Black HistoryLibrary

Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey (December 8, 1912 – December 12, 1978) was a Black American tap dancer. He was born to Ella Mae and Joseph James, a preacher in a “Holy Roller Church” and was the older brother of actress and singer Pearl Bailey. Bill had a 30-year career that started with him dancing on street corners in Washington, D.C., for change. He is said to be the first person recorded doing the “Moonwalk,” popularized by Michael Jackson in the 1980s. He referred to the move as the Backslide. Bill went on to work with well-known stars such as Miles Davis, Nicholas Brothers, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Cab Calloway.

When not on the stage, he was a reverend at a church he opened in Harlem. 

In 1958, Bill was arrested as an accomplice in an attempted robbery of a dress shop in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. He denied having any part in the robbery attempt, telling the police that show business was so bad that he had begun to use his vehicle as a taxi. He said that he picked up the attempted robbery suspect, Thomas B. Miles, and drove him by request to Mt. Vernon. 

Bailey retired from show business in 1965 after struggling with drug addiction.

Quick Facts

Birth: December 8, 1912
Death: December 12, 1978 (66)
Place of Birth: Newport News, VA
 Ella Mae Ricks Bailey

Father: Joseph James Bailey
Siblings: Pearl Bailey
Partner: Eddie Lee Bailey, Pernell Bailey
Children: 11 (4 sons, 7 daughters)
Death: Buried in Rolling Green Memorial Park, West Chester, PA 


1936: Going Native
1943: Cabin in the Sky
1952: The World is Waiting for the Sunrise
1955: Rhythm and Blues Revue
1955: Beale Street Revue


1949: Cactus Jim
1952: Toast of the Town
1952: Ed Sullivan’s Talk of the Town
1955: Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town
1971: This Is Your Life

Theatrical Performance

1930: Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds
1932: Lafayette
1933: Lafayette
1935: Nicholas Brothers and Bill Bailey @ the Apollo
1937: Apollo
1937: The Cotton Club Parade
1938: Apollo
1939: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Cupid)
1939: Swingin’ the Dream
1955: Apollo


1937: Louis Armstrong radio show
1942: Nicholas Brothers on Ralph Cooper’s Jumpin’ Jive Show

Social Event

1934: Dedication of the “Tree of Hope”



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Mecca Dishmon

Hi the picture you have up is actually Billy Bojangles Robinson not Bill Bailey.

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