Music Thursdays with Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele: Pearl Bailey

March 29, 2012

Listen to Richard and Tony talk Pearl Bailey on Eight Forty-Eight

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Last time they were in the studio together, Richard and Tony discussed Nat King Cole, the famous jazz singer and pianist. This week, they've turned to a woman who was equally talented, but remains less well known than many of her contemporaries. Today would have been her 94th birthday.

Tony Sarabia:

Today Richard and I remember a woman who was an actress, singer and author; a woman who is often overlooked as a vocalist on par with artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae.

Pearl Mae Bailey was born March 29th, 1918 and died on August 17th, 1990. When she was 15 years old Pearl took first prize singing a song at an amateur contest held at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia.

From there she never looked back. Over the next 57 years, she worked with everyone from Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Mahalia Jackson to Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt. She acted on Broadway, starred in movies (like The Landlord) and appeared on television and along the way picked up a Tony Award.

Pearl’s singing style was as varied as the musical company she kept: blues shouter, sultry chanteuse and swing stylist.

Richard and I picked a couple of songs that best illustrate her wide ranging repertoire.

I decided to include something with the trademark humor that Pearl returned to again and again in her singing. "I Can’t Rock and Roll to Save My Soul" gives a self-deprecating Pearl lamenting her inability to rock and roll but it turns out she rocks. The tune was on the 1956 album The One and Only Pearl Bailey Sings with an orchestra conducted by the great jazz arranger Don Redman who began his career with Fletcher Henderson. The guitar is straight from the 1950’s jump blues and rockabilly style book.

On the opposite spectrum is a moving rendition of a tune that has been used by jazz musicians for decades as the foundation for free flowing jam sessions. "I Got Rhythm" is the Gershwin standard that first appeared in a 1928 musical flop called Treasure Girl. It reappeared in 1930’s Girl Crazy with Ethel Merman belting out the tune.

In that production it was an up-tempo number; which is how it’s usually played. But in Pearl’s 1959 version, she brings it back to its origins as a dirge. Pearl is pensive. It’s a thing of beauty; the lachrymose sounding choir, the brushes caressing the snare drum and Pearl’s slight falsetto gives you chills. This is from the album Pearl Bailey Sings Porgy and Bess; she played the role of Maria in the movie version of the Gershwin folk opera.

I’ve always been a fan of Pearl Bailey and so I’m thrilled to share just a scant example of her talent. Check out her catalog, you’ll not be disappointed.

Richard Steele:

Pearl Bailey, or “Pearly  Mae” as she was sometimes called was truly "a force of nature." She was a show business phenom -- the very embodiment of the word “entertainer.” She was an actress (stage and screen), singer, dancer, composer and recording artist, and will always be remembered for her welcoming smile, mellow voice and magnetic personality. Pearl won a Tony in 1967 for her performance in an all-black version of Hello Dolly. In 1975 she was appointed special ambassador to the United Nations. She did USO tours for 30 years, and in 1988 she got the Presidential Medal Of Freedom. She also wrote several books.   

Pearl was on the legendary Ed Sullivan TV variety show over 20 times. This song is significant because during one of those performances, she was joined by her brother Bill Bailey, who was a phenomenal dancer. They had only appeared together a few times. She sang "Two To Tango" while he danced. The other thing that makes the song special is the fact that she did a duet with Nat Cole on his television show. Halfway through the song, Pearl and Nat did a comedic version of the tango. It’s big fun.

Believe or not, "Zip" is kind of an intellectual exercise, with references to literary types you might recognize. The interesting thing about this song is that Pearl Bailey dropped out of school when she was about 15, to follow her dream. She had no musical training, but learned to sing in her father’s church. She hit the road on the Vaudeville and club circuit. Along the way she sang with Cab Calloway’s band in the mid '40s. But later in life, she did make time to go back to school. She graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in theology at age 67. So she was not unfamiliar with the names in this song. The album was called Pearl Bailey Sings for Adults Only (1959).