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Bailey, Pearl 1918–1990

Pearl Bailey 19181990

Singer, actress, and author

Played Coal Town Clubs

Became Variety Girl

Ambassador of Love

Selected writings

Selected discography

Sources

Every now and then, a show business personality appears on the scene whose personal magnetism and warmth completely overshadow her talent as an entertainer. Usually, these love affairs with the public fizzle and die relatively quickly. Not so with Pearl Bailey. Baileys fully-requited romance with people all over the world lasted from her emergence as a vaudeville performer in the 1930s, through stardom on Broadway and in Americas biggest nightclubs, until her death in 1990 at the age of 72. Along the way, she provided a welcome dose of sincerity and authentic good nature in the all-too-often superficial world of entertainment. So deep was the publics affection for Bailey that she was asked by President Richard Nixon to be the U.S. Ambassador of Love.

Pearl Mae Bailey was born on March 29, 1918 in Newport News, Virginia, the same year and town that produced the legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Her father, Joseph James, was an evangelical minister, and from an early age Bailey was singing and dancing in his church. Baileys parents divorced when she was four years old, and she moved with her mother and three older siblingstwo sisters and a brotherfirst to Washington, D.C., and later to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, Bailey was bitten by the show-biz bug. Her brother Willie was a professional tap dancer, having learned his art from the legendary Bill Bojangles Robinson. At the age of 15, Bailey entered and won a talent contest at the theater in which Willie was performing. Part of the prize was a two-week engagement at the club. Although the establishment closed down before she could collect her money, Bailey immediately gave up her childhood plan of becoming a schoolteacher and launched the first phase of her long and successful entertainment career.

Played Coal Town Clubs

After winning another amateur contest, this one at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, Bailey went to work on the small-time café circuit of central Pennsylvania, where she sang and danced with vaudeville troupes in the coal-mining towns of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Pottsville. Before long, she was performing in the better black nightclubs of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. As her singing skills developed, she moved into featured

At a Glance

Born Pearl Mae Bailey, March 29, 1918, in Newport News, VA; died August 17, 1990, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Joseph James (a minister) and Ella Mae Bailey; married four times, including: John Randolph Pinkett, Jr., 1948 (divorced 1952); and Louis Bellson (a jazz drummer), 1952; children: Tony and DeeDee, both adopted with Bellson. Education: Georgetown University, BA, 1985.

Singer and actress, 1933-1990; appeared with numerous cabaret and big band acts, 1933-1940; toured with U.S.O., 1941-43; became featured soloist at major New York City nightclubs, 1944; joined Cab Calloways band as a stand-in, 1945; made Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman, 1946; appeared on Broadway in House of Flowers, 1954, and Hello Dolly!, 1967. Film appearances include Isn t It Romantic?, 1948; Carmen Jones, 1954; St. Louis Blues, 1957; Porgy and Bess, 1959; All the Fine Young Cannibals, 1960; The Landlord, 1970; Norman, Is That You?, 1976; The Member of the Wedding, 1983; and Peter Gunn, 1989. Starred in television series The Pearl Bailey Show, 1971; appeared in television series Silver Spoons, 1982-85; numerous guest appearances on television variety shows.

Awards: Donaldson Award, 1946, for St. Louis Woman; Entertainer of the Year citation from Cue magazine, 1967; Tony Award, 1968, for Hello, Dolly!; March of Dimes Award, 1968; Woman of the Year citation from the U.S.O., 1969; Heart of the Year award, American Heart Association, 1972; named special advisor to the U.S. Mission of the United Nations General Assembly, 1975; Hussein Ben-Ali Freedom Medal, Jordan, 1975; First Order of Arts and Science of Egypt, 1975; Medal of Freedom, 1988.

vocalist roles with a number of big bands, including those of Cootie Williams and Edgar Hayes.

