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Louie And Pearl-- 33 Swinging Years

March 09, 1986|LEONARD FEATHER

There is no other family in show business quite like the Bellsons.

Louis Paul Bellson (drummer, composer, arranger, big-band and combo leader, sideman) and Pearl Bailey (singer, comedienne, stage and movie actress, social and political activist, author of six books, recently graduated college student) were married in London on Nov. 19, 1952.

They have two children: Tony, 32, a drummer, and Dee Dee, 25, a group singer heard on recent albums by Weather Report and Wayne Shorter. For five years, the senior Bellsons have had a home in Lake Havasu, Ariz., and occasionally they get to see it, despite separate or sometimes interwoven traveling schedules.

In Pasadena recently for a concert, they looked back in contentment on their 33-year marriage.

"The key to our making it work," said Bellson, "is that on all of Pearl's dates she requires at least a quartet, so for about half of each year we're together. The rest of the time I may work with my band, but never for more than two weeks continuously.

"When Pearl did 'Hello, Dolly!,' that was a crucial time, because there she was in New York with this colossal hit for two years and three months--and I was out here in L.A. with my band, or doing sideman dates with Quincy Jones. What we did was very smart--Pearl suggested it. She said, 'Just keep on doing your work, but stop once a month and come to New York for a few days, and bring the children every month or two.' It worked out just fine."

"The same thing happened when I was studying," said Bailey, who last May received her bachelor's degree in theology from Georgetown University. "I was there for seven years--it would have been four, but Louie would commute and I'd take time out for weekend gigs and other occasional absences. A girl's gotta eat, too, you know. Because of the traveling, I did some tutorials, but my papers were never late; I made the dean's list twice, and graduated with a 3.34.

"I always wanted to be a teacher; I love learning, love reading. I've attended classes and seminars everywhere from Oxford to Cal State Northridge."

It was in Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley, that they made their home for many years until the move to Arizona. "We have a small house right on the golf course," Bellson said. "It's been perfect for us--so peaceful and quiet after you've been on the road for months. We do our own cooking, our own cleaning; it's just Pearl and I and our little dog Charlie. We try to get back there several times a year; last summer we spent almost a month there. It's always a real vacation for us."

"We moved to Arizona," Bailey said, "because it seemed to me that people in the big cities were losing touch with reality, losing sight of important values like respect for the common decencies of life."

Some of this social disintegration, she feels, is reflected in today's music scene, in which a sense of reality also has been lost. "These videos I've been seeing don't relate to the lyrics, and recordings are becoming less and less natural. When you have to put on a headphone and sing in an empty studio to something pre-recorded, where is that live contact?

"My goodness, we used to go In and record for three hours, break for dinner, come back and have the album finished three hours later. Sinatra is still here, and he can do that. So can Ella.

"Jo Stafford can still sing; I can still sing, but we're not even recording. How can you say we don't deserve an award when you can't hear us on a record? I think I'll just go in a studio and do an album--nobody has asked me, so I may as well do it myself."

Bailey's attitude is not simply that of the disenchanted veteran; she has warm words for Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond and others of less-than-classic vintage.

"I have told Tony and Dee Dee to listen to the great singers and players and songs of every era. Let the young people mix in other things to show our great heritage. Linda Ronstadt did it; Toni Tennille did it. To herd young folks into one area of music is demoralizing!

"The other night, I saw Teddy Pendergrass on a TV show, and when he came out in that wheelchair his soul, his face, his diction, everything about him made me fall in love with him--and when he said his mentor was Nat King Cole, I knew why he understood so much about phrasing and feeling."

Separately and together, the Bellsons' careers have taken them to almost every point on the globe. Some of the visits have transcended musical considerations: After her appointment by President Ford as special representative to the U.S. delegation to the U.N., Bailey made a trip to the Middle East and Africa, visiting hospitals, orphanages, leper colonies, homes for the handicapped, schools and women's groups in Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Liberia, Senegal and the United Arab Emirate.

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