Bailey began by singing and dancing in Philadelphia’s black nightclubs in the 1930s, and soon started performing in other parts of the East Coast. In 1941, during World War II, Bailey toured the country with the USO, performing for American troops. After the tour, she settled in New York. Her solo successes as a nightclub performer were followed by acts with such entertainers as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. In 1946, Bailey made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman. Bailey continued to tour and record albums in between her stage and screen performances.
She took the role of Frankie in the film version of Carmen Jones, and her rendition of "Beat Out That Rhythm on the Drum" is one of the highlights of the film. She also starred in the Broadway musical House of Flowers. In 1959, she played the role of Maria in the film version of Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge. Also that year, she played the role of "Aunt Hagar" in the movie St. Louis Blues, alongside Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt, and Nat King Cole. Though she was originally considered for the part of Annie Johnson in the 1959 film Imitation of Life, the part went to Juanita Moore, for which Moore received an Academy Award nomination.
In 1967, Bailey and Cab Calloway headlined an all-black cast version of Hello, Dolly! The touring version was so successful, producer David Merrick took it to Broadway where it played to sold-out houses and revitalized the long running musical. Bailey was given a special Tony Award for her role and RCA made a second original cast album.. That is the only recording of the score to have an overture which was written especially for that recording.
A passionate fan of the New York Mets, Bailey sang the national anthem at Shea Stadium prior to game 5 of the 1969 World Series, and appears in the Series highlight film showing her support for the team. She also sang the national anthem prior to game 1 of the 1981 World Series between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers at Yankee Stadium.
During the 1970s she had her own television show, and she also provided voices for animations such as Tubby the Tuba (1976) and Disney's The Fox and the Hound (1981). She returned to Broadway in 1975, playing the lead in an all-black production of Hello, Dolly!. She earned a B.A. in theology from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1985.
Later in her career, Bailey was a fixture as a spokesperson in a series of Duncan Hines commercials, singing "Bill Bailey (Won't You Come Home)".
Ms. Bailey passed away in 1990; she was survived by her husband of 38 years Jazz drummer Louis Bellson. She was sassy, classy and God-fearing, that's why she is my Di'vicon of the month.