THE LOST DIVA
Born Ione Emily Bryant (but always known as Joyce) in Oakland, California, and raised in San Francisco, she was the third of eight children. Her father was Whitfield W. Bryant, a chef on the Southern Pacific Railroad, and her mother was Dorothy Withers, a devout Seventh Day Adventist.
Her maternal grandfather, Frank Withers, was one of the earliest jazz trombonists.
It was a very strict religious upbringing. There were clear rules in the home relating to what the children wore, ate or drank and even what they listened to on the radio.
Joyce was an extremely quiet child. She harboured ambitions to become a sociology teacher.
At the age of 14, Joyce eloped and got married. The marriage did not last a single day. Her new husband ran away (and was never heard of again). Joyce returned home. She claimed the marriage was not consummated – but she never married again.
Aged 19, Joyce was visiting some cousins in Los Angeles. They persuaded her to join them in visiting a local club. There they dared her to join in an impromptu singalong. After a while, “I found I was the only one singing. A few minutes later the club owner offered me $25 to go up on stage and I took it because I needed the money to get home.”
Soon she was appearing in regular gigs. She got $400 a week at the ‘La Martinique’ nightclub in New York City, and also completed a 118-show tour of the Catskill Mountains hotels.
Her reputation grew rapidly. She became a regular performer at the ‘Copacabana Club’ in New York.
She found herself on the same bill as Josephine Baker, as the opening act at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Joyce realised she looked quite similar to Baker and decided to change her image. She coloured her hair silver using radiator paint, wore a light silver dress and a silver, floor length mink stole. She even coloured her nails with the paint. Her image was made! When she appeared on stage, “the audience went beserk.” And she got the nod of approval from Josephine Baker.
From now on she always wore backless dresses and showed a lot of cleavage – and the hair stayed silver. But it was her 4-octave voice that wowed the crowds.
By the early 1950s, Joyce was a major headliner. She had various nicknames; ‘The Bronze Blond Bombshell’, ‘The Black Marilyn Monroe’ and ‘The Voice You’ll Always Remember’.
She hated being compared to Monroe. “Why compare me to her? I was doing my own thing.”
Her favourite nickname was ’The Belter’, as she would belt out songs.
Etta James in her 2003 autobiography ‘Rage to Survive’, said, “I didn’t want to look innocent. I wanted to look like Joyce Bryant. I dug her. I thought Joyce was gutsy and I copied her style – brazen and independent.”
By 1952 Joyce was recording records for the Okeh label. Her first single was ‘A Shoulder To Weep On’. But it was two later singles that became her standard numbers – ‘Love For Sale’ (which became her biggest selling record) and ‘Drunk With Love’.
Both of these two were initially banned in Boston and then got a nationwide radio ban for being too provocative – “too sexy.” At live shows these were the two songs the crowd clamoured for.
Finally, she got a hit with ‘Runnin’ Wild’ – a far more palatable song.
Throughout her singing career she suffered extreme discrimination. This made her increasingly outspoken on equal rights. It led to a dilemma for many music promotors. They knew she would pull the crowds in, but many venues had a clear racial billing policy. Joyce would refuse to perform in these clubs or hotels.
She was the first black performer to play at the ‘Casino Royal’ in Washington DC. She was hesitant, having heard it was operating a race policy. However, Joyce was stunned to see many African-Americans in her audience. “It was a great thrill to see them enter and be treated so courteously by the management.
She went on to be the first black performer at the Hotel Algiers in Miami Beach. It was a “Whites only” club for the extremely wealthy. Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney were the resident acts.
At the time in Miami there was extreme racism. Black people were banned from walking down the street unless they were in a maid’s uniform or had proof they were hotel workers.
The Ku Klux Klan warned her if she performed there, they would kill her. They also threatened to burn the hotel down if she appeared on stage. She went ahead, but they burned an effigy of her outside.
Because of the threats, the audience were agitated and very nervous for her first set. She gave a provocative performance, going into the crowd and sitting on the laps of men in the audience.
By the second set, the crowd was on her side – although she noted by now it was mainly men!
She quickly became the darling of the Miami circuit.
She then did a photo shoot for ‘Life’ magazine. She was shown in very provocative poses – “the kind that readers seldom saw of white goddesses” (said a newspaper).
In 1954, ‘Ebony’ magazine named her as one of the 5 most beautiful black women in the world, alongside Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt.