Bailey rose to prominence in the 1940s. After further honing her skills while entertaining troops with the U.S.O. during World War II, she made her debut as a solo performer at New Yorks Village Vanguard nightclub in 1944. Bailey began to loosen up on stage and engage in playful banter with audiences at the suggestion of the Vanguards owner. She evolved what gradually became her trademark throwaway style of presentation. Later that year, she started an eight-month engagement at the Blue Angel, a high-class nightclub on the east side of Manhattan. There she continued to forge her unique stylistic approach. Baileys Blue Angel gig was very well received, and she became a big hit on the nightclub circuit.

In 1945 Bailey began a 20-week run with Cab Calloway and his orchestra at the popular Zanzibar nightclub on Broadway. She and Calloway remained close friends for the rest of her life. Bailey made her Broadway theatrical debut the following year in St. Louis Woman, an all-black musical by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Her two numbers, A Womans Prerogative and Legalize My Name, highlighted the show. In his review for the New York Herald Tribune, Harold Barnes wrote that Pearl Bailey pulls the show up by its shoestrings every time she makes an entrance. Her performance earned her the Donaldson Award as best newcomer on Broadway for that year.

Became Variety Girl

With nightclubs and theaters under her belt, Bailey next tried her hand at film acting. Her first movie was the 1947 Paramount film Variety Girl, in which she introduced the song Tired, which became one of her signature numbers. She made another film for Paramount, Isn t It Romantic?, a year later before returning to Broadway. In 1952 Bailey married jazz drummer Louis Bellson. She and Bellsonher fourth husbandstayed married for the rest of her life and adopted two children together.

Bailey turned in one of her most memorable stage performances in 1954, as the West Indian bordello operator Madame Fleur in the Truman Capote-Harold Arlen musical House of Flowers. Meanwhile, she remained active in motion pictures as well, playing important roles in the two all-black, major studio musicals of the 1950s. In Carmen Jones (1954) an updated, African American version of Bizets opera Carmen, Bailey played Frankie, a member of a boxing champions entourage. In 1959 she played Maria, the cook shop woman, in the film version of Porgy and Bess. She also appeared in the Bob Hope vehicle That Certain Feeling (1956) and St. Louis Blues, a 1958 biography of blues pioneer W. C. Handy. In between, Bailey found time to perform as the featured act at President Eisenhowers second inauguration in 1957.

Ambassador of Love

During the first half of the 1960s, Bailey kept herself busy mainly with her nightclub act. She also began feeling the first effects of the heart trouble that would hound her for the next 25 years. The biggest triumph of Baileys career came in 1967, when she starred as matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in the all-black Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly ! Her performance as Dolly received unanimous raves from all quarters, and she received a Tony award for her efforts. In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes wrote that Bailey took the whole musical in her hands and swung it around her neck as easily as if it were a feather boa. The Broadway production ran for two years, before Baileys health problems forced it to close. She toured with the show after her recovery, and again in the mid-1970s.

After Dolly, Bailey again returned to the intimacy of cabaret, where her special talents were always best displayed. She charmed British audiences with her risqué, off-handed style during an extended run at Londons famous venue, Talk of the Town. Bailey was given her own television variety show in 1971, but it lasted only one season. In 1975 President Gerald Ford named Bailey special advisor to the U.S. Mission of the United Nations General Assembly. She traveled to Africa and the Middle East as a good will ambassador, and received honors from several world leaders.

By the late 1970s, Baileywho had never graduated from high schoolwas the author of five books, ranging in subject from childrens stories, to autobiography, to cooking. In 1978 she decided to get a formal education and enrolled át Georgetown University. She graduated with a degree in theology in 1985 at the age of 67. Bailey continued to sing and act throughout the 1980s. She played a supporting role in the television sit-com Silver Spoons for several years, and her involvement with the U.N. was renewed by Presidents Reagan and Bush. She was frequently honored for her humanitarian work, and in 1988 President Reagan awarded her the Medal of Freedom.

Bailey authored her sixth and last book, a memoir titled Between You and Me, in 1989. The following year, she died of an apparent heart attack while she was recovering from knee surgery. More than 2,000 people attended the funeral. That outpouring of love did not surprise anybody who knew her. Longtime friend and coworker Calloway eulogized Bailey in words from Hello, Dolly !, in which he starred with her: You ll always be here in our hearts where you belong. Bellson said simply that Bailey was a person of love. She believed that show business was show love.

