Tap dancing was a staple of Classic TV. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Bill Baily, shown it the above Classic TV video clip was an acknowledged master of the dance. As with many performers of this era, his performing background began in the church, where his father, Joseph James Bailey, was a preacher. His younger sister, Pearl Bailey would also get her start in that church, and both would go on to become among the most popular performers of their time.
Bill Bailey’s popularity and influence is hard to envision today, as the popularity of this dance form has waned. Tap dancing was a staple in minstrel shows and, later, vaudeville circuits as the athletic and percussive dance thrilled audiences. Translating that excitement to movie screen and early television screens seemed like a natural development.
Bill Bailey was among the pioneers in that effort. After establishing himself as a master of his craft in live theaters appearing with such luminaries as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, Bailey first performed on screen in 1936 in the short, Going Native. Seven years later Bailey would again appear in film on the feature length, A Cabin in the Sky. In this film Bill performs a move he called, “The Backslide.” The move would become much more famous and hugely popular when performed by Michael Jackson and called “The Moonwalk.”
Bailey was also a popular Classic TV performer. He was a regular on the Ed Sullivan Show, even performing with his equally talented sister many times. He appeared many times on the early television classic, An Evening at the Apollo.
Bill Bailey never abandoned his childhood religious influences. He opened his own church in Harlem to minister to performers at the nearby Apollo Theater. From that point on, he would only return to performing when his church needed funds to continue his ministry.