Bailey, Pearl (1918–1990)
Bailey, Pearl (1918–1990)
African-American jazz singer, Tony Award-winning actress, author, and tireless campaigner for world peace who served as an American delegate to the United Nations. Born in Newport News, Virginia, on March 29, 1918; died on August 17, 1990; youngest of four children of Joseph James Bailey (an evangelical preacher) and Ella Mae Bailey; married a drummer (the marriage lasted only 18 months); married a soldier just returned from overseas during World War II (divorced); married John Randolph Pinkett, Jr., on August 31, 1948 (divorced, March 1952); married Louis Bellson, Jr. (a drummer and bandleader), in 1952.
After winning an amateur contest (1933), began touring with several bands, singing and dancing; first appeared on Broadway (1946) and was named most promising newcomer; won the Tony Award (1968) for her performance in the all-black version of Hello, Dolly!; appeared in feature films and had her own television show (early 1970s); appointed by President Gerald Ford to U.S. Mission to the U.N. (1975); awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan (1988).
Variety Girl (1947); Isn't It Romantic? (1948); Carmen Jones (1955); That Certain Feeling (1956); St. Louis Blues (1958); Porgy and Bess (1959); All The Fine Young Cannibals (1960); The Landlord (1970); Norman … Is That You? (1976).
On a sunny spring day in 1978, Pearl Bailey donned the robes and mortarboard of a college graduate and was welcomed to the podium at Washington's prestigious Georgetown University to receive an honorary degree from the school's president. Though she had barely finished high school and had spent most of her life in show business, it seemed entirely appropriate to everyone gathered for the ceremony that "Pearlie Mae" should be honored that day. For the past 20 years, Bailey had been a frequent guest at the White House, had sat as part of the United States' contingent at the UN, had toured the Middle East and Europe as an ambassador of goodwill, and had been a public advocate for harmonious relations among all the world's peoples. But Bailey had one more surprise in store that day. Holding her honorary degree, she told the audience: "Who knows, folks. One day I may be coming to this school." A year later, when she was 61, Pearl Bailey's name appeared on the freshmen rolls.
Bailey had been surprising people all her life, starting on the day of her birth, March 29, 1918, in Newport News, Virginia. Her parents had been expecting a boy and had even chosen "Dick" as their new son's name—a nickname Pearl would bear for most of her childhood. The daughter of Joseph James Bailey, an evangelical preacher, and Ella Mae Bailey, she was the youngest of four children, with two sisters, Virgie and Eura, and a brother Willie. Bailey remembered little about Newport News, since the family moved to Washington, D.C., when she was only four. But she would never forget the church services at Washington's House of Prayer, where her father, as an elder of the church, preached every Sunday.
The African-American congregation was one of the largest in the capital, and the Sunday morning service was filled with rollicking gospel music, singing, dancing, and joyful shouting. The Bailey children were quick to notice that when the congregation began to enthusiastically praise the Lord, money would often shake loose from their pockets and fall to the floor. That was when, Bailey recalled, "we got extremely happy, started to shout, fell under the Power, but on top of money." A more permanent benefit of Elder Bailey's occupation was Pearl's early and constant exposure to the church meeting's harmony and rhythm, which she believed were the foundations for all later forms of popular music. "Just listen to the beat [of pop music] and go to one of the churches and see if you don't hear the same thing," she would tell her fans.
Sunday was also what Pearl called "Argument Day," the day her parents seemed to pick for their fights. After one particularly heated dispute, her mother Ella Mae Bailey left the household, taking the children with her. She moved first to another neighborhood, then to Philadelphia, where she eventually remarried.
