Pearl Bailey: Actress and Singer, Humanitarian

Starred in an All-Black Version of "Hello, Dolly!"

Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Pearl Bailey, Andy Williams
Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Pearl Bailey, Andy Williams: from a 1960 episode of the Pearl Bailey Show. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Pearl Bailey was an acress, singer, and humanitarian who is best-known for her starring role in the all-black version of Hello, Dolly! along with memorable roles in many other plays and musical shows. She was also noted for her recordings, perhaps best known for her renditions of "St. Louis Blues" and "Toot Toot Tootsie (Goodbye)." Along with her legacy as a performer, Pearl Bailey is remembered for her humanitarianism.

 

Dates: March 29, 1918 - August 7, 1990
Occupation: singer, performer, stage, film, special ambassador
Also known as: Pearl Mae Bailey

Pearl Bailey was born in Virginia. Her father was a minister, and her brother Bill Bailey achieved success in tap dancing. 

Never formally trained in music, Pearl Bailey credited her love of music to growing up in a "Holy Roller" evangelical church, where she performed from the age of 3.  She moved to Philadelphia with her mother when her parents separated. In her early career in amateur shows and nightclubs she developed her throaty style, embellished with asides and ad libs.

Her Broadway debut was on March 30, 1946.  She played the part of Butterfly, a barmaid, in St. Louis Woman. This led to her winning the Donaldson Award for best Broadway newcomer.

She appeared in roles in several other Broadway shows.  Then, in 1954, she played the starring role of Mme. Fleur in  House of Flowers , inspired by Caribbean culture.

 That same year, the movie  Carmen Jones came out, and Pearl Bailey played the part of one of the friends of Carmen. In 1959, she played Maria in the film version of Porgy and Bess.  She also appeared in  All the Fine Young Cannibals in 1960.

The all-black version of Hello, Dolly! is one of her best-known roles; she played the role of Dolly Levi from 1967 to 1969 and in a later revival.

She won a special Tony Award in 1968 for her work in Hello, Dolly!   In 1968 she also published a memoir,  The Raw Pearl.

Pearl Bailey was a frequent guest on television variety shows and had her own variety show on ABC in 1970-71, "The Pearl Bailey Show." Another memoir, Talking to Myself, appeared in 1971, and she published a cookbook, Pearl's Kitchen, in 1973.  She had a syndicated cooking show for a time.

In 1976, she appeared in the film Norman ... Is That You? She was the mother of a gay son, and Redd Foxx played the father.

In 1975 Pearl Bailey served as a special ambassador to the United Nations and in 1988 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At age 67, Pearl Bailey graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelor's degree in theology. 

Pearl Bailey was married three times. The last marriage, to white drummer Louis Bellson, Jr.,lasted 40 years. Together they adopted a daughter and a son.  She sometimes sang, especially in her later years, with her husband's band.

Through many years, she also worked to promote interracial cooperation. In her last years, she promoted research on AIDS/HIV.  

She suffered from heart problems for some years, having her first heart attack when she was 54.

 She also suffered from arthritis. She died of a presumed heart attack in Philadelphia in 1990.

Places: Newport News, Virginia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New York City, United States

Organizations/Religion: United Nations, Georgetown University, House of Prayer ("Holy Roller")

Honors Include: Presidential Medal of Freedom