Actress, singer, Pearl Mae Bailey died in Philadelphia of arteriosclerotic coronary artery disease.
Bailey was not a comedienne in the classic sense yet managed to bring humor to every role she portrayed and comedy was a fixture in her live performances. A consummate professional, Bailey was born March 29, 1918 in Southampton County in southeastern Virginia and began her show business career at the age of 15. Her brother Bill Bailey had preceded her into entertainment as a tap dancer and suggested she enter an amateur contest. She saw how the business was right off the bat. Bailey won the contest and was offered $35 a week to perform, but the theater soon shut down and she was never paid. Welcome to show business, Pearl. Undaunted she entered another contest at the Apollo Theater, won that and decided to pursue a career.
Bailey perfected her craft on Philadelphia’s black nightclub circuit in the 1930s. She toured with the USO during World War II and then moved to New York where she worked with talents such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She debuted on Broadway in 1946 and was an early supporter of LGBT rights; helping to launch the career of female impersonator, Lynne Carter. Bailey appeared in the classic black films, Carmen Jones, St. Louis Blues and Porgy & Bess.
Pearl Bailey was an institution. She revived the play, Hello Dolly when she and Cab Calloway staged an all-black version in 1967. It was so successful, producer, David Merrick took it to Broadway, sold out houses and a Tony Award for Bailey. Pearl Bailey had her own television show in 1971, provided animated voices for cartoons and appeared with the Muppets. She won a Daytime Emmy Award, wrote several books, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and received the ultimate honor – the high school on Seth MacFarlane’s animated series, American Dad is named Pearl Bailey High School.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton