From the Archives: Entertainer Pearl Bailey, Enduring Star, Dies at 72


Pearl Bailey, the preacher’s daughter who sang and danced her way from Depression coal mining towns to Broadway and the hearts of America as the star of the black “Hello, Dolly!” more than 20 years ago, died Friday in Philadelphia. She was 72.

“Pearlie Mae,” as she was known to her friends, died at 6:12 p.m. at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, according to the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office. The cause of death was not immediately known. Officials said an autopsy will be performed.

A hospital spokesman said Miss Bailey had been admitted to the hospital about 30 minutes before her death, after complaining that she was not feeling well.


Miss Bailey, who suffered from heart problems for at least three decades, had undergone surgery July 11 at the same hospital to replace her left arthritic knee with a metal and plastic joint. She left the hospital July 30, walking with a cane, but had been recuperating well after physical therapy.

“I have lost one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had in my life,” Cab Calloway, the veteran song-and-dance man, said Friday night when he learned of her death. “I’ve lost a co-worker and a wonderful person.”

Her last major performance was June 28 at the New York Jazz Festival in Avery Fisher Hall, where Miss Bailey performed with a quartet led by her fifth husband, jazz drummer Louis Bellson. Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather said that the popular performer was still very much in her prime.

“Among her shtick, the Social Security jokes, the dancing and the strutting,” he wrote, “there was a voice that remains rich and warm and true.

“Bailey’s versions of ‘Unforgettable,’ “For Once in My Life,’ and ‘Read My Mind’ . . . gave proof through the night that her sound was still there.”

Known as a singer, comedian, stage, film and television actress, social and political activist, author of six books, and wife and mother, Miss Bailey considered herself primarily a singer but scoffed at all labels.

“I’m not a comedienne,” she once told an interviewer. “I call myself a humorist. I tell stories to music and, thank God, in tune. I laugh at people who call me an actress.”

Appropriately for the daughter of a Holy Roller-style revivalist, the Rev. Joseph James Bailey, she attributed her talent to God.

“People say, ‘Pearl, what style do you have?’ I say, ‘It’s God, not style,’ ” said the woman known for popular, jazz and blues songs.

Her much-loved stand-bys included “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,” “Row, Row, Row,” “Birth of the Blues,” “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye,” “Takes Two to Tango,” and “That’s Good Enough for Me.”

Among her humorous and inspirational books are “Hurry Up,” “America & Spit,” and the autobiographical “The Raw Pearl” and “Between You and Me.”

Her long and successful career peaked in 1967 when she was selected by David Merrick to play Dolly Levi in the black version of “Hello, Dolly!” Audiences and critics alike were at her feet.

“For Miss Bailey, this was a Broadway triumph for the history books . . . ,” theater critic Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times. “She 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. . . . The audience would have elected her governor if she’d only named the state.”

Another critic noted amicably that the role of the meddling matchmaker fit Miss Bailey perfectly because “Pearl is naturally a fixer who loves to push people around for their own good.”

Delighted with the accolades and with the role, for which she won a special Tony award, Miss Bailey told Newsweek: “All this has been worth waiting for. At last I can sing, dance, say intelligent words on stage, love and be loved and deliver what God gave me--and I’m dressed up besides.”

Miss Bailey, whose high cheekbones reflected the Creek Indians among her forbearers, was born March 29, 1918, in Newport News, Va., the youngest of four children. By the age of 3, she was singing and dancing in her father’s church.

In 1933, when she was 15, Miss Bailey first tasted show business when she entered and won the amateur night contest at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia, where her brother, tap dancer Bill Bailey, was appearing. Singing and dancing to “Talk of the Town and “Poor Butterfly,” she won $5 and a two-week engagement, but the theater closed before she could go on.

No matter. She was hooked, and quickly dropped out of school to become an entertainer.

Miss Bailey won a second amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, then appeared as a dancer with Noble Sissle’s band and worked as a chorus girl in Philadelphia nightclubs.

At the height of the Depression, she hit the coal mining circuit, singing and dancing at cafes in Pottsville, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre for $15 a week.

In 1944, Miss Bailey broke into major New York nightclubs, appearing first at the Village Vanguard and then for eight months at the Blue Angel on Manhattan’s East Side. It was there she was asked by Cab Calloway to join his show at the Strand Theatre, and later the Zanzibar on Broadway.

In 1946, she won the Donaldson Award as the best newcomer on Broadway when she made her stage debut in “St. Louis Woman” and stopped the show by singing “A Woman’s Prerogative.”

Miss Bailey’s motion picture debut came a year later in “Variety Girl.”

Her films included “Carmen Jones,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Porgy and Bess” in which she played the cookshop woman. Her Broadway credits included “Arms and the Girl” and “Bless You All.”

Miss Bailey also had her own television show in 1970-71.

But her greater loves were singing, dancing and telling her humorous stories to music in nightclubs and on the concert stage.

When Miss Bailey’s heart problems began in the early 1960s, she joked about her “heart strain” and said seriously: “Singing does bring out the soreness . . . but when I get on the floor, baby, you know nothing hurts.”

It was not unusual for her to collapse from exhaustion or a heart problem after an early nightclub show, be given oxygen, and insist on resuming the stage to belt out more songs for the second show.

Miss Bailey also loved to perform for U.S. servicemen and on June 9 was given a special 50th anniversary award from the World USO in honor of her work for the organization. In 1988, she made a special tour of Navy ships in the Persian Gulf.

In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon named her America’s “ambassador of love” to the world.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford named her special adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. She also served in that role under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

After Miss Bailey was given an honorary degree from Georgetown University in 1978, the high school dropout enrolled as a freshman at that Washington university and graduated in 1985 with an earned bachelor of arts degree in theology.

Her many awards included the First Order of Arts and Science of Egypt and the Hussein Ben-Ali Freedom Medal from Jordan’s King Hussein.

Miss Bailey took great pride in the two children she and Bellson adopted--Tony, a drummer, and Dee Dee, a group singer--and wrote and spoke freely with parents she met around the world about her philosophy of child-rearing.

“We want our children to be hamburgers and we cook ‘em and put all the little morsels on—training, discipline, love—but we’re not making well-done hamburgers,” she said in 1968 when her children were 14 and 7. “We’re turning out tartar steak.”

Noting that she belonged to no organization except “humanity,” Miss Bailey still was recognized for breaking down barriers to blacks in the entertainment world and for aiding the cause of civil rights.

“People ask me why don’t I march,” she said at the height of civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. “I say I march every day in my heart. When I walk in the street with humanity, I am marching, and you know, my feet are killing me all the way.”

According to some sources, Miss Bailey was married three times—other sources say four times—before her marriage to Bellson. The earlier marriages were brief and of little significance in her life or career.

She married Bellson, a white drummer with Duke Ellington’s band, in London on Nov. 19, 1952, and the interracial marriage proved a happy and enduring one. In recent years, the well-traveled couple made their home in Lake Havasu, Ariz.

“She came along in a troublesome time for performers, but she always took the stage and she did herself and her race proud,” songwriter Sammy Cahn said Friday night on learning of her death. “She was just as special as they come.”

Comedian Milton Berle said sadly, “We’re losing a heavyweight.”

Her manager of 25 years, Stan Irwin, referred to Miss Bailey simply as “the mother of the world.”

“She never recognized color,” he said. “Her ideology was, ‘We are humans.’ ”


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