Pearl Bailey
Bailey c. 1946
Pearl Mae Bailey

(1918-03-29)March 29, 1918
DiedAugust 17, 1990(1990-08-17) (aged 72)
Occupation(s)Actress, singer, author
Years active1936–1989
John Randolph Pinkett
(m. 1948⁠–⁠1952)
(m. 1952)

Pearl Mae Bailey (March 29, 1918 – August 17, 1990) was an American actress, singer and author.[1] After appearing in vaudeville, she made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman in 1946.[2] She received a Special Tony Award for the title role in the all-black production of Hello, Dolly! in 1968. In 1986, she won a Daytime Emmy award for her performance as a fairy godmother in the ABC Afterschool Special Cindy Eller: A Modern Fairy Tale. Her rendition of "Takes Two to Tango" hit the top ten in 1952.[3]

In 1976, she became the first African-American to receive the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.[4] She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on October 17, 1988.

Early life

Portrait of Pearl Bailey (1960)

Bailey was born in Newport News, Virginia[1] to the Reverend Joseph James and Ella Mae Ricks Bailey.[5] When she was very young, the family moved to Washington, DC. After her parents' divorce, Bailey moved to Philadelphia to live with her mother.[6]

Bailey made her stage-singing debut at the age of 15. Her brother Bill Bailey[7] was beginning his own career as a tap dancer and suggested that she enter an amateur contest at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia. Bailey won and was offered $35 a week to perform there for two weeks. However, the theater closed during her engagement and she was not paid.[5] She later won a similar competition at Harlem's famous Apollo Theater and decided to pursue a career in entertainment. She was also known to have performed in the church choir at St Peter Claver Catholic Church in Brooklyn, at the behest of Msgr Bernard J. Quinn.[8]


Pearl Bailey, c. 1960

Bailey began by singing and dancing in Philadelphia's black nightclubs in the 1930s, and soon started performing in other parts of the East Coast. In 1941, during World War II, Bailey toured the country with the USO, performing for American troops. After the tour, she settled in New York. Her solo successes as a nightclub performer were followed by acts with entertainers such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. In 1946, Bailey made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman.[9] For her performance, she won a Donaldson Award as the best Broadway newcomer. Bailey continued to tour and record albums along with her stage and screen performances. Early in the television medium, Bailey guest starred on CBS's Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town.

Bailey, costumed in the role of Butterfly, gauges the applause following her performance of the song "It's a Woman's Prerogative" on July 5, 1946. Sustained applause required her to take another bow.

Female impersonator Lynne Carter credited Bailey with launching his career.[10]

In 1967, Bailey and Cab Calloway headlined an all-black cast version of Hello, Dolly! The touring version was so successful that producer David Merrick took it to Broadway, where it played to sold-out houses and revitalized the long-running musical. Bailey was given a special Tony Award for her role, and RCA Victor released a second original-cast album, the only recording of the score to have an overture written especially for the recording.

Bailey on The Ed Sullivan Show performing "Before the Parade Passes By" during her run in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway (1968)

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 World 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.

Bailey hosted her own variety series on ABC, The Pearl Bailey Show (January – May 1971), which featured many notable guests, including Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong (one of his last appearances before his death).[11]

Following her 1971 television series, she provided voices for animations such as Tubby the Tuba (1976) and Disney's The Fox and the Hound (1981). She returned to Broadway in 1975, playing the lead in an all-black production of Hello, Dolly!. In October 1975, she was invited by Betty Ford to sing for Egyptian president Anwar Sadat at a White House state dinner as part of Mideast peace initiative.[12]

She earned a degree in theology from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1985 at age 67.[9] It took her seven years to earn her degree.[9] At Georgetown, she was a student of the philosopher Wilfrid Desan.

Later in her career, Bailey was a fixture as a spokesperson in a series of Duncan Hines commercials, singing "Bill Bailey (Won't You Come Home)." She also appeared in commercials for Jell-O,[13] Westinghouse[14] and Paramount Chicken.

In her later years, Bailey wrote several books: The Raw Pearl (1968), Talking to Myself (1971), Pearl's Kitchen (1973) and Hurry Up America and Spit (1976). In 1975, she was appointed special ambassador to the United Nations by President Gerald Ford, a position she held under three presidents.[15][16] Her last book, Between You and Me (1989), details her experiences with higher education. On January 19, 1985, she appeared on a nationally televised broadcast gala the night before the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan. In 1988, Bailey received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan.[17]

Personal life

Bailey went through a number of failed marriages in her earlier adult years. She married John Randolph Pinkett, either her third or fourth husband, when she was 30 years old, and divorced him four years later, accusing him of physical abuse.[4][18]

On November 19, 1952, Bailey married jazz drummer Louie Bellson in London. They remained married until her death nearly 38 years later in 1990. Bellson was six years Bailey's junior and white. Interracial couples were rare at that time, and Bellson's father was reportedly opposed to the marriage because of Bailey's race.[18]

They later adopted a son, Tony, in the mid-1950s. A daughter, Dee Dee Jean Bellson,[19] was born April 20, 1960. Tony Bellson died in 2004. Dee Dee Bellson died on July 4, 2009, at the age of 49, five months after her father, who died on February 14.[20]

Bailey, a Republican, was appointed by President Richard Nixon as the nation's "Ambassador of Love" in 1970. She attended several meetings of the United Nations and later appeared in a campaign ad for President Gerald Ford in the 1976 election.[21]

She was awarded the Bronze Medallion in 1968, the highest award conferred upon civilians by New York City.[citation needed]

