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dancer, singer, ambassador, author
Pearl Mae Bailey was born in Southampton County, Virginia, on March 29, 1918, and spent her earliest years in Newport News. Her parents, Joseph and Ella Mae Bailey, divorced when she was a child, after which her mother remarried and moved the family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Although she began singing at the age of three, Bailey didn't consider a career in entertainment until age 15, when her brother Bill (an upcoming tap dancer) talked her into entering a talent contest at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia. Her song and tap dance routine earned her first place. She subsequently spent several winters working for $15 a week and tips as a singer and dancer in small clubs in the coal-mining section of Pennsylvania. One summer, on a visit to Washington, Bailey devised a dance act that won a $12 prize and led to other engagements.
Bailey's first New York appearance was in 1941 at the Village Vanguard. She sang briefly with the Sunset Royal Orchestra and with Count Basie's band, and for two years, 1943-44, toured with Cootie Williams's band. In 1944 she was booked into the Blue Angel, a prestigious New York supper club, for two weeks. Her performances were so well received that she ended up staying at the club for eight months. Her solo successes as a nightclub performer were followed by acts with such entertainers as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She was also signed by Columbia Records during this period, and she continued to tour and record albums after branching into stage, movie, and television.
Bailey made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman in 1946, and earned a Donaldson Award for most promising newcomer. She subsequently appeared in Arms and the Girl (1950), Bless You All (1950), House of Flowers (1954), and Call Me Madam (1966). From 1967 to 1969 she played the lead in an all-black version of Hello, Dolly!, a performance which earned her a Special Tony Award. She also starred in the 1975 production of Hello, Dolly!
Bailey's first film was Variety Girl (1947), in which she got notice from the jazz community for her version of "Tired." She also earned acclaim for her rendition of "Beat Me That Rhythm on the Drum" in Carmen Jones (1954). In 1958 she starred opposite Nat King Cole in St. Louis Blues, a biopic about jazz composer W.C. Handy. Bailey's film credits also include Isn't It Romantic? (1948), That Certain Feeling (1956), Porgy and Bess (1959), and All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960).
Not surprisingly, Bailey was also a frequent guest on television variety shows, and even hosted her own show in 1970-71.
In addition to her busy performing schedule, Bailey found time to write several books -- The Raw Pearl (1968), Talking to Myself (1971), Pearl's Kitchen (1973), Hurry Up America and Spit (1976), and Between You and Me (1989). In 1975, she was appointed special ambassador to the United Nations by President Gerald Ford. She received a Bachelor's in Theology degree from Georgetown University in 1985, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
Pearl Bailey died in Philadelphia on August 7, 1990. She was survived by her husband, Louie Bellson (whom she had married in 1952), and their two adopted children, Tony and Dee Dee.
Library >> Musics >> Biography: Singers
This page was last updated on 03/29/2018.