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.

Pearl Bailey's 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 "America's ambassador of love," adding: "She used her voice--and her heart--to 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 city's 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 prize--five 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.

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 style--easy and personal, with throwaway lines and jokes added between and during songs. McLellan wrote: "The public image projected through Bailey's 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 music's 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 entertainer's 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 Woman's 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, Won't You Please Come Home," "Let's 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 Bailey's 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 she'd 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 audiences--her 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 bachelor's 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 can't 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 singer--perhaps 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."

by Anne Janette Johnson

Pearl Bailey's Career

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 Calloway's 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 Isn't 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.

Pearl Bailey's 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.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

October 29, 2005: Bailey rode Saint Liam to victory in the $4.7 million Breeders Cup Classic at Belmont Park in New York. Source: SI.com, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/more/10/29/bc.rac.breeders.cup.rdp.ap/index.html, October 29, 2005.

January 28, 2006: Bailey rode what he said would be his final race, finishing second in the Cloverleaf Farms Turf Stakes at Hallandale Beach, Florida. Source: SI.com, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/more/01/28/bailey.finale.ap/index.html, January 28, 2006.

Further Reading


Periodicals Obituaries

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 15 years ago

Queen Latifah portraying Pearl Bailey in a film about Bailey's life would be an awesome tribute to this talented, pioneering black lady that so many know nothing about. I hope this comment is circulated to someone who can make it happen.

almost 15 years ago

Queen Latifah portraying Pearl Bailey in a film about Bailey's life would be an awesome tribute to this talented, pioneering black lady that so many know nothing about. I hope this comment is circulated to someone who can make it happen.

almost 15 years ago

Great biography that explains the life of someone everyone should be aware of. She was a great lady and is missed much.

over 15 years ago

This is a very good biography on Pearl Mae Bailey!!!!!! =)