THE LOST DIVA Documentary
[Dear Fans: It is with a heavy heart that I relay that Joyce Bryant's family informed me of her transition on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022 at the age of 95. She passed peacefully at home surrounded by floving family.
- Jim Byers (11/21/22)]
JOYCE BRYANT: The Lost Diva is the first feature length documentary (currently in-progress) about one of America's most enigmatic entertainers. Determined to be an artist on her own terms, Joyce Bryant's story is a case-study of how popular culture's 'celebrity machine' shapes who we remember - and who we forget.
With re-discovered footage unseen for over 50 years, viewers can experience the extraordinary stagecraft of a woman once renowned as much for her four-and-a-half octave range and metallic-silver hair as for her pioneering stances against racial discrimination. Interviews with Ms. Bryant reveal why she abandoned a career as a nightclub headliner in late-1955, only to re-emerge a decade later as a leading-lady with the New York City Opera. A riveting window into the racially conflicted glamour of mid-20th Century entertainment, the documentary also features commentary and/or interviews with a range of her contemporaries, including:
BERLE ADAMS - Mercury Records-founder, and MCA super-agent for Bryant as well as Dorothy Dandridge, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington.
"CUBAN PETE" Aguillar - NYC's legendary Palladium mambo dancer, and partner Barbara Craddock.
CAB CALLOWAY - iconic entertainer and big bandleader.
MAURICE HINES - legendary dancer/choreographer.
CLYDE KILLENS - Miami's pioneering African American concert promoter.
As a teen in the early-1980's, broadcaster and filmmaker JIM BYERS stumbled upon several articles about Joyce Bryant at the public library. "I knew that back in 1953, only black performers who were major stars (or on the verge of becoming one) could garner features in 'mainstream' media like LIFE and TIME." Yet, Joyce Bryant is absent from current histories of '50s pop music. Byers became increasingly intrigued with Bryant's story: Why were her records banned and still unavailable? Why were her scenes cut from each of the Hollywood films she is documented to have made? Why did she give up her career?
"How did you find me..., WHY did you find me!?, "an incredulous Bryant laughed into the telephone. By 1998 Byers was a freelance music critic for The Washington Post when he searched 6-months for the long-retired vocalist in order to propose a feature article. Feeling that Bryant's amazing story demanded more than an article, Byers received permission to be the singer's authorized biographer.
In the midst of research, opportunity quickly transformed the project into a documentary. Filming began in 1999 with his Co-executive Producer ROB FARR (George Mason University film historian and Co-Founder of the Slapsticon silent comedy film festival), with initial support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, the Florida Humanities Council, John Harrington Photography of Washington DC, and the City of Santa Monica, CA.
With every interviewee asserting that Joyce Bryant was one of the most riveting live entertainers of the early-1950's, "I felt strongly that it would be an injustice to complete the documentary using still photo montages set to recordings," says Byers. "As obscure as Bryant now is, it is critical that she be properly contextualized. I was convinced that something would turn-up. Although most interviews were completed by 2005, Byers decided to halt final production. I had no idea that vintage footage of Bryant would take six years to find."
Finally, between 2008 and 2010 Byers continued research uncovered two spectacular lost performances buried in private collections! For the first time in 55 years, documentary audiences will experience the stagecraft of the forgotten entertainer Walter Winchell called "The Voice You'll Always Remember."
JOYCE BRYANT: A STAR
Discover The Story of Joyce Bryant
A torchy, 'proto-soul' Aretha? Judy Garland with a gospel growl? Maria Callas meets Grace Jones...? Star-making entertainment columnist Walter Winchell simply called Joyce Bryant "The Voice You'll Always Remember." This held true for those who saw her live - combining fifties high-glamour with a raw emotional investment a decade ahead of its time.
Raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family, Joyce Bryant was an unlikely candidate to become the first dark-skinned African American woman celebrated as a 'sex symbol' by the mass media. Internationally acclaimed in the early 1950's for her four and a half-octave vocal range, Bryant packed 'the big rooms' in the U.S. and abroad.
In an era before on-stage pyrotechnics and 'auto-tune,' female vocalists had two weapons to hold audience attention: talent and glamour. Joyce Bryant delivered both in abundance. Her silver-tinted hair startled audiences almost as much as her low-cut, skin-tight gowns by pioneering African American designer Zelda Wynn, who would later create the prototype Playboy 'Bunny' costume (Wynn would ultimately serve as the founding designer for the Dance Theater of Harlem for nearly three decades). At once carnal and classic, Zelda's creations at once reflected and fueled the duality of Bryant's elegantly torrid stage persona. So tightly gowned that she had to be carried onstage, Joyce would violently slash and punch at the air with her arms - hence the nickname: "Belter Bryant!" It was as if she was fighting something... and indeed, she was.