Selected writings

Raw Pearl, Harcourt, 1969.

Talking to Myself, Harcourt, 1971.

Pearls Kitchen: An Extraordinary Cookbook, Harcourt, 1973.

Dueys Tale, Harcourt, 1975.

Hurry Up, America, and Spit, Harcourt, 1976.

Between You and Me, Doubleday, 1989.

Selected discography

Hello, Dolly !, RCA, 1968.

The Bad Old Days.

Pearl Bailey Songs for Adults Only.

Sources

Books

Bailey, Pearl, Between You and Me, Doubleday, 1989.

Bailey, Pearl, Raw Pearl, Harcourt, 1969.

Periodicals

New York Times, August 19, 1990, p. 34.

Newsweek, December 4, 1967, p. 110.

People Weekly, September 3, 1990, p. 74.

Robert R. Jacobson

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Bailey, Pearl

Pearl Bailey

Singer, actress

For the Record

Writings

Selected discography

Sources

Pearl Baileys sudden death at the age of 72 deprived America of one of its best-known goodwill ambassadors. The energetic and personable Bailey was beloved by three generations of theater and movie fans, and was the favorite of presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. In the Washington Post, Joseph McLellan called Bailey Americas ambassador of love, adding: She used her voiceand her heartto become an eloquent advocate for the poor, oppressed and suffering, working to promote interracial harmony and more recently to help those worldwide suffering from AIDS.

Bailey began singing on the lightly comic vaudeville theater circuit in the early 1930s, eventually carrying her special talents into the largest nightclubs and onto the Broadway stage. Here was no skinny starlet of small renown, wrote Karl Stark in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Bailey was a star of the old school, a performer who could wow you with the expressive power of her art or bowl you over with the acuity of her intellect. She was, first and foremost, a vaudevillian who relished the intimacy of live performances.

Pearl Mae Bailey was born in the small town of Newport News, Virginia, in 1918. Her father was an evangelical minister, and from her earliest years she sang and danced during his church services. When she was only four her parents divorced, and she moved with her two sisters and brother, first to Washington, D.C. and then to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It was in Philadelphia, during her teens, that Bailey was introduced to show business. Her brother was a professional tap dancer who often worked at the citys Pearl Theatre. One night when he was late returning home for dinner, she went down to get him and wound up entered in an amateur-night contest. She sang Poor Butterfly and won first prizefive dollars and a two-week engagement at the theater. Unfortunately, the theater had hit hard times, and it closed before Bailey could be paid for her services. She was undaunted, however; the brief experience on stage convinced her that it was the only career for her.

Bailey entered and won another amateur contest, this time at the renowned Apollo Theatre in New York City. Soon thereafter she set out on a club circuit that took her through the rough-and-tumble coal mining towns of central Pennsylvania. For 15 dollars a week she sang in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Pottsville before graduating to larger venues in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. The onset of World War II found her touring the country with a U.S.O. (United Service Organizations) troupe, entertaining stateside U.S. servicemen.

For the Record

Full name Pearl Mae Bailey; born March 29, 1918, in Newport News, VA; died of heart failure, August 17, 1990, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Joseph James (a minister) and Ella Mae Bailey; married fourth husband, Louis Bellson, Jr. (a jazz drummer), November 19, 1952; children: Tony, DeeDee. Education: Georgetown University, B.A., 1985.

Singer and actress, 1933-90. Had debut in an amateur-night contest at Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia, 1933; became professional singer, 1933. Became soloist at major New York City nightclubs, 1944; worked as stand-in with Cab Calloways band, 1945. Had Broadway debut on March 30, 1946, in St. Louis Woman. Also appeared on Broadway in House of Flowers, 1954, and Hello, Dolly!, 1967.

Film appearances include Isnt It Romantic, 1948;Carmen Jones, 1954;Saint Louis Blues, 1957; Porgy and Bess, 1959;All the Fine Young Cannibals, 1960;The Landlord, 1970; and Norman, Is That You?, 1976.

Star of television series The Pearl Bailey Show, 1971, and Silver Spoons, 1982-85; made numerous guest appearances on variety and holiday television shows, including Night of 100 Stars, 1982.

