Throughout a career that began when she was 15 and continued for 57 years, Pearl Bailey had one of the most useful voices in show business. An American president once named her "America's ambassador of love," and an ambassador she was, serving under three presidents as a special delegate to the United Nations. She used her voice -- and her heart -- to become an eloquent advocate for the poor, oppressed and suffering, working to promote interracial harmony and more recently to help those worldwide suffering from AIDS.

"Pearl Bailey was the mother of the world," according to Stan Irwin, who should know; he was her manager for most of her long career as a singer, actress and television personality.

The public image projected through her songs was less earth mother than earthy. Bailey's voice had a pleasant tone, an impressive clarity and a way of projecting words with exquisite care. She had a special way of styling a song, with a flavor of jazz and often some worldly wise aside on the music's sentiment.

Her last appearance in Washington -- at the July 4, 1989, National Symphony Orchestra concert at the Capitol -- focused on Bailey as patriot. She spent the evening singing anthems despite some encouragement to do otherwise. "Hello, Dolly!" shouted someone from the audience, but Bailey simply shouted "hello" back and went on about what she came to do, which was to get the audience on its feet singing along with her in "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." She had opened the evening with a stirring "Star-Spangled Banner," and in one of the concert's magic moments, she sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a solemnly beautiful melody sometimes called the "black national anthem."

As always, her performance focused on the value and meaning of the words, which were sung with perfect clarity, great weight and intense seriousness, while the melodic line (even in "The Star-Spangled Banner") was ornamented with blue notes and the rhythm was constantly, subtly varied. In one chorus of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," she stood silently and let the audience's voices flow out of the darkness; then she came back with amplification, dominating the sound pouring from thousands of throats.

It was a memorable moment -- a great cabaret singer perfectly playing the crowd in an unimaginably large cabaret. But at the same time, she was reminding the people on the lawn and in the television audience what the Fourth of July is all about.

Bailey, who died last night in Philadelphia at age 72, inherited a special tradition of earthy, sexually aware singing from such pioneers as Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday, tidied it up a bit for general consumption and won an enthusiastic following in nightclubs with such songs as "She Had to Go and Lose It at the Astor," "Let's Do It" and "You Brought Me More Sunshine Than I Can Use."

She dived into the mainstream with equal success. Among the songs that won her a wide following were "Birth of the Blues," "Toot Toot Tootsie," "It Takes Two to Tango," "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home" and "St. Louis Blues." She performed on Broadway ("St. Louis Woman," "Arms and the Girl," "Bless You All," "House of Flowers" and, above all, "Hello, Dolly!"), in movies ("Carmen Jones," "St. Louis Blues," "Porgy and Bess") and on television, where she had her own show for a while in the early '70s.

She did not think of herself as a comedian or an actress but as someone who told stories "to music and, thank God, in tune."

"Pearl never pushed her humor to the point where it might disturb an audience," according to film historian Donald Bogle. "Sometimes Moms {Mabley} or Redd {Foxx} and later Richard Pryor seemed bent on driving audiences up a wall with their incisive barbs. Bailey, however, was always a soothing figure. She used humor to communicate her view of the world as a joyous, harmonious place that had no great problems or tensions."

Bailey (Pearlie Mae to her friends) was married five times, meeting her true match in jazz drummer Louis Bellson. They married in 1952 and, judging by the available evidence, stayed deeply in love, continuing to write sentimental notes to each other through all those decades.

She had long ties as well to Washington, where she was raised and where as a teen she began singing in nightclubs.

"The whole of U Street was something for an entertainer," she later recalled. When she worked on "the circuit," she said, "in New York it was the Apollo, in Philadelphia it was the Lincoln, in Baltimore it was the Royal, in Washington it was the Howard. We'd do a week in each city, then do an extra week in the last city, New York or Washington, and turn around and go back the other way.

"I always came back to Washington. It was home. And I'd work at the Crystal Caverns. Monday night at that place was so exciting. Whoever was playing at the Howard, Duke Ellington or whoever it was, would come over to the Caverns after they finished playing on Monday night. Everybody wanted to be there. ... I was so proud and scared to be performing in front of the biggies in the profession. ... If this street {U Street NW} was put back together with lights, with some style, you could have better acts booked here than at the Kennedy Center."

At the age of 60 she came back to Washington again, this time to Georgetown University, where she earned a degree in theology in 1985 while continuing her career as entertainer.

"I have always loved learning," she told a Washington Post reporter the day before getting the degree she had worked seven years to earn. "I have been reading since I was 3 years old, studying, all that. But that wasn't the why either. I had wanted to be a teacher all my life. But that isn't it either. Spiritually, I did it because it is God's will that we do, we have a choice to do or undo. People ask why, with a name on the marquee ... or if they think you got any money ... why would you with all the fame that is there? I can't answer -- there is no reason."

The reason was that she was a warm, interested, involved, intelligent and well-rounded person. That wasn't for her to say, of course, but it has been obvious for a long time and now that she is gone, it is more obvious than ever.