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While performing in the New York area she met R&B icon Ruth Brown ("She made us black eyed peas and rice for dinner, while my husband fixed her TV for her."). Later, as a member of organist Doc Bagby's band, she met the one and only Louis Armstrong. "Doc introduced me to him and I sang a little acapella number for him. He said, 'You sing just like a corn-fed gal!'" [Laughs.] (And how: Bailey's gritty, downhome style, as played out across a pair of late-'60s singles for the Carnival label, is revered among rare soul collectors today.) It was during a visit to Ulster County in 1972, however, that her life would be forever changed when she met another legendary artist: Peg Leg Bates.
Along with Pete Seeger and Levon Helm, the late Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates (1907-1998) remains one of the true giants of Hudson Valley cultural history. Born to South Carolina sharecroppers, he lost his left leg at the age of 12 in a cotton-conveyor accident and taught himself to tap dance for spare change on street corners while wearing a crude wooden leg fashioned for him by an uncle. By his teens he was dancing and singing in vaudeville shows using an upgraded prosthetic, rising swiftly to become one of the country's leading African American entertainers. He performed for the King and Queen of England twice, headlined with the USO during World War II, starred in films, toured the UK with Louis Armstrong, and appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 22 times. In 1951, he became the county's first black resort owner when he opened the famed Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, which quickly became one of the region's top attractions and employed hundreds; the Ulster County stretch of US Route 209 was later renamed in his honor.
"I met Chuck Dudley, who led Mr. Bates's band, and he took me to audition for Mr. Bates," Bailey recounts. "And so I met him in front of his house and I sang a little for him. He said, 'Can you come back the second week of next month? You can work the rest of the summer.'" Soon after, she and Samuel relocated to Kerhonkson and the vocalist became almost as much of a local fixture as Bates himself, belting out the dancer's favorite song, "You'll Never Walk Alone," and other tunes at area hotspots like the Granite and Nevele hotels and, of course, Bates's club, where she was a mainstay for 20 years. "Mr. Bates did so much for people," Bailey says about her former employer, with whom she also toured. "He gave work to a lot of people who really needed it. People would come from down South to work for him, and he brought a lot of business to Ellenville and Kerhonkson."
During a gig at the Granite in 1988, Bailey met Saints of Swing bandleader David Winograd. The upright bass and tuba player immediately invited her to perform with the outfit and she's been with them ever since, singing Dixieland jazz, R&B, blues, soul, and even the occasional gospel tune. It's the latter genre that's the focus of the newly recorded Good Old Songs, her first solo gospel album, which was produced by David's son Eli Winograd at his Lone Pine Road Studio in Midtown Kingston. "This record is sort of a gift from me, a labor of love," says Eli. "Having basically grown up around Rene, I really wanted to do something to pay her back for all of the positive energy she brings. It really took on a life of its own while we were working on it, and it's definitely the best thing I've ever been a part of." With a cast of 15 musicians that includes veteran violinist Larry Packer and bluesman Slam Allen, the disc beams with Bailey's alternately full-throated and touching renditions of staples like "Ezekial Saw De Wheel," "Standin' in the Need of Prayer," and "Steal Away."
When talk turns to the recent phenomenon of younger people—of many backgrounds—discovering and falling in love with classic gospel music, the singer is quick to offer her theory on the reason why. "It goes with the times," says Bailey, who since the late 1980s has been the music director of Kerhonkson's Samsonville Methodist Church, where the congregation calls her "Lady Sunshine." "With what's happening in the country at the moment, people want to take the time to turn around. To think a little bit."