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Pearl Bailey: Legendary Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood Performer

Pearl Mae Bailey (March 29, 1918–August 17, 1990) was an African American singer and actress whose career spanned nearly fifty years in all forms of entertainment from Vaudeville to Broadway to Cinema. Her unique delivery, which included ad-libbing and bantering back and forth with the audience, added to her personability and charisma.

She is probably most remembered for her role as matchmaker “Dolly Gallagher Levi” in David Merrick’s production of Hello Dolly!—a part first created on Broadway by Carol Channing. The all-black version of Hello, Dolly! played on Broadway from 1967 to 1969, and garnered Bailey the theater’s highest honor, the Tony Award.

Bailey was the daughter of the Rev. Joseph James Bailey, and although she had no official music education, she attributed her love of song and dance to her childhood experience in a Pentecostal “holy roller” church where her father was the preacher. Her parents divorced when she was four and the children divided their time between their mother’s home in Philadelphia and their father’s in Washington D.C. After winning a talent contest at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, Bailey dropped out of high school at age 15 to pursue a career on the vaudeville circuit as a singer and dancer. Later in life, she would return to her dream of receiving a higher education by entering college at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

In 1946, she made her Broadway debut in the all black musical St. Louis Woman, produced by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. This was a breakthrough role that took Bailey from Vaudeville to Broadway. Her debut earned her the Donaldson Award as best newcomer on Broadway that year. She honed her distinctive style of entertaining through her nightclub act performing with Cab Calloway, who would become a lifelong friend, at the Zanzibar Nightclub on Broadway. Her humorous and folksy style was well loved by audiences; she was affectionately called “Pearley Mae” by her fans and close friends. Her singing voice was described as throaty with a low growl best suited to jazzy classics such as Toot Toot Tootsie (Goodbye) and Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.

During the 1940s, she debuted as a soloist with Big Bands such as the Edgar Hayes Orchestra and the Cootie Williams band. Taking her act overseas she performed with other Jazz greats such as Count Basie on USO tours entertaining American troops during World War II.

After the war ended Bailey moved to New York. She continued to perform in nightclubs but she also garnered a recording contract and now went on tour to promote her music. Her 1952 recording, “Takes Two to Tango,” was one of the top songs of the year. In 1946 Bailey made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman where she played the role of Hagar in a cast that also included Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole. Although Bailey performed on stage she still performed in concert tours. On November 9, 1952, Bailey married jazz drummer Louie Bellson in London.

In 1954 Bailey made her film debut as a supporting actress in Carmen Jones. Playing the character, Frankie, she was most remembered for her rendition of “Beat Out That Rhythm on the Drum. Bailey also starred in the Broadway musical House of Flowers in 1954. By 1959 she was considered a leading African American actor and starred in films such as Porgy and Bess with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.

In 1970, Bailey, a lifelong Republican, was appointed by President Richard Nixon as America’s “Ambassador of Love.” In that post she attended several meetings at the United Nations. She later made a television commercial for President Gerald Ford in the 1976 election.

In 1975, Bailey was appointed Special Ambassador to the United Nations by Gerald Ford. As part of her role she visited and performed for a wide array of world leaders that included Anwar Sadat of Egypt (who was later assassinated), the former Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan, among others. As a special representative she not only performed at events, but on at least one occasion she addressed a special session to the United Nations as well. Her concerns included raising awareness for AIDS research. Among her many U.N. related travels she was to witness and write about the plight of children in refugee camps in both Palestine and Africa. When a U.N. delegate criticized her for being there as a mere entertainer she replied:

I sit in this seat33I am here for my business and the love of the entire world because I love God, I love truth, and I want to see peace on earth.

Pearl Bailey was given an honorary degree by Georgetown University in 1978, and while receiving her award onstage she stunned and delighted her audience by telling them that she planned to return to college there the following year. In 1985, after five years of studying she graduated with a B.A. in Theology. She was sixty-seven years young. At first Bailey majored in French and when asked why she switched from French to Theology she said, “Because it’s easier to know the Lord than it is to know French.” In her memoir, Between You and Me, written the year before she died, she encouraged other senior citizens to peruse their dreams.

Pearl Bailey wrote six books, three of them memoirs, that are filled with homespun wisdom ranging from cooking to child rearing. In her book Between You and Me she shared many of her unique experiences while serving as a United Nations special representative. She met not only world leaders but worked with their wives on various projects such as the Reading is Fundamental literacy program initiated by Barbara Bush. Her memoir provides a multi-faceted perspective that could only come from someone working behind the scenes. Her book, Duey’s Tale, a children’s fable, won the Coretta Scott King Award for children’s literature in 1976.

Pearl Bailey died from heart failure at the age of 72. Two thousand people attended her funeral in Philadelphia where she had been visiting her sisters while recuperating from knee surgery. Her husband Louie said in his eulogy, “she was a person of love, she believed that ‘show business’ was a show love business.”

In 1968, she received the March of Dimes Annual Award and in 1972, the “Heart of the Year” award by the American Heart Association. The Women’s International Center presented the Living Legacy Award to Pearl Bailey, on March 11, 1989. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988, by President Ronald Reagan.

She had been scheduled to address the United Nations on the 24th of August but she died on August 17th, 1990.


Pearl Mae Bailey (1918-1990)

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