Pearl Bailey Overview:

Legendary actress, Pearl Bailey, was born Pearl Mae Bailey on Mar 29, 1918 in Newport News, VA. Bailey died at the age of 72 on Aug 17, 1990 in Philadelphia, PA .

Early Life

Pearl Mae Bailey was born on March 29th, 1918 in Newport News Virginia. Bailey was one of four siblings, including two sisters, Virgie and Eura, and her brother Bill, who would later go on to have a successful tap dancing career.  Her father, Joseph James, was a reverend at her local evangelical church while her mother, Ella Mae, remained at home to take care of little Pearl. With no formal training or education in music, Bailey credits much of her musical abilities to her early childhood years performing at her father's church. At the age of four Bailey's parents divorced, thus causing her and her siblings to spend much of childhood split between their mother in Philadelphia and father in Washington D.C.

Bailey made her singing debut at the age of 15. She then was persuaded by her brother to enter an amateur talent contest at local theater in Philadelphia. Entering with a song and dance routine, Bailey won the contest and was asked to return as the Pearl Theatre's featured performer. Soon after Bailey traveled north to New York to enter another amateur contest, this time at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. She won the completion and then decided to give singing her full attention, dropping out of school to pursue a career in show business.


Bailey's early career mainly consisted of singing and dancing at Philadelphia's black nightclubs. She then would spend the majority of the 1930's touring up and down the east coast, appearing at mostly black owned and/or operated cafes, nightclubs, and theatres. Her reputation as singer slowly began to grow and by the 1940s Bailey's talent had reached national attention. She began appearing with Big Bands such as the Edgar Hayes Orchestra and the Cootie Williams band. In 1941 she then began touring around the country and across the world with the USO to perform for the allied troops. When her tenure with the USO was complete, Bailey set up shop in New York, making the Big Apple her new home. She continued to work the nightclub circuit and in 1944 landed an eight-month engagement at the popular nightclub Blue Angel. The gig lead her to Cab Calloway who asked the songstress to sing for band's theater and nightclub performances. Although the young girl from the South had grown to become on of the biggest singers on the nightclub circuit, Bailey's ambitions did end there and soon she would be seen on the big screen as well as the Broadway stage.


After over 20 years in the music business, Bailey turned her sights to acting. In 1946 she starred in her first Broadway show in the all-black cast St. Louis Woman at the Martin Beck Theatre. The play was hit and ran over 110 performances. The next year she made her feature film debut singing and playing herself in the George Marshall musical comedy Variety Girl. In the film she sang what was to become one of her signature hits, Tired. The film also featured Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Gary Cooper. In 1948 she appeared in the Norman Z. McLeod film Isn't It Romantic? opposite Veronica Lake. The role of Addie allowed Bailey to display her acting chops, where her last film role would only show off her singing. She returned to the Broadway stage in 1950 to performance in the Rouben Mamoulian directed musical Arms and The Girl. She remained on the Broadway stage the next year, acting in the musical revue Bless You All at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. After the run of Bless You All came to end, Bailey returned to the nightclub circuit. In 1952 Bailey got married to her forth and final husband, Louie Bellson, who had performed as Bailey's back-up drummer for years. The couple later would adopt two children and remained married until Bailey's death in the early 1990s.

After a six-year hiatus from the big screen, Bailey returned to the big screen to star as Frankie in Otto Preminger's all black modern adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, titled Carmen Jones. The film was a box-office hit with critics praising Bailey's performance of "Beat Out That Rhythm on the Drum" as one of the its highlights. In 1954 she also again appeared on the Broadway stage, sing and dancing in the Peter Brook directed House of Flowers. Bailey continued to grace the big screen with the 1956 comedy That Certain Feeling starring with Bob Hope, Eva Marie Saint, and George Sanders. In 1957 Bailey was one of the featured entertainers at the presidential inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower. She would continue to performance for the White House for the rest of her career. The next year later she appeared in the biography picture of musician Will Handy. In the film she played his beloved Aunt Hager, who helped the young musician realize his potential.  In 1959 she appeared as Maria in Otto Preminger's big screen adaption of Porgy and Bess, also starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.

Continued Success

As the new decade rolled in, Bailey's success only continued to mount. In 1960 she appeared opposite Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood in the romance All the Fine Young Cannibals. After that she took a break from acting to focus on her singing career. For the first half of the decade Bailey worked almost exclusively on the nightclub circuit to sold out venues everywhere and by the mid-1960s Bailey had reached the zenith of her popularity. She made her first televised appearance in 1966 on the ABC series ABC Stage 67. In 1967, after a 12 year absence from the Broadway stage, Bailey return with a figurative bang, as the leading role of Dolly in the all-black revival of Hello Dolly!. Her costar was none other than her old big band friend, Cab Calloway. The play was an absolute hit with Bailey receiving rave reviews for her portrayal of the flamboyant character. The production ultimately ran for over two years and only ended due to Baileys heart condition. For her work on the play, Bailey received a special Tony Award fro her performance. In 1968 Bailey added another title to her resume: author. That year she published her first of six books titled The Raw Pearl. In the next 8 years, she would publish Talking to Myself, Pearl's Kitchen and Hurry Up American and Spit.

She continued to act into the next decade, starting the 1970s off with the Hal Ashby film The Landlord. She made an appearance on the series Love, American Style and two years later offered her famous voice to the cartoon series Tubby the Tuba as Mrs. Elephant. In 1975 Bailey was also named Special Ambassador by President Gerald Ford. The position allowed the southern songstress to performance in front of heads of state like Anwar Sadat ad King Hussein of Jordan. In 1976 year Bailey published her first and only children's book Duey's Tale, which went to win the Coretta Scott King Award for children's literature. That same year Bailey once again starred as Dolly in the Broadway revival Hello, Dolly! In 1978 Bailey received an honorary degree by Georgetown University and shocked the crowd by her announcing that at the age of 67, the singer was returning college right there at Georgetown. In 1985 Bailey graduated with a B.A in Theology.

Later Life

Bailey's popularity and work ethic continued into the 1980s.  In 1981 she gave her voice to the Disney classic The Fox and The Hound, where she played Big Mama. The next year she appeared in made for TV movie The Member of the Wedding. In 1984 she was given her own series Silver Spoons, which lasted for a season. After years of serving as the a Special Ambassador to the U.N and providing countless hours of entertainment to the white house, President Reagan award Bailey with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. In 1989 she published her sixth and final book Between You and Men, which chronicled her experiences with higher education as a senior student. That same year she gave her last acting performance in TV movie Peter Gunn. Bailey was scheduled to address the United Nations on August 24, 1990 but passed away soon before she could give her address. Pearl Bailey died on August 17th, 1990. She was 72 years old. 

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



She was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Recording. Bailey was never nominated for an Academy Award.

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Pearl Bailey Quotes:

Frankie: We'll be livin' off the fatheads of the land.

Chad Bixby: Do you think I'm a fool?
Ruby Jones: I think most men are fools, white boy. And most women.

Augusta aka Gussie: That certain feeling - that's what caused all the trouble around here.

read more quotes from Pearl Bailey...

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Pearl Bailey on the
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Pearl Bailey Facts
She was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 7080 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.

Sang "He'll Understand" at Joan Crawford's funeral in 1977.

Born at 7:00am-EST

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