Bill Bailey was the first person to be recorded doing the Moonwalk, although he referred to it as the “Backslide”. Bill Bailey’s father was a preacher in a “Holy Roller Church” and Bill started his career dancing there. Bailey was older brother to actress and singer Pearl Bailey and son to Joseph James and Ella Mae Bailey. Bill sang and danced professionally, sometimes dancing with Blanche Calloway (Cab Calloway’s sister.) He was said to be a student of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and King Rastus Brown and could really move his feet, however Bojangles forbid him from doing any of his routines. Never out of a job in his heyday, he became even more popular in the 1940′s to an even broader audience by having a major part in the 1st major market movie for blacks that featured the most popular black entertainers of their era when he danced in the kitchen scene in “Cabin in the Sky”. Bill was in great demand on the nightclub circuit and also performed on Broadway. He was very popular on the famous Ed Sullivan show and even performed with his sister Pearl several times. He was also wildly popular at the Apollo as he was the main attraction on many occasions. When “An Evening at the Apollo” became a TV series, Bill was featured 8 times in their first season.
For his era (1930′s-1950′s) he was considered the 2nd most popular rhythm tap dancer (John W. Bubbles was 1st) but Bailey was obviously more innovative because of his style and the dance steps he created.
His film credits include “Going Native” 1936, “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” 1952, “Harlem Variety Revue” 1955, “Rhythm and Blues” 1955, “Beale Street Revue” in 1955. He also made several television appearances including “Cactus Jim” in 1949 and “Toast of the Town” in 1952.
When Bill wasn’t on stage commanding $1000.00 a night for his tap dancing skills, he was a Reverend for the Church. He was married to Pernell Bailey, and had nine children and many grandchildren. Bill retired in 1965 and became a very popular pastor in Harlem, only returning to dancing when his church needed funds. He would preach in the name of Jesus until his passing on December 12, 1978. Many still perform “the Moonwalk”, his dance, so it’s safe to say his legacy will always live on.