Jim Bailey - Supreme Illusionist (Just ask Liza)
Those Millennials and Gen Xers may have been introduced to the art of female impersonation (aka "drag") from the publicized career of drag supermodel, actor, recording artist, and reality TV giant RuPaul.
But, before Ru became a downtown NYC celebrity in the 1980s, there was Jim Bailey. 20 years earlier he pioneered his way into fame with on-spot impersonations of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Peggy Lee, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe (plus others) on the stages of Carnegie Hall, London’s Palladium, and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Bailey has also performed before the British Royal Family and four U.S. Presidents. Isn’t that enough to make Bailey the first drag superstar?
The most astonishing thing about Jim Bailey is not so much the physical illusion he creates when performing each of those superstar divas, but rather how he employs his operatically trained voice (Drake Conservatory of Music) to mimic their unique styles. Even Judy Garland was amazed by his ability to sound like her, so much so she joined him on stage for a duet during a Bailey performance in Los Angeles. In fact Jim as Judy was so good, Bailey joined Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli in 1973 in a concert series Judy and Liza Concert with Bailey as Judy recreating the performances of Minnelli and her late mother. In the 2009 celebration of the 40th anniversary of Judy Garland’s death in London’s West End, The Times wrote "there is nothing campy or stagey about (Bailey) act....Bailey inhibits Garlands persona....It’s a supreme illusion, a sort of perfect madness."
Because of his "on point" characterizations of his impersonations, Bailey sashayed "Drag" into the public mainstream in the 70s with appearances in over seventy television shows and movies, and to date has recorded seven albums. He continues to perform in a reduced schedule of shows lending his talents to a variety of charity benefits including events benefiting the fight against and awareness of AIDS, such as his upcoming performance in San Francisco in the "Help Is On The Way XIX Concert & Gala" on August 18.
I had an opportunity to chat with the drag pioneer about his trailblazing career and revisited his close relationship with Judy Garland, his most memorable performance, his acceptance by a conservative public, and why he thinks more entertainers should perform at AIDS charity events.
BeBe: We are all pretty familiar with your impersonations of Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, and Barbra Streisand and your ability to capture their whole essence, both physically and most impressively vocally. But, is it true that your first stage impersonation was of comedienne Phyllis Diller?
Jim Bailey: Yes, Phyllis was the first one that I did.
BeBe: Phyllis Diller is so different from the women we’ve come to know you performing. Most we associate you with are vocal divas. So, what was it about Phyllis that made you want to master an impersonation of her?
Jim Bailey: I was fascinated by Phyllis I got to meet and know her. I don’t know. I started playing around with her voice, ad all of a sudden, it came to be. I found myself in a club doing Phyllis Diller, and it was very successful.
Garland: a lovely lady
BeBe: You are an operatically trained singer. I can only assume wanted to originally pursue a career in opera. Your career definitely has taken a different path than that. Was the catalyst to your career as a female impersonator your performance as Phyllis Diller, or was it the female qualities in your singing voice?
Jim Bailey: I don’t know. I actually wanted to be a classical pianist in the very beginning. Then, my piano teacher one day said I should think of voice or vocal training, and think of getting into music that way. So, I did. I auditioned for this television show years and years ago, and I got on the show. I found myself on the show singing and enjoying it, and thought his is my future. I guess that’s how it happened.
BeBe: Well, you definitely moved on from impersonating Phyllis Diller to impersonating women who greatly called upon their vocal talents to become stars. I understand that after Judy Garland saw you perform as her that she was so taken by the performance, she became your mentor. You two grew very close. How was if for you to have Judy come up to you ad not only give you accolades for capturing her essence on stage, but also become apart of your career growth?
Jim Bailey: Oh well my gosh, it was absolutely amazing! Judy came to see me perform, and her press agent brought her backstage after my show to meet me. We began having this lovely relationship the moment she came backstage. She was overwhelmed how I could sound like her. It was interesting because I was scared to death to meet her, but she was so sweet and caring about me being in show business. (A) very lovely and interesting lady.
