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Queen Pearly Mae

by David Westheimer

 

Queen Latifah is arrestingly well-endowed physically and vocally. A Presence on stage with curves in all directions, she can sing slow and mean and she can sing fast and dirty. In short, a reincarnation of the late, great, Pearl Bailey. The late lamented Pearly Mae, who left us in August, 1990, when the Queen was 20 and two years after the release of Her Queenness first single recording, Wrath Of My Madness.

Her square handle is Dana Owens. Her mother was a schoolteacher and her father, from whom her mother was separated when Dana was eight, was a cop. As was her brother. She acquired the name Latifah about that time, Arabic for "delicate and sensitive," which is about as miss as a misnomer can get. "Indelicate" (in an engaging way) is closer to the impression Queen Latifah makes when she hits full stride. And she is sensitive as a lioness.

After an eventful youth she went into law enforcement in later years, in a movie. Shes the prison matron in Chicago, an Oscar-nominated role in which she is magnificent, downright Queenly you could say.

Queen Latifah has done a load of TV and more than a dozen movies, including Brown Sugar and The Bone Collector, but it was her performance as "Mama" Morton in Chicago that propelled her into national prominence among many folks whom under ordinary circumstances never would have visited her musical realm. They will be visiting in droves now. And she may be seen in full glory in a non-singing role in a movie just recently released, Bringing Down the House, costarring with Steve Martin.

Pearl Bailey, who blazed the trail for the Queen, was born Pearly Mae Bailey in Virginia in 1918 to a minister and his wife, 52 years before Dana Owens was born in Newark to transmogrify into a modern version of the Pearly one. (Not exactly Pearl Bailey because Queen Latifah is an original but close enough to remind you of her.) Pearl Bailey began her show business career as a dancer before she became a singer. She made many TV appearances, including a role in Carson McCullers Member of the Wedding in 1982. In 1958 she appeared in the movie St. Louis Blues, with Nat "King" Cole. Her best known role was in the all black stage version of Hello, Dolly! She played Dolly from 1967 until 1969.

As a Senior Woman she went to Georgetown University and earned a bachelors degree in theology at the age of 67. She wrote four nonfiction books and in 1975 was a special ambassador to the UN. In 1988 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was married three times. The last one took. She stayed married to Louis Bellson, a dance-band drummer, for the last 40 years of her colorful life. They had two adopted children.

Some of the songs on which she worked her magic and stamped with her matchless style are Thats Good Enough For Me, Tired, Row Row Row, Frankie and Johnny, Bill Bailey (no relation), Mac the Knife and St. Louis Blues, As far as I could discover in a cursory search of Queen Latifahs CDs, none of which are in the Queens repertoire. They should be. What a collection that would be.

Queen Latifah Sings Pearl Bailey.

And Pearly Mae could sing harmony with Queen Latifah from Heaven if management thought it seemly for two such free spirits to join voices in irreverent song.

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