Pearl Bailey Biography

Pearl Mae Bailey, 29 March 1918, Newport News, Virginia, USA, d. 17 August 1990, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Pearlie Mae, as she was known, was an uninhibited performer, who mumbled her way through some songs and filled others with outrageous asides and sly innuendoes. She entered the world of entertainment as a dancer but later sang in vaudeville, graduating to the New York nightclub circuit in the early 40s. After working with the Noble Sissle Orchestra, she became band-vocalist with Cootie Williams, with whom she recorded ‘Tess’ Torch Song’, previously sung by Dinah Shore in the movie Up In Arms. Bailey received strong critical acclaim after substituting for Sister Rosetta Tharpe in a show, and was subsequently signed to star in the 1946 Harold Arlen / Johnny Mercer Broadway musical, St. Louis Woman. A year later her slurred version of ‘Tired’ was the highlight of the movie Variety Girl, and she gave several other outstanding performances in films such as Carmen Jones (1954), St. Louis Blues (1958) and Porgy And Bess (1959).

During her stay with Columbia Records (1945-50), Bailey recorded a series of duets with Frank Sinatra, trumpeter Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page and comedienne Moms Mabley. She also recorded some solo tracks with outstanding arrangers/conductors, including Gil Evans and Tadd Dameron. Upon joining the Coral Records label in 1951, she employed Don Redman as her regular musical director, the association lasting for 10 years. In 1952, she had her biggest hit record, ‘Takes Two To Tango’. In that same year she married drummer Louie Bellson and he took over from Redman as her musical director in 1961. Although few of her records sold in vast quantities, Bailey had always been a crowd-pulling live performer and, following her early stage triumph in St. Louis Woman, she was later cast in other shows including The House Of Flowers, Bless You All, Arms And The Girl and an all-black cast version of Hello, Dolly! She also starred in several US television specials, playing down the double entendre that caused one of her albums, Sings For Adults Only, to be ‘restricted from air-play’. In 1991, Pearl Bailey was posthumously inducted into the New York Theater Hall Of Fame.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.