Joyce Bryant, "the Bronze Blond Bombshell," never achieved Eartha Kitt or Lena Horne popularity, but the supper club chanteuse is still fondly remembered. The four octave singer, aka the black Marilyn Monroe, "the Voice You'll Always Remember," and "the Belter," was born in Oakland, CA, but raised in San Francisco (the oldest of eight children). She moved to Los Angeles to live with cousins when she was in her late teens. The move came after a disastrous marriage; she eloped at 14 but the marriage ended on the wedding night without consummation. Her father was a carousing railroad chef who only home long enough to impregnate his wife, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist. An impromptu singalong in a Los Angeles club in the late '40s was Bryant's first public performance. From there, she picked up other gigs and built a strong reputation.
Her act was outrageously sexy; she wore provocative, tight, backless, cleavage-revealing mermaid dresses that left little to imagine and they were so tight, she had to be carried off-stage. Supposedly, Bryant twisted so much she lost four pounds a performance. The blond hair probably inspired Etta James -- who, like Bryant, was also raised in San Francisco and lived in Los Angeles -- to copy the blond hair image later. Bryant's hair was naturally black, but not wanting to be upstaged by Josephine Baker at a club, she doused it with silver radiator paint, slithered into a tight silver dress and voila: the Bronze Blond Bombshell and even Baker was impressed.
The gimmick and Bryant's elastic voice elevated the singer to heavyweight status; she earned as much as 3,500 dollars a gig and 150,000 dollars a year in the early '50s. She was called one of the most beautiful black women in the world and regularly appeared in Afrocentric magazines like Jet. A Life magazine layout in 1953 depicted the sexy singer in provocative poses.
She recorded a series of 78s for OKeh Records with the Joe Reisman Orchestra around 1952 that includes "It's Only Human," "Go Where You Go," "A Shoulder to Weep On," "After You've Gone," and "Farewell to Love." Two recordings, "Love for Sale" and "Drunk With Love," were banned from radio play
As meteoric as her career took off, it landed even faster. The paint damaged her hair and, raised to fear God, she started having second thoughts about her image. She disliked working on the Sabbath and hated the clubs and the men (often gangsters) who frequented them, lusting after her body. She was once beaten in her dressing room for refusing an admirer's advances. Years later, she told Essence magazine that she never enjoyed her career. She wanted to quit earlier, but couldn't because of nefarious managers and prior commitments.
She found solace in pills: pills for sleeping and pills for energy. The first phase of her career ended in 1955 when she denounced it for the church. Despite problems with the IRS (she owed 60,000 dollars), she enrolled in a Seventh-Day Adventist College in Alabama and later became an evangelist. She recanted because of false accusations and returned to entertaining in the '60s, finding work with touring foreign opera companies. She returned to the rocky club scene and sang on cruise ships; this time without the theatrics, blond hair, and tight dresses. Bryant was honored at the Arlington County Library in Arlington, VA, during Black History Month at an event hosted by jazz historian and WPFW radio host Jim Beyers (who calls her the Lost Diva).