At 15, Bailey went to work housecleaning for families across town in the affluent white sections of Philadelphia. Her brother Willie, on the other hand, seemed to have found a much more exciting way to make a living. He had gained some notoriety as a gifted tap dancer and had begun appearing at local black theaters, sharing bills with such established entertainers as the Berry Brothers, Jigsaw Jackson, and Ada Ward . Willie had seen Pearl singing and dancing around the Bailey home and suggested she enter an amateur-night competition at one of the theaters. The prize, after all, was five dollars and a week's work—better than cleaning houses and a lot more fun. With her mother's approval, Pearl entered the contest singing "Talk of the Town" and "Poor Butterfly," was declared the winner, and offered $30 for a week's work. At the end of the first week, she was offered a second week and another $30, the grand sum of $60 to be paid at the end. She accepted, but the theater went broke and closed before the second week was over. "Never start the second week until you've been paid for the first one" was the advice her mother gave her.
Despite the financial setback, Bailey was fascinated by show business, especially after a summer trip to New York with Willie, who took her to the Cotton Club, the famous Apollo, and the Harlem Opera House, where they watched a young singer named Ella Fitzgerald win a singing contest. Now determined to follow Willie on the stage, Bailey took a job at the old Howard Theater in Philadelphia as a chorine with band-leader Noble Sissle's act. America had now slipped into the Depression, and the $22 a week she was paid seemed like a fortune. She traveled with the act back to New York, this time as a show-business professional rather than a spectator. "I simply danced my fanny off, and ate like a horse," she remembered. "Some weeks, I ate the whole salary, except for rent money."
Not long after returning to Philadelphia, Bailey was offered a long-term contract to play the "coal circuit"—a dreary round of Pennsylvania coal towns where many blacks had gone to find work in the mines. Pearl's first stop was Pottstown, where she played the Manhattan Café, ducking flying beer bottles during the occasional brawl and steering clear of the pimps who looked her over for employment. It was a rough and tumble world, but Bailey held her own, touring through Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and a string of sooty, grimy camp towns. Along the way, she married a drummer—the first of four marriages, this one lasting only 18 months. Her mother visited her at one of the stops on the tour and gave her another piece of advice Bailey never forgot: "I want you to live in the best place you can afford, eat well, and if there's anything left, send it to Mama."
Her contract finally came to an end, and Bailey returned to Washington and a somewhat more genteel lifestyle. She was hired to sing with the Royal Sunset Band, playing established theaters in Washington, Baltimore, and Boston; when war broke out in 1941, Bailey traveled with the band for the USO, to places she would never have dreamed of seeing—Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California. This time it wasn't coal towns, but boot camps, and all of them strictly segregated. It was Bailey's first real exposure to the frictions between blacks and whites.
At Camp Hood, in Texas, she watched as a white woman, a fellow entertainer, flew into a screaming fit when she discovered a black man in her room. Another entertainer on the tour had mistaken the room for his and was taking a nap. The post MP's had to be called, and while they calmed the woman down and explained the error, they made a point of removing the bed from her room and replacing it with a new one, "as if," Bailey said, the man "had germs." At another stop in Texas, she emerged from the train tired and hungry to find that the only "colored" restaurant in town had closed. She walked boldly into the whites-only diner and, before they could tell her to leave, placed her order and told them she'd take it outside to eat. Though she was allowed to sit at the end of the counter, the stares and murmurs around her were impossible to ignore. Not long after, back in the North, Bailey visited a New Jersey club to see a hot new singer she'd heard about named Frank Sinatra. After the show, she was grabbed by two white men in the lobby. No one tried to help her as she broke free and ran back into the club, but the two men caught up with her and began beating her until a waiter ran up and chased them off. She suffered severe cuts and bruises about the head and neck. When the police repeatedly asked if her attackers were white, she replied that she "didn't give a dern if they were purple." But she later wrote, "They represented for me all the miserable people who go around looking at skin. How could a man hate someone he had never met before, just because he had a different color skin? What is he really afraid of?"
Bailey stayed on the USO circuit throughout most of the war and married for the second time, a soldier just returned from overseas. As with her first husband, Pearl never publicly revealed his name, and wrote many years later that she felt the marriage ended after only a few months
because her husband had difficulty adjusting to civilian life after so many years in combat. They were divorced in Washington.