Awards: Donaldson Award, 1946, for St. Louis Woman; Entertainer of the Year citation from Cue magazine, 1967; Antoinette Perry Award (Tony), 1968, for Hello, Dolly!; March of Dimes Award, 1968; Woman of the Year citation from the U.S.A., 1969; named special advisor to the U.S. Mission of the United Nations General Assembly, 30th session, 1975.

After the war Bailey became a headliner in her own right. She was working at the Village Vanguard in New York City in 1944, when the owner suggested she loosen up and be herself onstage. That advice helped her to create a signature styleeasy and personal, with throwaway lines and jokes added between and during songs. McLellan wrote: The public image projected through Baileys songs was less earth mother than earthy. Her voice had a pleasant tone, an impressive clarity and a way of projecting words with exquisite care. She had a special way of styling a song, with a flavor of jazz and often some worldly wise aside on the musics sentiment. The critic added: Bailey inherited a special tradition of earthy, sexually aware singing from such pioneers as [American blues singers] Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday, tidied it up a bit for general consumption and won an enthusiastic following in nightclubs.

The entertainers fame was assured in 1945, when she signed on as a stand-in with Cab Calloway and his orchestra. Bailey worked 20 weeks with Calloway at the Zanzibar nightclub on Broadway and forged a friendship with him that would last for decades. In 1946 she made her Broadway debut with a major role in St. Louis Woman, an all-black musical. Her two numbers, A Womans Prerogative and Legalize My Name, were considered the highlights of an otherwise average show, and Bailey received the 1946 Donaldson Award as best newcomer on Broadway.

Thereafter Bailey kept busy with a steady round of nightclub appearances, stage plays, and movies. She appeared in both major all-black musical films of the 1950s, Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, and won a wide following with her live performances of the songs Birth of the Blues, Bill Bailey, Wont You Please Come Home, Lets Do It, Come Rain or Come Shine, and St. Louis Blues. In 1957 she was a featured entertainer at the second inauguration of President Eisenhower.

The high point of Baileys career came in 1967, when she headed the cast of a new Broadway staging of Hello, Dolly! The all-black show featured Bailey as the husband-hunting Dolly Gallagher Levi, and her friend Cab Calloway as the reluctant suitor Horace Vandergelder. The show opened in November of 1967 to rave reviews. New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes, for one, wrote that Bailey took the whole musical in her hands and swung it around her neck as easily as if it were a feather boa. Her timing was exquisite, with asides tossed away as languidly as one might tap ash from a cigarette, and her singing had that deep throaty rumble that is always so oddly stirring. Barnes concluded: The audience would have elected her governor if shed only name the state. Bailey was awarded a Tony for her work in Hello, Dolly!

After touring extensively with Hello, Dolly!, Bailey was offered her own television show. The Pearl Bailey Show lasted only one season, but the performer made numerous guest appearances on other variety and dramatic shows. For several years in the 1980s she portrayed Lulu Baker in the situation comedy Silver Spoons, but Bailey always preferred working before live audiencesher greatest joy, she said, was singing to a crowd.

Bailey numbered several United States presidents among her fans, and she was named a public goodwill ambassador to the United Nations four times. By the mid-1980s she had written five books and had earned, at age 67, her bachelors degree in theology from Georgetown University. After receiving her degree, Bailey told the Philadelphia Inquirer: I have a go-for-it attitude about education, about life, about everything. My religion is action. You cant spend your life waiting around. You go for it.

Bailey had suffered from heart trouble as early as the 1960s, but she seemed in good health in the summer of 1990 when she traveled to Philadelphia for knee surgery. She was recuperating from the operation when she died unexpectedly on August 17th in her Philadelphia hotel room. She was survived by her devoted husband of 38 years, jazz drummer Louis Bellson, Jr., and two adopted children.

Karl Stark remembered Bailey as a wise, witty, and exuberant woman whose accomplishments in many fields were staggering. The entertainer undoubtedly made her finest mark as a singerperhaps the most famous black woman singer of her generation. Stark concluded of Bailey: She was sultry and statuesque, a muse in high heels. When she sang a song, she squeezed it with an earthy embrace that could warm a listener from the back of the neck to the soles of his feet.

