Vocalist. Actress. Ambassador. An American Treasure. That, in part, describes the life and talent of singer Pearl Bailey. Born in Newport News, Virginia at the end of World War One, her father was a pastor and her brother Bill a professional tap dancer. From an early age, Pearl had a talent for singing and often sang in her father Joseph’s church. Brother Bill suggested she enter an amateur contest at a theatre in Philadelphia, where she won first place at the age of fifteen and was offered her first singing job. She later won a similar competition at the Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem and from there pursued her career in entertainment.
Initially Bailey sang and danced in Vaudeville, appearing in various nightclubs in Philadelphia in the ‘30s, and shortly thereafter began performing along the East Coast. Her solo successes as a nightclub entertainer were followed by performances with such musical stars of the period as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. By the start of the Second World War, Bailey toured the country performing with the USO, where her talent and cleaver stage banter quickly make her a favorite with American troops. After the war ended, Pearl settled in New York.
In 1946, Bailey made her Broadway debut in ‘Saint Louis Woman’. For her performance, she won a Donaldson Award as the best Broadway newcomer. However, Bailey’s most important and popular Broadway role would be as Dolly Levi in the all-black version of ‘Hello Dolly!’ where she won a Tony Award for the title role. The performance was so successful it played to sold-out houses and RCA Victor made an original cast album. Bailey continued to tour and record albums in between her stage and screen performances.
Her rendition of “Takes Two to Tango” hit the top ten in 1952. In the fall of that same year, Bailey married jazz drummer Louie Bellson in London. They adopted a boy, Tony, in the mid-1950s. A girl, Dee Dee J. Bellson, was born in 1960.
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Pearl appeared on countless television variety shows and hosted her own variety series on ABC, ‘The Pearl Bailey Show’. In addition to television appearances, she continued to record and perform in live concert settings and received the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. Bailey returned to Broadway in 1975, once again playing the lead in ‘Hello, Dolly!’, and that same year was appointed special ambassador to the United Nations by President Gerald Ford.
A passionate baseball fan, Bailey sang the national anthem prior to game five of the ‘69 World Series, and again sang the national anthem prior to game one of the ‘81 World Series between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers at Yankee Stadium. She earned a degree in theology from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1985.
In 1988 Bailey received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan.
Pearl Bailey died at in Philadelphia on August 17, 1990. Bailey is buried at Rolling Green Memorial Park in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Swing Street Radio pays tribute to Pearl Bailey all during March on the occasion of her centennial birthday.