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Who is Pearl Bailey?

Malcolm Tatum
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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As one of the most loved figures on the American stage, screen, and concert hall, Pearl Bailey offered entertainment to persons of all ages and backgrounds during a long and distinguished career. Here is some background on Pearl Mae Bailey, and the impact she made during her life.

Born in 1918, Pearl Bailey grew up in rural Virginia. As the daughter of a minister, Bailey sang in church choirs and at local events. She was later to remark that the support she received during her early years helped to make the focus of her life’s work very easy to discover. Beginning as a vaudeville performer and eventually finding steady gigs in nightclubs, Pearl Bailey quickly demonstrated that her talent was as broad as her smile.

By 1946, she had made her debut on Broadway, appearing in St. Louis Woman. Six years later, she scored a Top Ten vocal hit with a song entitled “Takes Two to Tango.” The movie studios were soon calling, and Pearl Bailey accepted the role of Frankie in the film version of Carmen Jones in 1954. Along the way, the new medium of television offered Bailey the chance to introduce herself to audiences all across the United States, with frequent appearances on the television variety shows of the day. In little over a decade, Pearl Bailey had established herself as a star in every entertainment medium she chose to engage.

The decade of the 1960s saw Pearl Bailey continuing with work on record, stage and movies and television. The growing genre of television talk shows was ideal for the sparkling personality of Bailey, and she quickly became a favorite guest of many of the late night talk show hosts. Fans who attended her concerts were charmed by the warm intimate atmosphere that Bailey could create, even when the crowd numbered in the thousands. Back on the Broadway stage, Bailey was a key part of an all-black production of Hello Dolly in 1968, for which she won a coveted Tony award.

During the 1970s, Bailey added voice over work to her list of accomplishments. Providing voices in such animation efforts as Tubby the Tuba and The Fox and The Hound, her unmistakable voice was often part of the draw for the adults and children who flocked to movie houses to see the features. She continued to appear as a guest on talk shows, but expanded her presence on television by hosting her own series for a short time. Pearl Bailey was also officially appointed as the “Ambassador of Love” for the United States in 1970, by then president Richard M. Nixon. The appointment was in recognition of the quiet but consistent humanitarian work conducted by the American actress over the years.

In later years, Pearl Bailey went to college and obtained a BA in Theology from Georgetown University in 1985. Before the decade ended, Bailey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was honored by her peers on Broadway with a special dinner and program in 1989.

After a lifetime of work that classified Pearl Bailey as a premiere American singer, actress, and stage performer, Pearl Bailey passed away quietly on 17 August 1990. The big heart that always had time for just about everyone had finally given out. To this day, fans and friends of Pearl Bailey still cherish her body of work, and the warmth and style she brought to every aspect of her life.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including PublicPeople, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By Ruggercat68 — On Jun 14, 2014

I didn't realize Pearl Bailey was still alive during the 1980s. There weren't nearly as many variety or talk shows on the air by then, and most of the guests were young Hollywood starlets or upcoming rock bands. You didn't see performers like Pearl Bailey or Eartha Kitt on television very often, which I thought was a shame.

I agree with RocketLanch8 that Queen Latifah has a lot of Pearl Bailey's attributes, but I also think Pearl Bailey had some Mae West in her. She could be earthy at times, but she knew how to win over audiences of all ages.

By RocketLanch8 — On Jun 13, 2014

I still remember Pearl Bailey performing on a lot of the variety shows on TV during the 60s and 70s. If I had to pick a modern day equivalent, I'd say Queen Latifah would be close. Pearl Bailey and Louis Armstrong were two black performers who successfully crossed over to white audiences during that time. She wasn't classically beautiful, but she had a lot of charisma and talent.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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