until two weeks before the event, then we had to come in with all the money. That gave us a lot of time to raise funds.
YOU GUYS PUT YOURSELVES ON CELEBRITY AWARDS AND DESIGNERS DISPLAY BALLOTS, EVEN THOUGH IT WAS YOUR SHOW. WAS THAT A CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
We never got any flack about that, and I remember having the discussion about that before we did it.
I remember somebody once asked Rockefeller about Standard Oil and how he made all that money. He said, "God wanted me to. God knew that I would do it right." And of course, he didn't, not really. But we knew that we'd do it honestly, we wouldn't influence the votes.
In the world of spirituality, you don’t only help yourself. You can't help anybody unless you help yourself. I was always of two minds – I love helping people, it's what I do, still to this day. I give people money and I love giving people advice and sharing information.
We made money to advance our cause and we gave work to people. And I would put the money into records and recording and promoting [Prince] Charles and other things. Mailing and promotional budgets required a good amount of money.
At the first [Celebrity Awards] show, I can't remember, but I'm sure we [won] at least one [award]. We were probably up for best band, songwriters, producers. I know we got one, and Maurice [Starr] and Michael [Jonzun] won for songwriters.
For me to win an award was great, it showed people that I was a real producer and a real songwriter. People didn't have to vote for me, but I wasn't going to take myself off the ballot.
ON THE BALLOTS, PEOPLE COULD MAIL THEM IN OR DROP THEM OFF AT DIFFERENT LOCATIONS AROUND TOWN. HOW MANY DID YOU GET IN THE MAIL?
The first year I think we printed up 5,000 ballots and we used Nubian Notion, Skippy White's. Any facility that had customers in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, they got ballots. I would say 100% of the ballots were sent back to us. Most people mailed them to our address, some would be dropped at the locations. Mailing was the dominant way. Our postman even sent one in. [Laughs].
THERE WERE FIVE DESIGNERS DISPLAY SHOWS AND ONLY THREE CELEBRITY AWARDS, IS THAT RIGHT?
WHY DID YOU STOP?
We had moved to NYC at the time and that was the dominant factor. The 1983 [third Celebrity Awards] show was great, it was packed. We probably could have gone on for another three years. But Prince Charles got signed to Virgin Records, we started touring internationally and Yvonne couldn't do the Celebrity Awards alone. So, after 1983 I was probably in Europe for the summer and fall [in 1984]. For the third show we picked up Budweiser as a sponsor, so it was really moving forward.
WHICH CELEBRITY AWARDS WAS THE BEST ONE FOR YOU?
The second one was huge. We had Gloria Gaynor, Vaughan Mason. We got married during that show. It was huge, everyone in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan and people who know about what we were doing came.
People had heard about the first one and if they hadn't participated, they wanted to [this time around]. It was something that Boston hadn't ever seen before. It was big and new and people wanted to participate – not only as talent, but as audience and as sponsors or people who wanted to be involved in something like that.
DID YOU EVER ATTEMPT ANYTHING LIKE THE CELEBRITY AWARDS AGAIN?
It was strictly a Boston situation, New York had a lot of its own types of things like that. And it was my hometown and I was proud to have done it. I'm a Roxbury project boy. It was something to see. People still talk about it to this day, even people in the publishing world. Winning an award at those shows could be the highlight of someone's life.
HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE / CONTRAST THE CELEBRITY AWARDS WITH DESIGNERS DISPLAY?
Designers Display gave out [prize] money, not just awards. People involved would be the designer but they also brought models and entourages. The shows themselves required a lot more rehearsal. It was a big show and there was a lot going on.
WAS THERE ANY DOWNSIDE TO PUTTING ON THOSE SHOWS?
Looking back, they were the best of times. It was all very rewarding to us. We learned, we dealt with so many people, made so many friends. The events and the parties... we were great partiers! We loved to give them and go to them.
The main thing to me back then was my record company and my record producing. I found a friend and companion, a talented musician to work with in [Prince] Charles. And it was the joy of my life to work with him and to do those shows, and watch the rise of Boston.
When you talk about the Boston Black Music scene, I am overjoyed that I was a part of it. I had the time of my life helping to create all of that back then.
SPEAKING OF FAMOUS PARTIES, CLUB 51 WAS A FAMOUS ONE: THAT WAS YVONNE'S HOUSE, RIGHT?
Yvonne had been giving parties before I had met her. She gave these after-hours parties, and I walked in on that and saw the value [in doing them], and saw her. And it was perfect for me, too. [Laughs].
THE BOSTON MUSIC AWARDS CAME ALONG IN 1987 - DID YOU PAY MUCH ATTENTION TO THEM, OR WONDER IF THEY TOOK ANY INSPIRATION FROM THE CELEBRITY AWARDS?
No. My most important thought [at the time] was, if I could do something worthy to be considered for the awards.
WHAT PHOTOGRAPHERS AND VIDEOGRAPHERS DOCUMENTED THE CELEBRITY AWARDS?
Wes Williams, from Double Exposure. He documented the second Celebrity Awards and the third and both times lost the tapes. Video tapes. I have tons of [still] pictures of those shows but he had the only video of those shows. I was so angry at the time. One he lost, and one he taped over it with something else.
WHY DID YVONNE GO ON LONGER THAN YOU DID WITH THE AWARDS?
Yvonne loved fashion and design and modeling herself, she loved that world. And in New York [where they had moved], it filled a void there. We did one [Designers Display] show at the Parsons School of Design [September 1984]. She found vehicles and people who loved that type of situation. She loved it and she was really good at it. She didn't really do the record company. One of the New York shows was called the Canadian Club Designers Display, she got them as a sponsor. In New York she was heavily supported. Those shows were very well received in New York.
DO YOU EVER WONDER ABOUT WHAT IF THE CELEBRITY AWARDS *HADN'T* HAPPENED?
We would have made music, but there wouldn’t have been as much glitz and glamour. It was important to bring people together, we brought a whole community of people together for one night. And we did it a number of times, and created the glitz and glamour. You had to get dressed up, wear tuxedos. People wanted to see something. The whole community was sitting in the audience. That's what made it special.
We loved negotiating, so that served us well. And we loved seeing something through from the start to completion.
We put real people on who were doing things, and gave them a category. We found categories for some people. They all worked so hard to maintain a professional and respectable image and they were awarded for it.