Bailey was a close friend of actress Joan Crawford.[22] In 1969, Crawford and Bailey joined fellow friend Gypsy Rose Lee in accepting a USO award. That same year, Bailey was recognized as USO's woman of the year.[23][24] Upon Crawford's death in May 1977, Bailey spoke of Crawford as her sister and sang a hymn at her funeral.[22][25] American socialite Perle Mesta was another of Bailey's close friends.[26] In the waning days of Mesta's life, Bailey visited Mesta frequently and sang hymns for her.[27][28]


Bailey died at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia on August 17, 1990.[4] An autopsy confirmed the death was caused by the narrowing of a coronary artery.[29] Bailey had suffered from heart problems for over thirty years.[4]

Bailey is buried at Rolling Green Memorial Park in West Chester, Pennsylvania.[30]


The television show American Dad! features Pearl Bailey High School.[31]

The 1969 song "We Got More Soul" by Dyke and the Blazers includes Bailey in its roster of icons.[32]

A dress owned by Bailey is at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.[33]

A library in her hometown of Newport News, Virginia is named after her.[7]



Year Single Chart positions
"US Retail Sales" "US Disc Jockey" "US Juke Box" US
1946 "Fifteen Years (And I'm Still Serving Time)" (with Mitchell Ayres) 4
With Carol Channing on a TV special One More Time (1974)


See also


  1. ^ a b Larkin, Colin, ed. (2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music (Third ed.). Virgin Books. pp. 26/7. ISBN 1-85227-937-0.
  2. ^ "Who's Who in Musicals: A to Ba". Retrieved October 17, 2019.
  3. ^ Bergman, Peter J. (June 30, 2021). "Two to Tango: Rashidra Scott plays Pearl Bailey in 'Ambassador of Love'". The Berkshire Edge. Retrieved April 6, 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d Oliver, Myrna (August 18, 1990). "From the Archives: Entertainer Pearl Bailey, Enduring Star, Dies at 72". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on September 2, 2021. Retrieved September 4, 2021.
  5. ^ a b Pennsylvania Biographical Dictionary. North American Book Dist LLC. January 1, 1999. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-403-09950-4. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  6. ^ Mehley, Allyson; Dipasquale, Laura (September 22, 2021). "Historic Spotlight: Pearl Bailey | Department of Planning and Development". City of Philadelphia. Retrieved April 2, 2022.
  7. ^ a b Feser, Molly (March 29, 2021). "Women's History Month: Pearl Bailey, singer, actress and icon". Williamsburg Yorktown Daily. Retrieved April 2, 2022.
  8. ^ "Quinn was 'quintessential priest'". Irish Echo Newspaper. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  9. ^ a b c Trescott, Jacqueline (May 25, 1985). "Pearl Bailey, the Graduate". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 18, 2022.
  10. ^ "Lynne Carter, Impersonator," New York Times (January 14, 1985), p. A16.
  11. ^ Hyatt, Wesley (2003). Short-Lived Television Series, 1948-1978: Thirty Years of More Than 1,000 Flops. McFarland & Co. p. 199. ISBN 9781476605159. OCLC 606977128.
  12. ^ "Playing the White House: Entertaining with the US president". BBC News. September 30, 2011.
  13. ^ Pearl Bailey "Jell-O TV commercial
  14. ^ Pearl Bailey Westinghouse TV commercial
  15. ^ McLellan, Joseph (August 18, 1990). "Pearl Bailey, Delegate of Delight". The Washington Post.
  16. ^ Women's International Center (WIC): Pearl Bailey. Women's International Center (WIC).
  17. ^ Reagan, Ronald (October 17, 1988). "Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom". Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. Retrieved March 28, 2022.
  18. ^ a b Rivas, Aby (June 12, 2021). "Inside Pearl Bailey & Louie Bellson's Interracial Relationship despite His Father's Objection". Retrieved September 4, 2021.
  19. ^ "Dee Dee Jean Bellson Obituary".
  20. ^ Archives, L.A. Times (July 20, 2009). "PASSINGS / Dee Dee Bellson". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 7, 2024.
  21. ^ "The Living Room Candidate - Commercials - 1976 - Pearl Bailey". Retrieved October 17, 2019.
  22. ^ a b "The Evening News – Google News Archive Search". Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  23. ^ "USO Award". Spokane Daily Chronicle. October 25, 1969. Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  24. ^ "The Afro American - Google News Archive Search". Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  25. ^ Bret, David (April 1, 2009). Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0786732364.
  26. ^ "The Spokesman-Review – Google News Archive Search". Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  27. ^ "Lodi News-Sentinel – Google News Archive Search". Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  28. ^ "Observer-Reporter – Google News Archive Search". Retrieved May 14, 2016.
  29. ^ "Arterial disease killed Pearl Bailey, doctor says". UPI. Retrieved March 11, 2022.
  30. ^ "Pearl Bailey's Love Is Remembered at Her Funeral". The New York Times. August 24, 1990. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 12, 2022.
  31. ^ Terrace, Vincent (2011). Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 Through 2010 – Vincent Terrace – Google Books. McFarland. ISBN 9780786486410. Retrieved May 1, 2013.
  32. ^ "Dyke & The Blazers - We Got More Soul Lyrics". Retrieved October 17, 2019.
  33. ^ Givhan, Robin (May 23, 2010). "Black Fashion Museum Collection Finds a Fine Home With Smithsonian". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 30, 2012.
  34. ^ "THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW (1962/9)".
  35. ^ One More Time Press Release at Wikimedia Commons