A consummate entertainer, Pearl Bailey was born with God-given talents. Singing, acting, dancing, she did it all with a mischievous spirit that captivated audiences. Hailing from Newport News, VA, she was never formally trained in music but learned to sing in her father’s evangelical church. She dropped out of school at 15 and joined the Vaudeville and club circuits. Pearl spent years performing in nightclubs and cafes, singing with big bands led by Count Basie and Cab Calloway. After her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman in 1946, she bounced between recording, nightclubs, films and television appearances. In 1948, Pearl made the first of 23 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
During the 1950’s, Pearl was a frequent guest and performed songs forever associated with her, like “Toot Toot Tootsie”, “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” and “I’m Tired.” Pearl also performed on the Sullivan stage several times with her brother Bill, a tap dancer. In their first performance together in 1952, Pearl sang her top ten hit “Takes Two to Tango,” while Bill danced.
On November 2nd 1969, Pearl and Ed Sullivan sang “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” as a duet. Her charm was so irresistible, she was able to get the usually straight-laced Sullivan to let loose and have a little fun on stage with her. Along with Ed, some other noteworthy performers she collaborated with included Robert Merrill, Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Lily Pons and Milton Berle.
As an African-American, Pearl suffered from the sting of racism, but not on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed would often hug or even peck Pearl on the cheek, which created a fury in some parts of the country. These controversies often started a rift between sponsors and Southern affiliate stations who felt the brunt of outraged viewers. New York comedian Orson Bean recalled that “When Pearl Bailey appeared on the Sullivan show, he [Ed] said, ‘Pearly Mae, how ya doin’?,’ and threw his arms around her. And all across the South TV stations phones lit up. What happened? He touched a Negro!” Being an all-around class act, Bailey carried on as she always had. Pearl Bailey, along with other African American Ed Sullivan Show guests, like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat “King” Cole, helped break down the color barrier on network televison.
Throughout her career, Bailey had great success on the Broadway stage. After St. Louis Woman, she appeared in Arms and the Girl, Bless You All, and House of Flowers. Her most famous role was Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi in an all-black version of Hello, Dolly! for which she won a Tony Award. In 1967, Pearl and the Broadway cast performed “Before the Parade Passes Me By” on The Ed Sullivan Show. That classic performance is available on The Ed Sullivan Show Broadway Musicals DVD.
Pearl was known as a humanitarian as well as an entertainer. Starting in 1941 and up until the year she died, she toured with the USO. In 1975 she was appointed special ambassador to the United Nations, and she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. Pearl also never stopped learning. She enrolled in Georgetown University and, at age 67, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theology. She would go on to write three books before she passed away from coronary heart disease in 1990. Although she is gone, she will never be forgotten, and we have her incomparable performances on The Ed Sullivan Show to remember her by.