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Singer Pearl Bailey Dies in Philadlephia Hospital

August 18, 1990 GMT

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Pearl Bailey, the actress and singer with the sexy, throaty drawl and droll sense of humor who once was called America’s ″ambassador of love,″ died Friday at age 72.

A spokeswoman at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital said Miss Bailey was rushed to the hospital from a Holiday Inn, where she had been staying with her husband. She died at 6:12 p.m., half an hour after being admitted.

The cause of death was not determined and an autopsy will take two or three days, said the spokeswoman, Kellyann McDonell. Miss Bailey had a history of heart problems.


″I have lost one the the greatest friends I’ve ever had in my life,″ said veteran song-and-dance man Cab Calloway. ″I’ve lost a co-worker and a wonderful person. I don’t know what else I can say.″

″Pearl Bailey was the mother of the world,″ said Stan Irwin, her manager for 25 years. ″She was a very spiritual woman and she never recognized color. Her ideology was, ’we are humans.‴

Miss Bailey, a gifted singer with a ready smile and eloquent hands, put audiences at ease with a warm, friendly personal style that translated from the nightclub stage and Broadway to film and television.

″I’m more of a philospher than a jazz singer,″ she said in a June interview with The New York Times. ″When people say, ‘Pearl, where did you get you style?’ I tell them: ’I have no style. I just sing songs.‴

Last month Miss Bailey underwent surgery to replace her arthritic left knee with a metal and plastic joint.

She left Pennsylvania Hospital on July 30, intending to continue visiting two sisters for a week while undergoing physical therapy. She then planned to return home to Arizona with her husband, jazz drummer Louis Bellson.

Bailey, who has been performing 57 of her 72 years, was one of the few entertainers who could still be called a trouper in the classic sense.

She was born in Newport News, Va., on Mar. 29, 1918, and moved with her family as a child to Washington and later Philadelphia, where she made her debut at age 15, winning an amateur contest by singing ″Poor Butterfly.″

Perhaps best-known for playing Dolly in the black version of the musical ″Hello, Dolly 3/8″ in the late 1960s, she also enjoyed a long film career, with her movies including ″Carmen Jones″ and ″Porgy and Bess.″


″The entertainment world has lost one of the most creative performers of our time,″ said Carol Channing, who first played ″Dolly″ on Broadway in 1964. ″Her talent was unique and enduring and her warmth was felt by everyone in the audience.″

But Bailey, known as Pearlie Mae to the world and Dick to her closest family, considered herself foremost a singer.

″I’m not a comedienne,″ she once told an interviewer, ″I call myself a humorist. I tell stories to music and, thank God, in tune. I laugh at people who call me an actress.″

Flipping a feather boa or swathed in chinchilla, ablaze with rhinestones and jewels, Miss Bailey was famous onstage for her throwaway style of singing, a mumbling growl laced with husky patter.

Her standbys included ″Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,″ ″St. Louis Blues,″ ″Row, Row, Row,″ and ″That’s Good Enough for Me.″

She was the youngest of four children born to a Virginia minister and Ella Mae Bailey. Ancestors on both sides of the family included Creek Indians.

Miss Bailey credited her father’s revivalist church services for building her rhythm and harmony. By the age of 3 she was singing and dancing in his church.

She paid her dues as a chorus girl in Philadelphia night clubs, and also sang and danced in Pennsylvania coal-mining towns for $15 a week and tips.

After World War II, she began major New York night club engagements at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. She made her theater debut in ″St. Louis Woman,′ and won the 1946 Donaldson Award as Broadway’s best newcomer.

Lorraine Gordon, widow of nightclub owner Max Gordon, said Miss Bailey broke into show business in the early 1940s at the two clubs.

″She was so sophisticated and witty and funny. She had it all. She had an incredible talent then,″ Mrs. Gordon said.

″She was Pearlie Mae to my husband and me,″ she said. ″There’s only one Pearl. We loved her so dearly.″

Later Miss Bailey became involved in public service activities.

She was a special delegate to the United Nations under the Ford, Reagan and Bush administrations.

In 1988 she told officials of the World Health Organization she wanted to dedicate her life to fighting AIDS.

Irwin, in Los Angeles, said he spoke to Miss Bailey by telephone two days ago and spent two hours discussing some of the world’s problems.

″She was concerned about world politics and the demise of humanity in America, where children can be killed in the home and the womb and what has happened to family life,″ he said.

Miss Bailey did her first show for U.S. servicemen in 1941 and had been a staple performer of the United Service Organizations - better known as the USO - since then.

In 1988 she took a spin around the Persian Gulf to visit U.S. Navy personnel on ships there.

At a Washington D.C. performance of ″Hello, Dolly 3/8″ she was joined onstage by then-President Johnson and his wife.

In 1970, President Nixon named her America’s ″ambassador of love″ to the world.

She wrote humorous and inspirational books, including ″Hurry Up, America, and Spit.″ Last year she published an autobiography, ″Between You and Me.″

Miss Bailey’s humanitarianism grew through several life-changing experiences in recent decades. She once said she medically ″passed away″ in 1972 from heart problems.

Her interracial marriage with Bellson, her fifth husband, proved to be a happy one. The couple adopted children and at one time lived on a ranch in Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. More recently she had lived in Lake Havasu City, Ariz.

The singer said in 1970 that perhaps she had failed to speak out enough about racial injustice, ″but I’ve lived that way. I walk with love and hope it rubs off.″

″I believe in humanity in that you don’t bother to look at the color of a man’s face. That’s brotherhood,″ she said.

Five years ago, Miss Bailey also earned an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, where she majored in theology.

Information about funeral arrangements could not be obtained Friday night.

She is survived by her husband, two sisters, Eura Robinson and Virgie Murray, a son, Tony, and daughter Dee Dee.