The necklines of her gowns hung riskily low. Like, prudish audible gasp low. Too quick of an arm flourish would’ve placed Joyce Bryant at the center of a scandal. Maybe she knew that. She shook her curves and sang her tunes, her even-toned, tawny body always threatening to spill out of her dress.
Over 35 years before Mary J. Blige wailed Black girls’ blues in a blonde coif, Bryant’s platinum hair gleamed as she trilled for packed crowds. Her eyes were naturally low, and she stared at the camera (with its tongue no doubt unfurled) like she knew exactly what she wanted from you. She used her airy upper register to touch on subjects too hot for the ears of her era, her shoulders shimmying, and her hands alternately caressing and punching the air.
The singer and beauty/style innovator died on November 20 at 95 years old. She had severe Alzheimer’s and diabetes and had been in the care of her niece, Robyn LaBeaud, for the last ten years of her life.
“Where do you begin?,” LaBeaud says of her aunt’s legacy.
Bryant, born in California in 1927, was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church, a Christian denomination with strict rules around diet, alcohol consumption, fashion and entertainment. She learned her 4.5 octave voice by singing along to the radio and singing along with the choir.
Bryant was the first dark skinned Black woman entertainer in America to become a nightclub star. “She was the first sex symbol for the Black folk,” LaBeaud says. “There’s a lot of firsts for her, especially [as] Black woman, a dark skinned woman—not light skinned.” While legendary, a few of her direct contemporaries like Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge, were all fair skinned. Her skin tone impacted her acclaim, with one power player attempting to humble her ahead of a television performance.
In the opening clip from the teaser of Jim Byers’ unpublished documentary on Bryant, you’d hear the starlet say, ‘Ed Sullivan wanted me to wear a bandana with the gown.’ The mammy stereotype, which desexualized both dark skinned enslaved and free women (who were often in domestic roles), made muting Black beauty the norm.
“When you see her singing, she had been arguing and screaming with the most powerful man in television for about four hours, because he wanted her to go out on national television wearing a bandana with an evening gown,” says Byers, Bryant’s authorized biographer. “Because in his mind, that would make her more acceptable.”
Byers also says Bryant was in the running to portray Carmen in ‘Carmen Jones,’ the 1954 musical that starred Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. The singer declined to outright admit what happened to the role that was sure to make her a mainstream hit, but in conversation with Byers, her performance manager, Berle Adams, says that Dandridge’s romantic involvement with the film’s director, Otto Preminger, may have led to the role being assigned to Dandridge.
“It is said that their affair began during filming. However, several individuals, including Berle Adams, her former manager, indicated to me that that actually began at that second audition,” Byers says. “And then suddenly, Dorothy Dandridge had the role.”
Nothing could stop Bryant from shining.
‘I found a can of radiator paint around the house and used it to color my hair silver,’ Bryant told Jet Magazine in 1955. She was set to open for Josephine Baker and knew she had to do something to stand out. ‘I painted my fingernails the same color, then put on my newest and best dress, which also happened to be silver. That night when I walked onstage, the audience applauded loudly.’
According to Bryant’s site helmed by Byers, her gowns were designed by Zelda Wynn, who went on to create the original Playboy Bunny costume. Squished among cake recipes and a cuff link trend analysis, a 1953 Life article shows Bryant lying down as a snug dress was wrapped around her body. She could not sit in her gowns and she had to be carried up and down stairs.
Colorism stifled Bryant’s accolades as an entertainer. At the same time, racism threatened her life.
In December 1952, Bryant was set to become the first Black performer to take the stage in Miami Beach’s Hotel Algiers, a prestigious White-only hotel with a glamorous club. At the time, Byers says Black people were not allowed to walk down the street in Miami without wearing a maid uniform or having identification as a hotel worker. When she was booked at Hotel Algiers, she was burned in effigy—a clear warning from the KKK. She went forward with her set, bringing the house down and becoming a regular in Miami.
At the peak of her career, when Bryant was racking in thousands of dollars for performances, she fantasized about returning to her churchy roots. “One day I’d like to quit and go back to the church,” she told Jet in a separate 1954 interview. “I’m a Seventh-Day Adventist, you know.”
That “you know” often lingers in minds of religious individuals who rise through the ranks of entertainment. Both Al Green and Mase “left fame behind” to preach after producing platinum-selling bodies of work; both can be found bopping to their old hits onstage today. For Bryant, it wasn’t fully the shame the felt. The biggest problem was that the industry’s horns began to show.
She fell victim to untrustworthy management and was wiped from lucrative acting opportunities without explanation, leading her to withdraw from show business in late 1955. One especially heinous suggestion pushed her to take a serious break from the business.
Though she never topped Billboard or clutched music awards (her records “Drunk With Love” and “Love For Sale” were a bit too racy for radio), Bryant had established buzz traveling the national nightclub circuit. She was paid well, earning $200,000 per year in 1950, worth an estimated $2.5 million today. Bryant was constantly on the go, slipping out of gowns, into a sweater and pants, out of heels fit for a queen, into comfortable loafers. Her body couldn’t hide its tiredness, and her self-trained voice was feeling the strain.
