Joyce Bryant, a Black singer who became known as the “bronze blond bombshell” of the 1950s, electrifying nightclub audiences with her sultry voice and shimmering silver hair before she abruptly left entertainment in search of fulfillment in missionary work and later on the opera stage, died Nov. 20 in Los Angeles. She was 95.
She had Alzheimer's disease, said her niece Robyn LaBeaud.
Ms. Bryant was a sensation in the 1950s, drawing rapturous audiences at nightclubs from the Copacabana in New York, where she said she was the first “identifiably Black” woman to perform, to venues in Miami Beach, where members of the Ku Klux Klan burned her in effigy to protest the appearance of an African-American artist.
In an era of uncompromising racial segregation, Ms. Bryant was promoted to Black and white audiences alike as a sex goddess. Sheathed in cleavage-baring mermaid gowns so tight that she writhed more than walked, she had hits with the sensual numbers “Love for Sale” and “Drunk With Love,” both of which were banned from the radio.
Ms. Bryant used radiator paint to dye her hair silver during the early years of her career, achieving the signature look that decades later invited descriptions of her as the "Black Marilyn Monroe." In her day, she was better known as "the Belter," a reference both to the power of her four-octave voice and her habit - partly the result of her constraining stage wear - of thrashing her arms onstage like a boxer. She was said to have lost a pound or more in weight with every show.
“Joyce Bryant is a type of pop singer that has virtually disappeared - a bravura performer who throws herself into everything she sings with dramatic intensity,” critic John S. Wilson wrote in The New York Times in 1978.
“Miss Bryant . . . is in class by herself,” he continued. “She has a remarkable voice that stretches from a high soprano and a gospel tremolo to a rich contralto that can turn into a blood-curdling growl.”
Ms. Bryant grew up in California and gave her first public performance at age 14, when she ventured into a singalong club in Los Angeles. Her rendition of "On Top of Old Smoky" so impressed the audience that she received a two-week contract for $125 a week. She got her true start when she was asked to fill in at Ciro's club in Hollywood for singer Pearl Bailey, who had come down with laryngitis.
In her heyday Ms. Bryant was featured in magazines including Life and Time, which described her as one of "the top two or three" African American nightclub singers of the time. She was championed by radio commentator Walter Winchell and won engagements on the Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen television shows.
But “it wasn’t all that easy,” she told the Times in 1977. “I was being booked into totally white situations, singing the kind of songs that white singers sing. I didn’t fit the rhythm and blues or race-music mold. I’m more like a Judy Garland in presentation. Lena Horne, Billy Daniels, and Herb Jeffries could pass, musically. But I couldn’t. I can’t hide the fact that I’m a Black woman.”
Jim Byers, a host on the Washington-area radio station WPFW who is at work on a documentary film titled “Joyce Bryant: The Lost Diva,” said that she was cast in several movies but her scenes were cut when Southern distributors refused to show a movie that depicted a Black woman in a glamorous role.
Ms. Bryant also was burdened by guilt about the sexually suggestive nature of her performances, which clashed with her devout Seventh-day Adventist upbringing. "Religion has always been a part of me," she said, "and it was a very sinful thing that I was doing - being very sexy with tight, low-cut gowns. It was difficult for my family. I had a guilty conscience."
Furthermore, she feared descending into drug dependence, as she had seen happen to many fellow performers. The "final straw," she said, came in late 1955, during a run at the Apollo Theater in New York City, where she was slated to perform eight shows a day. She had recently undergone a tonsillectomy and lost her voice amid the overwork.
When a physician offered to spray her throat with cocaine as a local anesthetic, her manager agreed and told the doctor, "Just make her sing!"
"The bottom of my world fell out," Ms. Bryant told the Times. "I realized I was just a pound of flesh. I said to the doctor, 'Thank you but no thank you. . . . ' Then I went onstage and did a fashion show - I wore gowns and whispered to the audience. When I finished the week, I said to my manager, 'I quit!' "
She had a reported $1 million in performance and recording contracts at the time.
Ms. Bryant enrolled at what is now Oakwood University, a historically Black Seventh-day Adventist institution in Huntsville, Ala. She worked as a missionary before retraining, under the direction of Washington vocal coach Frederick Wilkerson, as a classical singer.
She performed for church fund-raisers before starting a career in opera, singing with the New York City Opera in the lead female role of the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess,” as well as with European companies.
Ms. Bryant returned briefly to her former genre in the 1970s, singing torch songs on the nightclub circuit where she had once made her name. She loved the music, she said, but not the life that had been forced on her.
"It's very hard in this business. A person falls in love with a star - they fall in love with a personality, not the person. You cease to become a person to them. They always want to see you costumed like this, and if you don't, they're insulted. They've got to have a star 24 hours a day," she told The Washington Post in 1978.
"I had a more than ample body for a 14-year-old, so they made me into a sex symbol, but it was ludicrous. I was just an unhappy child, under a lot of pressure, who was pushed, pushed, pushed."
Emily Ione Bryant, known from early childhood as Joyce, was born Oct. 14, 1927, in Oakland. Her father was a chef for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Ms. Bryant helped her mother, a homemaker, raise her seven siblings.
When Ms. Bryant sang, she recalled, her parents admonished her to "stop all that noise." What little encouragement she received, she said, came from a grandfather who had been a jazz trombonist. To her mother, she said, entertainment "meant prostitution and nothing else."
Ms. Bryant was 14 when she married for the first and only time - “to escape her family,” the Post reported. She separated from her husband after less than a day, and their marriage was annulled. Her only immediate survivor is a brother.
Ms. Bryant toured for a period with ensembles before embarking on her solo career. In her later years, she worked as a vocal coach.
Byers, the documentary filmmaker, said in an interview that he was drawn to Ms. Bryant because she was a person "determined to live her life on her own terms."
"She was willing to walk away from everything that everyone wanted her to do, all the things that society expected her to do," he said. "She turned her back on it . . . for her own strength of character."
In her performing days, Ms. Bryant often ended her shows with "Love for Sale," a ballad about a prostitute longing for human connection.
“People tell me I should never end a show with such a sad number,” she told Time magazine. “Most entertainers end with a life-of-the-party number. Not me. I leave them way down. Sometimes I see people crying in the audience. I guess people like to cry.”