Voice and talent
BeBe: It’s one thing for you to get the physical characteristics of Judy down like how she moved her hands and played with her hair; things that the unprofessional impersonator may be able to pick up from hours and hours of observation. But, it’s another thing that you sound like her!
Jim Bailey: God gave me a voice and this talent. When I found it, I was very receptive of it. I’m delighted and in awe that He gave me this gift. And, I will always protect it.
BeBe: Have you developed close relationships similar to the one with Judy with other people you impersonate? Barbra or Peggy Lee?
Jim Bailey: I’ve met both Barbra and Peggy, but no, I’ve never had another relationship like I had with Judy.
BeBe: Is there someone that you have wanted to perfect as an impersonator that you didn’t quite master?
Jim Bailey: Several years ago I saw Lena Horne in concert, and at the time, I wanted to do her in my show. I met her, and she was so amazed that I wanted to do her. But, with my traveling and performing, I never got the time to get it together. She really fascinated me.
Playing for Presidents & Queens
BeBe: Over your career you have played numerous prestigious venues, performed before royalty and Presidents, and entertained crowds at the Super Bowl and the Olympics. There’s a lot for you to call upon when thinking of great moments during your career. Is their a moment or moments that one, it still feels like it happened yesterday, and two, that you can’t believe it happened to you?
Jim Bailey: Yes, that has gone through my mind. I’ll think back and go, ’Oh God, I performed for the Queen of England?!’
BeBe: Putting aside the current worldwide popularity of drag queens due mostly to the exposure of the art through the Logo TV show ’RuPaul’s Drag Race’ now in it’s sixth season, we must remember you have been doing female impersonations for over 40 years starting at time when you type of performance was very foreign to the entertainment world. It was not something that we could regularly expect to find at a nightclub venue or on television. It was a new form of art that you took to a high level ay before the likes of RuPaul. So, when people talk about ground-breakers in the realm of female illusionists/impersonators, they have to include you. You were doing appearances on television on shows like ’The Ed Sullivan Show’ and ’The Merv Griffin Show’ way before RuPaul’s reality series. At that time, it was a very conservative period, and yet, you still managed to gain respect and acceptance from audiences worldwide.
Jim Bailey: Absolutely! The whole bottom line to the reason I was accepted by average everyday people is the fact that I did it with artistry. I did it without making fun of what or whom I was doing. It was serious! People related to that. I did it with honesty.
BeBe: What you are saying is he public viewed hat you were doing on stage as acting, playing a character. Which brings me to the various work you have done as an actor as yourself, Jim Bailey, in film and television. Do you think your career as an actor would have gone further had you not been known as a female impersonator?
Jim Bailey: Who knows? I haven’t clue. It has been somewhat hand in hand (impersonating with acting). Doing Judy and Barbra brought me to fame, and with that fame people saw me in a different light as an actor. So, I got a chance to do certain roles on television. It was wonderful for me.
BeBe: You have done so much in your career, Jim, is there anything left you really want to do?
Jim Bailey: Well, I haven’t played a Broadway run for a couple of months or what have you. I would love to do that. That’s one of my goals.
BeBe: Then we can say a Tony is in your future?
Jim Bailey: I hope so. Wouldn’t that be great!
BeBe: You’ll be in San Francisco August 18th to perform in the annual ’Help Is On The Way XIX Benefit Concert & Gala’ for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation. Is this your first time being a part of this benefit show?
Jim Bailey: Yes, it is my first and I’m simply thrilled to be able do this concert. I’ve of course done other shows in connection with AIDS, and I always look forward to doing them. I’m helping in my own way. I must do this. I believe it’s a part of show business to lend our talents to bring awareness to the AIDS disease. I wish a lot of other performers would see it that way also.
Jim Bailey joins a star-studded celebrity cast on Sunday, August 18th in Help Is On The Way XIX Concert & Gala to benefit the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts. Www.helpisontheway.org
You can keep up with Jim Bailey and find his schedule of appearances at www.jimbaileyweb.com
As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media’s next short film series, "Con-tin.u.um" to be released in 2012.