BAILEY, PEARL (Pearl Mae Bailey) (1918–1990) Singer, Actress
Pearl Bailey’s sultry voice and personal warmth combined to make her a star of cabaret, Broadway, and musical film. She was born Pearl Mae Bailey in March 29, 1918, in Newport News, Virginia, where her father was a minister. She first performed in his church, singing and dancing for the congregation. When she was four, Pearl’s parents divorced. With her mother and three older siblings, she moved first to Washington, D.C., then to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Bailey considered becoming a teacher before being drawn into show business at 15, after she won $5 in a talent contest at a Washington, D.C. club. Bailey paid her dues as a chorus girl in Philadelphia and a singer and dancer on the vaudeville circuit in central Pennsylvania. Gradually, she moved into playing African-American nightclubs, before becoming a vocalist for big bands led by Cootie Williams and Edgar Hayes. By 1944, Bailey was headlining at New York’s most popular clubs. In between delivering growling renditions of such standards as “Toot-Toot Tootsie” and “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,” Bailey took to talking with the audience. Her folksy bantering became central to her casual performing style.
Bailey made her Broadway debut in the allblack revue St. Louis Woman (1946). Her two songs were the highlight of the show and helped earn her a Donaldson Award for Broadway’s best newcomer. Over the next decade, she appeared in many musicals, including Arms and the Girl, Bless You All, and House of Flowers (1954). Bailey also carved out a career in film. Her most notable performances were the African-American musical dramas Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959). In the early 1960s, Bailey returned to cabaret, often with her fourth husband, jazz drummer Louis Bellson, in her band. Bailey and Bellson adopted two children, Tony and Dee Dee. The pinnacle of Bailey’s career was her performance in the lead role of a revival of Hello, Dolly! in 1967. Theater critic Clive Barnes wrote that she “took the whole musical in her hands and swung it around her neck as easily as if it were a feather boa.” The show ran for two years and earned Bailey a special Tony Award.
In the 1970s, Bailey appeared regularly on television, particularly on talk shows, which proved a particularly good forum for her charmingly straightforward repartee. She also had her own syndicated cooking show, Pearl’s Kitchen. In addition to a collection of her recipes, Bailey wrote five books, including three autobiographies. Although she never finished high school, she enrolled at Georgetown University in the late 1970s. In 1985, she graduated with a degree in theology at the age of 67. Bailey also had a distinguished career as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations (UN). During the Ford, Reagan, and Bush (Sr.) administrations, she was named a special delegate to the UN and toured throughout Africa and the Middle East to promote racial harmony. In the 1980s, Bailey also became a dedicated advocate for AIDS research.
After decades of heart trouble, Pearl Bailey died of a heart attack on August 17, 1990, while recovering from knee surgery. More than 2,000 people attended her funeral in Philadelphia. Speaking for the many who respected Bailey as both a performer and a humanitarian, bandleader Cab Calloway, a longtime friend, told the press, “Pearl was love, pure and simple love.”
Bailey, Pearl. Between You and Me. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
The Raw Pearl. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
Talking to Myself. New York: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, 1971.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Carmen Jones (1954). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1994.
16 Most Requested Songs. Sony/Columbia, CD, 1991.