The death of Pearl Bailey, who died Friday at 72, marks a loss not only to show business, but to music, to the world of diplomacy (in recent years she had spent much of her time as a delegate to the United Nations) and to all of us who knew and loved her.
It is not difficult to recall when our paths first crossed, since the slogan “Remember Pearl Harbor” was fresh in everyone’s mind, and my review of her show at the Village Vanguard in Metronome Magazine was headlined with a play on words: “Remember Pearl Bailey.”
At that time the impression she made was that of a jazz-oriented singer, capable of a moving ballad interpretation but remarkable also for the humor with which she laced her up-tempo tunes.
Not long after that initial encounter, she joined the orchestra of Cootie Williams and made a few records with the ex-Ellington trumpeter. But soon it became clear that her talent was bound to take her beyond the limitations of a career as a band singer.
Within a few years she had made inroads on stage (in the 1946 “St. Louis Woman”), on records and in the movies. In her first feature film, “Variety Girl,” she submitted to Hollywood’s demands on black actresses by dressing as a maid, but made a stunning impression singing a song that had become her first hit record, “Tired.”
Soon it became clear that the jazz community’s loss was a unique gain for a far bigger world. Bailey’s innate acting sense was a reflection of her natural manner. Though her principal outlets now were the stage and screen, intermittently she returned to the recording studios.
There was one delightful duet session in 1949 with the singer and trumpeter Hot Lips Page. Had Broadway and Hollywood not beckoned, Pearl Bailey might well have been hailed in the clubs along 52nd Street; her potential was comparable to that of the preeminent jazz soloists of the time.
Then came the marriage, which surprised almost everyone outside her immediate circle of friends. She had been married before, but the union with Louie Bellson, who was six years younger, seemed destined to last; their personalities dovetailed. Bellson, who had been playing drums for almost two years with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was a dynamic performer whose work contrasted with his offstage manner. He was as gentle and amiable as she was strong and persuasive. They were married in London; he rejoined the band for a few weeks, then left in January, 1953.
At the time there was a little cynicism, but the Bellsons soon proved the skeptics wrong. They raised a son, Tony, and a daughter. Dee Dee Bellson is a beautiful and talented young singer who has worked occasionally with her father’s band as well as with vocal groups.
The Bellsons managed, possibly more than any other couple in show business, to juggle the conflicting demands of their careers. When Pearl was not tied to a long-running show such as “Hello Dolly,” or busy with her work at the U.N., she would go on the road, with Bellson leading a small group. Louie also found time to head his own big band off and on, and to conduct drum clinics at colleges; Pearl meanwhile busied herself writing books, the first of which, “The Raw Pearl,” was autobiographical. Later came a cook book, of which she was especially proud.
They had a house in the San Fernando Valley, where they enjoyed occasional short rests from their schedules. Later they found what they felt was their dream home, in Lake Havasu, Ariz. It was there that Louie and Pearl spent some of their most relaxed moments last spring while he was recuperating from major surgery.
In late June at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, Pearl and Louie shared a bill with Wynton Marsalis. Between the interludes of comedy and dancing and strutting, Pearl offered versions of “Unforgetable” and “For Once in My Life” that reminded us, after all these years, that here was a splendid voice, undimmed by the passage of the decades.
There was a surprise ending. After going through all her hit song motions, Bailey invited Marsalis, who had played his own set earlier in the evening, to join her onstage. The 28-year-old trumpeter joined the 72-year-old singer in a heartfelt rendition of “The Battle Hymn of The Republic.” It was one of the most memorable moments of the entire jazz festival.
“Pearl was just the most wonderful person to work for,” said guitarist Remo Palmier, who was part of her backup group for 13 years. “There was nothing she wouldn’t do for us.”
While Louis Bellson tried to overcome his grief, plans were under way for him to bring his full orchestra into Disneyland for a week, starting Sept. 2. “I know,” he said in a call from Philadelphia, “that the only thing for me to do is go straight ahead. There will be services in Philadelphia--her brother Bill is buried here--and I’ll be out on the Coast in time to start rehearsals. It’s what she would want me to do.”
No doubt he is right, though it will never be possible to erase, even for a moment, the memory of a 37-year marriage. Pearl Bailey was a truly extraordinary human being--warm, vital, generous; concerned for friends and family, constantly involved in the effort to make this a better and more peaceful world. She will be missed by millions.