LOUIE AND PEARL-- 33 SWINGING YEARS
There is no other family in show business quite like the Bellsons.
Louis Paul Bellson (drummer, composer, arranger, big-band and combo leader, sideman) and Pearl Bailey (singer, comedienne, stage and movie actress, social and political activist, author of six books, recently graduated college student) were married in London on Nov. 19, 1952.
They have two children: Tony, 32, a drummer, and Dee Dee, 25, a group singer heard on recent albums by Weather Report and Wayne Shorter. For five years, the senior Bellsons have had a home in Lake Havasu, Ariz., and occasionally they get to see it, despite separate or sometimes interwoven traveling schedules.
In Pasadena recently for a concert, they looked back in contentment on their 33-year marriage.
“The key to our making it work,” said Bellson, “is that on all of Pearl’s dates she requires at least a quartet, so for about half of each year we’re together. The rest of the time I may work with my band, but never for more than two weeks continuously.
“When Pearl did ‘Hello, Dolly!,’ that was a crucial time, because there she was in New York with this colossal hit for two years and three months--and I was out here in L.A. with my band, or doing sideman dates with Quincy Jones. What we did was very smart--Pearl suggested it. She said, ‘Just keep on doing your work, but stop once a month and come to New York for a few days, and bring the children every month or two.’ It worked out just fine.”
“The same thing happened when I was studying,” said Bailey, who last May received her bachelor’s degree in theology from Georgetown University. “I was there for seven years--it would have been four, but Louie would commute and I’d take time out for weekend gigs and other occasional absences. A girl’s gotta eat, too, you know. Because of the traveling, I did some tutorials, but my papers were never late; I made the dean’s list twice, and graduated with a 3.34.
“I always wanted to be a teacher; I love learning, love reading. I’ve attended classes and seminars everywhere from Oxford to Cal State Northridge.”
It was in Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley, that they made their home for many years until the move to Arizona. “We have a small house right on the golf course,” Bellson said. “It’s been perfect for us--so peaceful and quiet after you’ve been on the road for months. We do our own cooking, our own cleaning; it’s just Pearl and I and our little dog Charlie. We try to get back there several times a year; last summer we spent almost a month there. It’s always a real vacation for us.”
“We moved to Arizona,” Bailey said, “because it seemed to me that people in the big cities were losing touch with reality, losing sight of important values like respect for the common decencies of life.”
Some of this social disintegration, she feels, is reflected in today’s music scene, in which a sense of reality also has been lost. “These videos I’ve been seeing don’t relate to the lyrics, and recordings are becoming less and less natural. When you have to put on a headphone and sing in an empty studio to something pre-recorded, where is that live contact?
“My goodness, we used to go In and record for three hours, break for dinner, come back and have the album finished three hours later. Sinatra is still here, and he can do that. So can Ella.
“Jo Stafford can still sing; I can still sing, but we’re not even recording. How can you say we don’t deserve an award when you can’t hear us on a record? I think I’ll just go in a studio and do an album--nobody has asked me, so I may as well do it myself.”
Bailey’s attitude is not simply that of the disenchanted veteran; she has warm words for Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond and others of less-than-classic vintage.
“I have told Tony and Dee Dee to listen to the great singers and players and songs of every era. Let the young people mix in other things to show our great heritage. Linda Ronstadt did it; Toni Tennille did it. To herd young folks into one area of music is demoralizing!
“The other night, I saw Teddy Pendergrass on a TV show, and when he came out in that wheelchair his soul, his face, his diction, everything about him made me fall in love with him--and when he said his mentor was Nat King Cole, I knew why he understood so much about phrasing and feeling.”
Separately and together, the Bellsons’ careers have taken them to almost every point on the globe. Some of the visits have transcended musical considerations: After her appointment by President Ford as special representative to the U.S. delegation to the U.N., Bailey made a trip to the Middle East and Africa, visiting hospitals, orphanages, leper colonies, homes for the handicapped, schools and women’s groups in Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Liberia, Senegal and the United Arab Emirate.
During a 1974 Middle East tour, she became the first woman to receive the Bel Ami Freedom Medal (it was given to her by good friend, King Hussein). Adept at making friends on both sides of the unmended fences, she has equally strong ties with Israel, where she and Bellson have toured extensively. A musical endowment for the handicapped was established in her name at Bar Ilan University. On March 29, she will be lecturing in Phoenix for the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute.
She has long since lost count of her visits to the White House, often with her husband, under every administration during the past 30 years except John F. Kennedy’s.
Bellson, who was a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra when he and Bailey were married, played in the all-star band that honored his ex-boss in the East Room on Duke’s 70th birthday in 1969, when President Nixon awarded Ellington the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Bellsons have been among the few musical visitors to the U.S.S.R. since the start of the Reagan Administration. They were over there last year with Bellson’s rhythm section. “We were asked to sit in with some Russian musicians,” Bellson said, “and they videotaped that at a high school in Moscow. I heard two sensational guitarists, a great trombone player, and three sax men who played like Stan Getz. The same thing happened in Leningrad--astonishing talent. They learn a lot from records, and from Willis Conover’s ‘Voice of America’ nightly jazz show. You know, they’re still talking about Duke’s visit in 1971, and Benny Goodman’s in 1962.”
Like Ellington, Goodman is a name that has been a significant thread in Bellson’s career. At 19, he played his first stint in the Benny Goodman orchestra; he has returned many times and is currently involved in a series of dates with him.
“Benny is a perfectionist; give him what he wants musically and he’ll be fine. Sure, we’ve had our differences, but I love the old guy, and I’ve learned so much from him, it’s ridiculous. People think he’s foggy, but he knows every move he’s making. Here’s a man 76 years old, with a bad back, and he stands there and takes two hours to perfect one arrangement. And he’s playing better than ever.”
Bellson recently recorded an album with Goodman playing some of the original Fletcher Henderson arrangements. “That’s ageless music. We’re opening March 16 at Radio City Music Hall--Benny’s band, Sinatra and Ella.”
Bellson soon afterward will revert from sideman to leader and composer for some challenging projects. “The first week in July, I’ll be doing some concerts and recordings with the London Philharmonic. We’ll be performing a four-part piece for percussion, which Harold Farberman and I wrote--Harold was a principal percussionist with the Boston Symphony.”
While Mrs. Bellson continues to divide her time among social works, government-sponsored tours and her regular act as an incomparable comedy-tinged singer, Mr. Bellson goes about his own business in his own world between dates with her. How they have made it all come together, and for longer than most couples stay married, is eloquently explained by Louie:
“I’m so happy to have a wife who really understands me. When we first got married, she said, ‘Look, you’re a musician. If you have a gig, you come first. You’re the man of the house. And that’s pretty neat, you know, because she makes a lot more money than I do, but she knows that my thing is to try to create something musically worthwhile. I’ll never make millions, but I have a certain amount of respect and security in my career, and that means everything to me.”
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