The year 1944 found Bailey back in New York, where she appeared at two of the city's most famous jazz clubs, the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. It was the New York jazz world that would open so many doors for her, professionally and personally. For one thing, jazz audiences in New York were white as well as black, so different from the strict segregation Pearl had experienced up until now. For another, she was playing quality clubs in which those audiences regularly included show-business luminaries, from movie stars to directors to agents. It was in New York that she signed her first recording contract, with Columbia, and recorded her first hit, "Tired," in 1945. (Its opening line—"Honey, aren't you tired?"—became her trademark.) She also met and formed a long-lasting friendship with Sinatra, with whom she would record "A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing"; auditioned for Cab Calloway's band and opened with him at the Strand Theater to rave reviews; and snagged her first job in a Broadway musical, St. Louis Woman, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It was during this dynamic time in her career that Bailey developed her distinctive style—an almost off-hand delivery, with a subtle variation in phrasing and intonation interspersed with droll, comical asides.
Man has nothing to do but be beautiful. But, Lord, he makes such a chore of it!
Her third marriage—to a wealthy Washington playboy—was effectively over in two years. This time Bailey discovered her ex-husband had left her with $70,000 in debts, all of which she was able to pay off by selling their home in the capital and appearing in two more Broadway productions—Arms And The Girl, a Revolutionary War musical review in which she costarred with Nanette Fabray , and House of Flowers, again singing Harold Arlen's music.
The income from her first movie contract also came in handy. In 1946, she was offered $25,000 to appear in Paramount's Variety Girl, a musical review about the Variety Clubs formed by the film industry after the war as a means to raise money for charities. She had only one scene and only three weeks' work, but Bailey remembered her mother's advice and made sure she was paid by the week. She took her first check to the bank, asked for the cash in a brown paper sack, and took the money back to her hotel room to see what that much money looked like.
Bailey's scene called for her to walk into a Variety Club rehearsal dressed in a fancy gown designed by Edith Head , drape herself around a column, and tell the chorus girls assembled there, in song, how to keep their man. "Dear, dear, I am the worst draper," Bailey recalled. "With my feet killing me, I just get across a room and when I find a post, I don't drape, I lean." When it became obvious the scene wasn't working, it was Pearl's idea to shed the gown and appear in a housecoat and slippers, carrying a feather duster; and instead of the Frank Loesser number she was supposed to sing, she sang "Tired." It became the film's most memorable scene, and Paramount immediately offered her parts in some of its more prestigious films. Among them were two of the most popular African American-cast movies of the day, Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, both directed by Otto Preminger, featuring the likes of Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dorothy Dandridge .
In 1952, Bailey met and married her fourth husband, drummer and bandleader Louis Bellson. The marriage drew some harsh remarks from the press, since Bellson was white, but Bailey brushed them off. "There is only one race," she said, "the human race." The couple were married in London, where she was appearing as part of a government-sponsored goodwill tour; this marriage would last a lifetime. Their home was near Victorville, California, Bailey's beloved Apple Valley Ranch, where she would spend what little time she had between films or tours.
Shortly before marrying Bellson, Bailey accepted an invitation that would open up a new career for her. Former actor George Murphy, now a U.S. senator and a good friend of Bailey's from his show-business days, asked her to appear at a Press Club luncheon in Washington for then-president Dwight Eisenhower. She sang her current popular hit, "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey," an old 1890's ragtime tune she'd discovered and brought up to date. She soon became the toast of the capital's social circuit, was invited to Eisenhower's second inauguration, and was dispatched on the first of a long series of overseas tours as part of America's growing cultural presence in the postwar world, rubbing elbows easily with heads of state, diplomats, and educators.