After undergoing surgery to remove nodes from her vocal cords, Bryant needed a break, but her new management wouldn’t allow her to cut any shows from the schedule. Instead, he brought in the notorious Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson, a physician known for giving celebrity clients illicit substances.
“What we’ll do is we [blow] cocaine into her throat and it will dull the pain,” Jacobson told Bryant’s manager, according to Byers. “And she’ll be able to do these, whatever, three performances a day for two weeks.” Her manager did not advocate for her, saying “You get that b**ch, you get her out on stage and make her sing. I got kids in school. You get her out there.” They knew the risk of addiction was high.
She expected her manager to advocate for her, but he didn’t. So she did it herself, disallowing them from giving her the drug. She pushed through the performance, calling it a “fashion show” since she sang so little. She then wrapped any final commitments and returned to her faith in November 1955.
“Some people feel like she ran to this church, some random church. That was her home. She was raised Seventh-day Adventist. And so it’s not that she just ran willy-nilly to someplace with a building with a cross on it, it was what she knew, a faith that she knew that she had always drawn comfort from,” Byers tells us. She was also wracked with guilt that her her father could not come see her perform, given their religion.
Though she left show business and relocated, eventually settling in as a kindergarten teacher in Washington D.C., music found her once again. Famed voice coach Frederick Wilkie Wilkerson overheard her singing to students and asked if she was the Joyce Bryant. When she affirmed that she was, he asked why didn’t she take the steps to develop her already strong voice. She began studying with him and she became deeply ingrained in D.C.’s classical music scene. When Bryant would perform, she was accompanied by a piano virtuoso who would go on to find superstardom on her own: Roberta Flack.
“Then in 1963, she gets signed to a five year contract by the New York City Opera,” Byers says.
After a successful reinvention as an opera singer, she went on to work with some of the top Black vocal talents of the latter half of the 20th century, including original ‘Dreamgirl’ actress Jennifer Holliday and Phyllis Hyman, the latter of whom, like Bryant, had also trained her voice by singing along to the radio.
She relocated to New York, where she continued to teach and sing until the mid-1990s. It was then that she fell at a construction site (workers were watching people fall into an unfinished sidewalk and laughing at their misfortune), breaking her front teeth and a bone. She moved again, this time to her native California, to be near family, and was seldom heard from again. That is, until an inquisitive journalist tracked her down.
Byers discovered Bryant as a teen, becoming fascinated by her story. He contacted her in 1998, gaining her trust and coming on as her official biographer. He began shopping a biographic manuscript around, but though editors were interested, no one would invest. Self-publishing didn’t feel like a viable option at the time, as it was usually reserved for the unskilled and Byers felt there was a bigger audience for Bryant’s phoenix-like narrative. He tried to get her life story printed for over a decade, to no avail.
He then pivoted to video. Byers and Robb Farr, the current Film History professor at George Mason University, connected and spent eight hours filming Bryant as she talked about her life. As they compiled the footage, interviewing additional figures about Bryant, they realized that they were going to have to find more clips of the singer performing if they were to build out a proper documentary that didn’t hinge too heavily on photos. By this time, the Great Recession was underway and Byers’ priorities shifted as he focused on maintaining his livelihood.
“I spent about seven years trying to not be living on the street and save my home and save myself, he says. “And by that time, my co-producer had moved on to other things, what have you. So the documentary, it is filmed but not complete. It’s not watchable in that way. What you see there on the website is just little snippets of what there is.”
Byers wanted to finalize his tribute to the icon during her life, but she died before they could finish. In her honor, he plans on sharing more snippets of their interview.
At the end of our call, one final question lingered: why was Joyce Bryant, a woman with epithets like “The Voice You Will Always Remember” and “The Bronze Blonde Bombshell” reduced to being called “The Black Marilyn Monroe.” She was an accomplished star in her own right, so why the racialized comparison?
The short answer? The internet.
“She was like, “Nobody really called me that,” Byers says. “Her nicknames were ‘The Belter Bryant.’ That was both because of her vocal style, but also because of those tight gowns. She had a reputation she would thrash around and punch at the air. And so that was a nickname. They [also] called her the ‘Bronze Blonde Bombshell.'”
During the early days of her fame, a writer likened her look to Marilyn Monroe’s. It happened once and didn’t catch fire until social media users picked it up decades later.
“‘Why compare me to her?,'” Byers says of Bryant’s confusion about the title. “She was like, ‘I was doing my own thing.'”
Removing the brush from Bryant’s legacy has been a necessary labor of love. With a lucrative underground acclaim, a push out of the industry and a resurrection, you’d think people would be clamouring to learn more about her. The pitfalls (racism, colorism, indifference) that plagued Bryant’s life may have influenced the interest in, or even knowledge of, her death. Still, Joyce Bryant shines on.