2018 is the centenary year of Pearl Bailey’s birth 29th March 2018 and to celebrate we hear from those who admired her the most and understood her unique qualities as both a singer and an actress
Presenting this one-hour music documentary is one of Pearl’s biggest fans, Morgan Freeman. He made his Broadway debut with Pearl when she starred as the lead in David Merrick’s all-black production of Hello, Dolly! in 1967. Morgan says 'it was a monumental moment for me, watching Pearl Bailey sass the audience as well as absorbing her professionalism.' He tells us that by hanging out together between shows on matinee days and playing Bridge gave him the opportunity to get to know the real Pearl Bailey.
A preachers daughter, Pearl Mae Bailey (known as “Pearlie Mae”) sang and danced her way from Depression coal mining towns to Broadway and into the hearts of America.
She saw herself more as a singer than an actress – ‘I tell stories to music’ whereas most audiences saw a combination of the two. Pearl had a distinguished charm – with her warm, lusty singing voice accompanied by an easy smile and elegant gestures that always enchanted audiences and later translated smoothly from the nightclub stage and Broadway to film and television.
After winning a competition at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem she decided to pursue a career in entertainment. Audiences were entranced by her trademark performance style – a casual and intimate presentation that made her skilful vocalization seem deceptively simple. Bailey began playing New York's finest clubs, becoming one of the city’s favourite singers.
She first appeared in Vaudeville in New York in 1941 at the Village Vanguard where she sang briefly with the Sunset Royal Orchestra and Count Basie's band.
In the 1940s in addition to her successful career as a singer she became a popular theatre performer. In 1941 she performed for the troops during the Second World War. Her Broadway debut followed in 1946 in St Louis Woman. Bailey’s popularity as a singer and stage actress led to many offers to appear in Hollywood films, including Carmen Jones. She then went on to host her own TV show The Pearl Bailey Show which included such guests as Andy Williams, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald to name but a few.
It was on the movie set of Porgy and Bess (1958) that Bailey fought for black civil rights by demanding the elimination of ‘undignified and unnatural’ Negro dialect from the George Gershwin folk drama. 'There’s a lot of people out there waiting for a dialect, so let’s talk the way we really talk, without the ‘dems, doeses and deses' she told reporters. 'We don’t talk like that. Maybe we did 50 years ago, but not now.'
Morgan feels wholeheartedly that Hello Dolly! is among the top five best shows of his career. He tells us about how stage acting really teaches you the strengths of real acting compared with film, which he took on later and how this African-American show broadened the perspective of audiences at that time.
The New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr describes Pearl’s performance in Hello, Dolly! as one of the best he has ever seen and how playing the title role won her a Tony Award. Her sultry singing voice and mischievous demeanour gave her a unique quality in her comedic portrayal. Cab Calloway also co-starred with Pearl.
The programme centres around Pearl’s personal memories about her all singing and dancing family – particularly her brother Bill Bailey; discovering Tony Bennett with Bob Hope; getting to know the last of the red-hot mamas, Ms Sophie Tucker; and meeting the love of her life Louie Bellson who was the drummer in The Duke Ellington Orchestra. Pearl often suffered from the sting of racism. We hear from Suzanne Kay, the daughter of Diahann Carroll whom Pearl helped to put into the spotlight both on stage in Truman Capote’s House of Flowers and on screen. She describes how humour was often used as a survival tool amongst the black community particularly in Las Vegas and New York, and how The Ed Sullivan Show later helped to launch the career of many Afro-American performers despite the many prejudices throughout America. Some of these included Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong and Eartha Kitt.
At the latter end of Pearl’s career after she retired from the stage, she took an interest in politics and had friendships with Presidents in the 1970s including Johnson, Nixon and Ford and performed at The White House in 1975. She was appointed to the US delegation at the United Nations.
She then went on to study theology and got a bachelors degree at the age of 67. She continued to make guest appearances on TV shows and recorded voice-overs for commercials and Disney Movies like The Fox and Hound.
Pearl died peacefully in Philadelphia at the age of 72.
'To celebrate her 100th birthday, I’m sharing my love for one of the most phenomenal performers to grace the Broadway Stage, the New York Cabaret scene and the Hollywood Screen: the late, great PEARL BAILEY'
'She always gave one hundred and ten percent – she was a great role model for professionalism.'
'She was top to bottom genuine, and if you’re listening up there Pearl – Baby I LOVE YOU!'
'Pearl Bailey for me stood for someone who was incredibly strong, individualistic and she figured her way in a tough industry.'
'Pearl Bailey was ballsy, she was beautiful and confident and she really didn’t allow anyone else to define her.'
'One of the peak experiences that I’ve had in theatre-going was to see Pearl Bailey in
'I think for anyone younger or older discovering Pearl Bailey’s talents for the first time – one of her major talents was her relatability.'
'If I could meet Pearl Bailey today I would like to give her a big hug and tell her how amazing & inspirational she is as a performer, as a woman, and as a humanitarian. She had so much talent, determination and strength.'