The recognition was not without its critics, however. With the civil-rights movement beginning to gather steam, Bailey was seen by some African-American leaders and political liberals as tied to an administration that was painfully slow in empowering the nation's black population. As usual, she spoke her mind, pointing out to Northern liberals that civil rights was not just a Southern issue. "The North has merely lived under a thin veil of liberalism," she wrote. She also told those who challenged her lack of membership in civil-rights organizations, "I don't have to join an organization to care. I care about everyone, and that's more important than caring about one." She pointed to her profession as an example of what she meant: "We have no chips on our shoulders, no burden to carry, because we all have a thing in common, a cause." To the white press that had made such a fuss about her marriage to a white man but now took her to task for failing to march for integration, she said that she "marched in her heart every day." She might have also pointed out that she was one of a handful of black entertainers to have played to integrated audiences in the '40s and '50s. She would later appear in two films with strong racial themes, All The Fine Young Cannibals and The Landlord.
In 1965, after returning to Apple Valley from a particularly grueling tour, Bailey complained of being "in a fog," with no energy and low spirits. Taken to a hospital for tests, she was diagnosed with heart disease, confined to bed for three weeks, and told to slow down. Making good use of the time, she took notes for an autobiography she was planning to write (published in 1968) and found she had a penchant for poetry. Her verses were about everyday things, especially about families, for she felt that a disintegration in family life was responsible for the problems confronting the nation's youth. In one poem, she wrote:
There's nobody home
Upstairs or downstairs.
Mom is out of work, looking,
John is in or out of school
Who knows, who cares.
Mary is—now let me see….
Finally given medical clearance, Bailey returned to work in one of her most successful roles, as Dolly Levi in Jerome Robbins' all-black version of Hello, Dolly!, which opened on Broadway in 1967. It was one of the proudest moments of her career, a culmination of her years of hoofing and singing. Broadway would recognize that fact by awarding her the Tony the following year for her performance. "At last I can sing, dance, say intelligent words on stage, love and be loved, and deliver what God gave me—and I'm dressed up besides!" she told reporters. The New York Times review was typical of the show's critical reception: "For Miss Bailey, this was a Broadway triumph for the history books…. The audience would have elected her governor if she'd only named her choice of state."
The critic wasn't far off the mark with his political analogy, although it wasn't an elected office that came Bailey's way. After touring with Dolly nationally and overseas, her second career as a diplomat and goodwill ambassador accelerated. She toured the Middle East in the early 1970s, shaking hands with the Shah of Iran before his downfall and with Anwar Sadat just months before his assassination. In 1975, President Gerald Ford named her as the public delegate to the United States Mission to the U.N., where she participated in debates on solutions to the Israeli-Arab conflict to such effect that she was reappointed to three more terms, first by Jimmy Carter and then by Ronald Reagan, who awarded her the Medal of Freedom. On her retirement, she told a U.N. press conference that she had done nothing of which she was happier or more proud. U.N. Ambassador Vernon Walters called her a "national treasure."
Bailey accomplished all this while continuing the studies she announced that June Day at Georgetown University, graduating with a degree in theology and a Dean's Award in 1985, at the age of 67. By now, no one was surprised at what Pearlie Mae from Newport News could accomplish. Before the heart disease diagnosed 30 years earlier caused her death on August 17, 1990, she had brightened the lives of the millions who had heard her sing, watched her dance, or been moved by her dramatic performances on stage, screen, and television. She had also broken down racial barriers long before the civil-rights movement came to the fore; published six books; toured the world with her message of human kindness and understanding; and participated in the search for peace at the highest levels of government.
"The way we're going to get understanding," Bailey once wrote, "is for each man to open his heart and open his mind and look within himself as he looks at his neighbor." Anyone who was familiar with Pearl Bailey recognized that that was exactly what she'd been doing all along.
Bailey, Pearl. The Raw Pearl. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1968.
——. Between You And Me: A Heartfelt Memoir Of Learning, Loving, And Living. NY: Doubleday, 1989.
Brandt, Keith. Pearl Bailey: With A Song In Her Heart. NY: Troll Associates, 1993.
Null, Gary. Black Hollywood: The Black Performer In Motion Pictures. NY: Citadel Press, 1975.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York