This Day In History – 1974 Pearl Bailey and Richard Nixon serenade a White House audience

On March 1, 1974, in addition to handing up criminal indictments against seven former high-ranking officials in the Nixon administration, a grand jury in the District of Columbia named the president himself as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up. The drumbeat of bad news was growing louder by the month for President Nixon, as was talk of his possible impeachment. But in politics as in entertainment, the show must go on, and though engulfed in a scandal that would soon bring his presidency to a disgraceful end, Nixon still found time to provide piano accompaniment to the legendary singer Pearl Bailey at a White House dinner on March 7, 1974.

«President Nixon and Pearl Bailey, performing as an impromptu ‘Dick and Pearl Show,’ momentarily upstaged Watergate, the energy crisis, troubles in the Middle East and the economy Thursday night,» raved the Washington Post, the very paper whose investigative reporters broke the story of the Watergate scandal. It was at the end of her scheduled solo performance before the attendees of the Midwinter Governors’ Conference that Ms. Bailey invited the president onstage and coerced him into taking over at the piano. «You don’t play as well as I sing,» she joked, «but I don’t sing as well as you govern.» After he played a few bars of «Home on the Range,» Ms. Bailey interrupted, «Mr. President, I wanted to sing a song, not ride a horse.» «Wild Irish Rose» and «God Bless America» went over much better, and between the president’s game spirit and Ms. Bailey’s famous combination of beautiful singing and lightning quick banter, the performance was judged a great success. The Washington Post quoted California Governor Ronald Reagan calling the evening «absolutely tops,» and Vice President Ford saying, «I laughed so much I cried.»

This was not the first time Pearl Bailey had performed for the president. She was a longtime friend and political supporter of Nixon’s, and was given the honorary title «Ambassador of Love» at a White House performance in 1970. Nor was this the first time that Richard Nixon had publicly played the piano. Like Harry Truman before him, Nixon was a competent amateur pianist, and even a bit of a composer. While his performance with Pearl Bailey on this day in 1974 may not have been filmed, those who are curious about Nixon’s musical talents can check out his 1963 television appearance on The Jack Paar Program.