Pearl Bailey (1918 – 1990) Legendary Actress, Singer & Author

“No one can figure out your worth but you,” inspiring words spoken by the legendary actress, entertainer and author Pearl Bailey. In 1976, she became the first black American to receive the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. She is best known for her title role in Hello Dolly, an all-black production,  where she recieved a Special Tony Award in 1968. Her rendition of “Takes Two to Tango” hit the top ten in 1952. She appeared in several films including Carmen Jones (1954) & Porgy and Bess (1959) and both films were added to the National Film Registry List by the Library of Congress. In 1988, She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Pearl Mae Bailey was born on March 29, 1918 in Southamption County, Virginia to Rev. Joseph and Ella Mae Bailey.  She grew up in Newport News, Virginia.  She began her acting and singing career at the age of 15. Her debut performance was at an amateur contest at Philadelphia’s Pearl Theater.  Encouraged to enter the contest by her older brother, Bill Bailey, an aspiring tap dancer, Pearl won first place in the competition.

After winning a similar contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, she decided to start performing as a professional.  In the 1930s she took jobs singing and dancing in Philadelphia’s black nightclubs.  After the start of World War II, she toured the country with the USO where she performed for US troops.  The USO performances spread her name and reputation across the country.

After the war was over, Pearl moved to New York.  She continued to perform in nightclubs. Her solo successes as a nightclub performer were followed by acts with entertainers such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She also garnered a recording contract and went on tour to promote her music.  Her 1952 recording Takes Two to Tango was one of the top songs of the year. 

In 1946, Pearl made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman where she played the role of Hagar in a cast that also included Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole.  She managed between performing on stage and doing concert tours.  On November 9, 1952, she married jazz drummer Louie Bellson in London.

In 1954, she made her film debut as a supporting actress in Carmen Jones.  Playing the character, Frankie, she was most remembered for her rendition of “Beat Out That Rhythm on the Drum.”  Pearl also starred in the Broadway musical House of Flowers in 1954.  By 1959 she was considered a leading African American actress and starred in films such as Porgy and Bess with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge.

In 1970, Pearl was appointed by President Richard Nixon as America’s “Ambassador of Love.” In that post she attended several meetings at the United Nations.  She later made a television commercial for President Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election.

In 1971, she hosted her own television series , The Pearl Bailey Show, which featured many notable guests, including Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong. The show only lasted for four months. Her most celebrated entertainment achievement came in 1975 when she returned to the stage to star in an all-black production of Hello Dolly where she won a Tony Award.

In 1985, while taking a break from acting, Pearl went back to school and earned a B.A. in theology from Georgetown University.  In 1987, she won an Emmy Award for her performance in an ABC Afterschool Special, Cindy Eller: A Modern Fairy Tale.  On October 17, 1988 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan.

On August 17, 1990, Pearl Bailey died in Philadelphia from coronary artery disease at the age of 72. She is buried at Rolling Green Memorial Park in West Chester, Pennsylvania.


“People see God every day, they just don’t recognize him.”

“What the world really needs is more love and less paperwork.”

“I never really look for anything. What God throws my way comes. I wake up in the morning and whichever way God turns my feet, I go.”

“You never find yourself until you face the truth.”

“There’s a period of life when we swallow a knowledge of ourselves and it becomes either good or sour inside.”

“I am not a gourmet chick.”

“You must change in order to survive.”

“There are two kinds of talent, man-made talent and God-given talent. With man-made talent you have to work very hard. With God-given talent, you just touch it up once in a while.”



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