Remembering Pearl Bailey
At first, the idea seemed slightly absurd. Funny Pearl Bailey singing at the high-minded JVC Jazz Festival at New York’s imposing Lincoln Center? Yet on that night last June, there she was: the ebullient talk-show perennial growling jazz standards with a small combo led by her husband, drummer Louis Bellson, and doing better than just fine. At the end of her set, in what seemed a show of respect from a young generation of jazzbos to an elder stateswoman, Wynton Marsalis took out his trumpet and joined her for a moving version of ”The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Like the late Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, who died of heart disease on August 17 at the age of 72, had more and deeper roots in swing and jazz than her latter-day celebrity suggested. To baby boomers, she was mainly the star of hokey movies (Norman…Is That You?) and TV series (Silver Spoons), a pitchwoman for Paramount Chicken, and a party entertainer for Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Yet this was the same woman who cut her musical teeth in the ’30s and ’40s working with the likes of Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and Cab Calloway. Born in Newport News, Va., in 1918, Bailey worked the New York City club circuit, making her Broadway debut in the 1946 Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen musical St. Louis Woman and later starring in the film version of Porgy and Bess. She had a wide feisty streak, and it ran from her 1952 marriage to the white Bellson (his family frowned upon the idea) to her Tony award-winning performance in the all-black version of Hello, Dolly! (1967-69). Dolly! made her even more famous. But throughout her career she brought her own brassy, winking style to songs — ”Takes Two to Tango,” ”Bill Bailey,” ”Tired,” ”Toot Toot Tootsie (Goodbye)” — her graceful, sassy hands lapping the air like little rippling waves. ”Tie my hands,” she once said, ”and I wouldn’t be able to sing a note.”
In the decades after Dolly!, Pearlie Mae, as she liked to call herself, seemed oddly more comfortable as public figure than entertainer. She wrote six books. Dubbed America’s ”ambassador of love” by Richard Nixon, she was appointed by Gerald Ford as special delegate to the U.N., an honorary title she continued to hold under the succeeding presidential administrations. But she had few pretensions about herself or her art. ”I don’t buy the word ‘star,”’ she said just last year. ”Stars are in the sky. I’m an entertainer. Just because I go up onstage doesn’t mean I’m above anybody.” She was wrong there. Like all grand entertainers, there were occasions when she seemed up there above everybody.