Pearl Bailey

(March 29, 1918–August 17, 1990)
Newport News
Singer and Actor

The daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, Pearl Mae Bailey (March 29, 1918ľAugust 17, 1990) began singing at age three with the choir at her father's church in Newport News. Her introduction to show business occurred at age fifteen when she won an amateur talent contest in Philadelphia. Early in the 1930s she traveled the vaudeville circuit and during World War II she toured with the USO. A brief tour with the Cab Calloway Orchestra enhanced Bailey's visibility as a performer and in 1946 she made her Broadway debut in the musical St. Louis Woman. After appearing in her first film, Variety Girl (1947), she embarked on a recording career, scoring hits with "Takes Two to Tango" (1952) and "Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye" (1953).

A captivating performer who described herself as a humorist, Bailey continued to perform in the United States and abroad as well as appear in movies and plays. During the 1950s she also began appearing regularly on television, including Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, the Nat King Cole Show, and the Perry Como Show. At the end of the decade Bailey portrayed Maria in the film version of George Gershwin's classic American folk opera Porgy and Bess (1959). In 1967 Bailey was cast in the title role for an all-African American Broadway revival of Hello Dolly. Bailey's performance made her a major star and she received a special Tony Award in 1968. She and her Hello Dolly costar Cab Calloway also shared an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Performance. In 1976 the Screen Actors Guild honored Bailey with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

President Richard Nixon named Bailey the U.S. Ambassador of Love in 1970 and she served as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations during the 1970s and 1980s. Lauded for her prowess as an entertainer and for her humanitarian efforts, Bailey was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan in 1988. At age 59 Bailey enrolled as a freshman at Georgetown University and earned a BA in theology from the university that had already granted her an honorary doctorate. She also published several books, including a memoir, Between You and Me: A Heartfelt Memoir on Learning, Loving and Living (1989).