Writings

Raw Pearl, Harcourt, 1969.

Talking to Myself, Harcourt, 1971.

Pearls Kitchen: An Extraordinary Cookbook, Harcourt, 1973.

Dueys Tale (juvenile), Harcourt, 1975.

Hurry Up, America, and Spit, Harcourt, 1976.

Selected discography

Hello, Dolly!, RCA, 1968.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 4, Gale, 1985.

Current Biography Yearbook 1969, H.W. Wilson, 1970.

Bailey, Pearl, Raw Pearl, Harcourt, 1969.

Bailey, Pearl, Talking to Myself, Harcourt, 1971.

Periodicals

Cue, January 6, 1968.

Life, December 8, 1967.

Newsweek, December 4, 1967.

New York Post, January 16, 1955; April 27, 1965; November 18, 1967.

New York Times, November 13, 1967; November 20, 1967; November 26, 1967.

Obituaries

Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 1990; August 20, 1990.

Washington Post, August 19, 1990.

Anne Janette Johnson

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Bailey, Pearl

Bailey, Pearl

March 29, 1918
August 17, 1990


The singer and actress Pearl Bailey, popularly known as Pearlie Mae, was born in Newport News, Virginia, to Joseph James Bailey, a revivalist minister, and Ella Mae Bailey. At the age of four, she moved with her family to Washington, D.C., and after her parents divorced she moved to Philadelphia with her mother and her stepfather, Walter Robinson. There, Bailey attended school until the age of fifteen, when she began her career as an entertainer after winning an amateur contest at the Pearl Theater. For a while she performed in coal-mining towns in Pennsylvania, then in small clubs in Washington, D.C. Beginning in 1941 she toured with the United Service Organization (USO), and in 19431944 she performed with bands led by Charles "Cootie" Williams (1908?1985), William "Count" Basie (19041984), and Noble Sissle (18891975). It was during this period that she began to develop her distinctive trademark, described by John S. Wilson in the New York Times as "a warm, lusty singing voice accompanied by an easy smile and elegant gestures that charmed audiences and translated smoothly from the nightclub stage and Broadway to film and television."

In the early 1940s Bailey made solo appearances at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel in New York City, and she made her Broadway debut in 1946 in the musical comedy St. Louis Woman, for which she won the Donaldson Award as the most promising new performer of the year. The following year she appeared in the motion picture Variety Girl, in which she sang one of her most popular songs, "Tired." Thereafter, she made numerous stage, screen, and television appearances, including the 1954 Broadway musical House of Flowers and such films as Carmen Jones (1954), St. Louis Blues (1958), and Porgy and Bess (1959). Her most acclaimed performance came in 1967, when she appeared with Cab Calloway (19071994) in the all-black production of Hello, Dolly! This brought her a special Tony Award in 1968 for distinguished achievement in the New York theater.

In 1969 Bailey received the USO's Woman of the Year award. The following year President Richard Nixon appointed her "Ambassador of Love," and in 1975 she was appointed special "goodwill" ambassador to the United Nations. Despite her popularity, however, Bailey's association with the Nixon administration was criticized by some African Americans; the Harlem congressman Charles Rangel in particular stated that her appointment was an insult to better-qualified blacks.

During this period, Bailey returned to school, studying theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from which she received both an honorary degree in 1978 and a bachelor's degree in 1985, at the age of sixtyseven. An inveterate travelerfrequently accompanied by her husband, the jazz drummer Louis Bellson (whom she married in 1952)Bailey also authored several books, including the autobiographical The Raw Pearl (1968) and Talking to Myself (1971). Between You and Me: A Heartfelt Memoir on Learning, Loving, and Living was published in 1989, shortly before she died of heart disease on August 17, 1990. Two years before her death, Bailey was presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan.

See also Calloway, Cab; Musical Theater

Bibliography

Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1988.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Wilson, John S. Obituary. New York Times, August 19, 1990.

krista whetstone (1996)

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