She was offered the opportunity to star in the 1954 film ‘Carmen Jones’ by director Otto Preminger. She said she was, “too busy”, but the offer was withdrawn anyway and the part given to Dorothy Dandridge. It later emerged Preminger and Dandridge were having an affair.
Her film career was not a success. She appeared in one film with George Raft, playing, unsurprisingly, a nightclub singer. However, when the film came out you could only see her in the distance. When she asked the producer why he said it was not appropriate for glamourous black women to be seen on screen. After that she abandoned the movie industry.
She was invited onto the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’. This led to a massive (4 hour) argument between Joyce and Sullivan. He wanted her to wear something “more befitting a black woman.” She got her way in the end – and wore what she wanted.
By the 1950s she could earn up to $3,500 per performance – and was giving 8 shows a day. She wore, “heels fit for a queen” and her dresses were designed by Zelda Wynn (later to design the Playboy Bunny Girl outfit). The dresses were so tight Joyce could not sit down in them and had to be carried up and down stairs.
But she had become tired and disillusioned.
The silver paint had damaged her hair. She was unhappy about having to work on the Sabbath and increasingly she felt her sexy image and clothes were sinful. “Religion has always been a part of me, and it was a very sinful thing I was doing – being very sexy with tight, low-cut gowns.”
She pointed out her parents had never seen her sing on stage because of their religious beliefs.
By now Joyce had serious throat problems. An operation on her vocal chords failed to improve matters.
Her manager called a doctor who told her he could fix the problem by spraying cocaine into her throat – “but you’ll become addicted.” She turned down the offer.
Then she was dismayed to overhear her manager say to the same doctor, “I don’t care what you do, just make her sing”.The doctor said he couldn’t force her and her manager screamed, “You get that bitch, you get her out on stage and make her sing. I got kids in school.”
She did the show that night and then sacked her manager.
Joyce also hated the male hangers on and was upset that many of the male clientele of the clubs she performed in were clearly gangsters.
Soon afterwards she was assaulted in her dressing room by a man whose advances she had rejected.
Joyce decided enough was enough – and she retired from the stage. At this point she was estimated to be earning $200,000 per year (the modern equivalent of $2.5million).
She ripped up all of her contracts. She was threatened with being sued, although nobody ever took her to court.
But she was horrified to learn there was no money. Her former manager had stolen the lot.
She then dedicated her life to the church, rejoining the Seventh Day Adventists. She also enrolled for college, in Huntsville, Alabama.
In the 1960s she became extremely active in the Civil Rights movement in the south of the USA. She began singing again (this time Gospel music) to fundraise. The money she got went towards food, clothing and medicines for the impoverished black community.
The concerts she now performed in saw her with her natural black hair, no make-up and modest, everyday clothing.
She was a close friend of singer and actor Sammy Davis Jnr.
She was also a personal friend of Dr Martin Luther King and occasionally sang in his church.
But her church refused to join her in her civil rights campaigning. She was told, “These are of earthly matters and thus of no spiritual importance.” She promptly left the Seventh Day Adventist church.
And then Joyce decided to return to the stage, singing locally in Washington DC, where she now lived.
One day she was overheard by Frederick ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson, the most noted voice coach in the city. When he asked her what her name was and she responded, he said, “What, the Joyce Bryant?”
But then he asked her why she wasn’t protecting her voice properly – and began to coach her.
She performed in the flourishing Washington classical musical scene. Her piano accompanist was an unknown student called Roberta Flack.
She was recruited into the New York City Opera, who gave her a 5-year contract.
From there she then toured with the Italian, French and Vienna opera companies.
In the 1980s, Joyce became a jazz singer and became a vocal instructor herself. Her students included legendary soul singer Phyllis Hyman and actresses Raquel Welsh and Jennifer Holliday (star of ‘Dreamgirls’).
But then she had an accident. She fell into an unmarked hole on a sidewalk being constructed in New York City. She broke all of her front teeth and another bone. What hurt her most was the laughter of the construction workers.
She moved to California and became a recluse.
There she eventually got Alzheimers and had diabetes and was looked after by her niece.
In 2022 a documentary was made about her life entitled ‘Joyce Bryant: The Lost Diva’. Because of her decision to be reclusive it had taken the documentary 10 years to compile the film. Her niece Robyn finally gave permission because she didn’t want her aunt to be forgotten.
He documentary had not been aired when Joyce died.
It has often been wondered why Joyce has now been largely forgotten when she was such a star in the 1950s. It is probably a combination of her never being heard on American radio (“Too hot for radio”), having no movie career and her later reclusive years.
RIP – Radiator’s Incredible Paint