Black Celebrity: Pearl Bailey

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Born on March 29, 1918, in Newport News, Virginia, Pearl Bailey became a cabaret singer who made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman. She was acclaimed for her work in stage productions like House of Flowers and Hello, Dolly! all-black production, for which she won a 1968 Tony Award, and also appeared many times on film and in television variety programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show.

She made her stage-singing debut when she was 15 years old. Her brother Bill Bailey was beginning his own career as a tap dancer, and suggested she enter an amateur contest at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia. She entered the amateur song and dance contest and won and was offered $35 a week to perform there for two weeks but the theatre closed during her engagement and she wasn’t paid. She later won a similar contest at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, and decided to pursue a career in entertainment.

A passionate fan of the New York Mets, Bailey sang the national anthem at Shea Stadium prior to game 5 of the 1969 World Series, and appears in the Series highlight film showing her support for the team. She also sang the national anthem prior to game 1 of the 1981 World Series between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers at Yankee Stadium.

Pearl Bailey was appointed as special ambassador to the United Nations by President Ford. And I remember when she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan. I didn’t know that she was a life-long republican. I also didn’t know that she enrolled at Georgetown University and earned a bachelor’s degree in theology at the age of 67.

Louie Bellson and wife Pearl Bailey on a park bench

Pearl Bailey was married to jazz drummer Louis Bellson for 38 years. I’m trying to imagine what that was like for them — an interracial marriage in 1952, only a year after Josephine Baker was refused service at The Stork Club.

A United Nations adviser in her later years, Bailey died on August 17, 1990, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.