It is difficult for many of us to remember a time when drag and/or the art of female impersonation wasn’t mainstream. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a phenomenon that has put drag into the living rooms of middle, mainstream America, and “showgirls” like myself owe Mama Ru a great amount of gratitude and appreciation for just that.
We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, however, and long before RuPaul “started her engines,” Jim Bailey was blazing a trail for all of us to follow – RuPaul included. And even though he would likely revolt against being called a drag queen or female impersonator, he was – without question – a pioneer for onstage gender-benders – a pioneer possessing talents that are seldom seen today.
He preferred to be called a “character actor” or “illusionist,” but there was no illusion to his performances. He became the divas he was portraying. Whether it was Peggy Lee, Phyllis Diller, or Barbra Streisand, he managed to capture every nuance of their being, whether that was a gesture of the hand, a particular vocal inflection, or their comic timing. And without question, his impersonation of Judy Garland was in a class all by itself. She was so entranced by his impression of her that she jumped onstage with him during a performance and made him sing a duet with her…as her.
That’s something, kiddos. I think I would have exploded had I been in that audience.
There are many obituaries and articles online and in print that will mention that he performed for four U.S. Presidents, performed for the British Royal Family twice, his Carnegie Hall concerts and his concerts at the London Palladium. They will mention that he was a headlining act at all of the casinos in Las Vegas during its pre-Cirque du Soleil heyday. They will mention that he appeared on virtually every variety show in the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s – all of them popular hit shows equivalent to today’s Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. They will also mention his numerous appearances on television shows (all pre-Ellen and pre-Modern Family, mind you). Read them, because his amazing career is worth learning.
I won’t try to improve upon what has already been said, but I would just add that Jim Bailey was a bright ray of inspiration to me when I was a little child growing up in Alabama, with only a television to show me that there was a great big world outside of our three traffic-light town. I’m sure I’m just one of hundreds – thousands – that he touched through his artistry. I’m grateful that he shared this talents with all of us, and grateful that we live in a time when all we have to do is Google his name so that we can watch him perform to our heart’s content.
Thank you, Jim. Thank you so very much.
James William Bailey
(January 10, 1938 – May 30, 2015)