In December of1952 Bryant defied Ku Klux Klan threats as the first black entertainer to perform in a Miami Beach hotel, the site of swank nightclubs which were then a prestige link on the winter nightclub circuit. These bookings were entirely off-limits to black performers. In an age when only major black stars received such exposure, LIFE magazine chronicled her 1953 triumph at Manhattan's prestigious Copacabana. Time magazine opined that the smash-hit engagement positioned her to rank "among the top two or three female nightclub headliners of the day."
Her intensely emotional delivery of torch-songs like "Love for Sale" and "Drunk With Love" astounded packed nightclub audiences, despite being banned from radio for being "too sexy." In 1954, critic James Goodrich observed, "[...Joyce Bryant] has a talent so exciting she can maintain a topflight rating on personal appearances alone. Few performers working today can claim that sort of pull." With stellar arrangements by her exclusive pianist George Rhodes (who, after Bryant left popular music, became music director for Sammy Davis, Jr. for the remainder of his life), Bryant's career just kept gaining momentum. In late 1954, she dropped the 'gimmick' of silver hair, as it was no longer necessary. The year 1955 brought a return engagement at Hollywood's Coconut Grove, packed houses at the Chicago Theatre, and both Spring and Fall bookings at Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre. As film director Otto Premminger's initial first choice for the title role in "Carmen Jones," Bryant's future seemed limitless.
Instead, Bryant saw her guest appearances deleted from Hollywood films, her recordings shelved and her money pocketed by unscrupulous management. Taking refuge in her Seventh Day Adventist faith, the 28 year-old shocked the industry, walking away from stardom in late-1955. Devoting herself to her Seventh Day Adventist Faith, Bryant entered religious college and made extensive, highly-successful concert tours raising money for the church. By the end of the 1950's, one of that decades most exciting and critically acclaimed entertainers had slipped almost completely from the public consciousness. But as a creative artist, she was far from through.
Within a decade, Bryant had reinvented herself as a trained classical vocalist. After six years of study with famed Howard University voice instructor Frederick "Wilkie" Wilkerson, she won a contract with the New York City Opera. Bryant toured internationally in lead roles with such co-stars as LeVern Hutcherson, Florence Henderson, Ricardo Montalban and Avon Long. She herself later became a vocal coach of note, working with such diverse artists as Phyllis Hyman, Raquel Welch, Michelle Rosewoman, and Jennifer Holiday.
Often woefully miscategorized as a "quitter," extensive research uncovers a rather different tale of a woman who reinvented herself as an artist on her own terms - refusing to be another a victim of the entertainment machine.
Alternately intimate and startling, Joyce Bryant's 4.5 octave range is on full display here. It also reflects one aspect of her vocal duality: dramatic, near-operatic treatments of pop ballads in a dramatic, ultra-slow reading that left audiences breathless. This recently discovered footage captures Bryant at the time of her breakthrough NYC engagement. Her gown is among the first she wore by African American designer Zelda Wynn who went on to create all of Bryant's custom wardrobe for the stage until she left pop music in late 1955. Part of what astounded audiences was Bryant's ability to pivot from opera house to barrel house. For an example of the latter, please proceed to the next clip...
...& Low Down
Wearing a daringly short costume (for 1953) that fit the production number's 'bayou' theme, rather than a Zelda Wynn gown, this 1953 clip demonstrates why Bryant was director Otto Preminger's top contender for the title role in the film "Carmen Jones." Unlike the wonderful actress Dorothy Dandridge (for whom 19-year-old future opera legend Marilyn Horne did the singing), no 'dubbing' would have been needed for Bryant's powerful 'legit voice.' The first dark brown skinned African American 'love goddess' in mainstream media, Bryant garnered feature articles in Life and Time, and was among the five entertainers in Ebony magazine's first ever 'Most Beautiful Women' feature in 1955.
In Her Own Words...
Excerpt from Joyce Bryant: The Lost Diva
In her own words, Bryant joyously describes how this appearance and subsequent Catskills tour accelerated her career. It led to her facing-down the KKK in December 1952 when she became the first African American entertainer to appear in a Miami Beach hotel nightclub - a prestige booking that was previously off-limits to black performers. Note: in the opening shot we see Bryant in a TV appearance during her breakthrough NYC-area engagement at Bill Miller's Riviera (Summer, 1951). From her satin-smooth performance, you'd never know that Bryant had spent hours fighting with one of the most powerful hosts in TV history who angrily insisted that the elegantly gowned chanteuse wear a bandana on-air (...as you can see, she refused).
Maurice Hines: on Bryant at the Apollo: "I Was... Overwhelmed!"
Legendary tap dancer, choreographer and actor Maurice Hines remembers being in awe seeing Joyce Bryant headlining at Harlem's historic Apollo Theater when he was eleven years old. So successful was her Apollo debut in February of 1955 that she was booked to return in October. Hines helps us put in perspective how big a star Bryant was considered to be at that moment in time. He also contextualizes how her unique talent was perceived by audiences of the day. No one could have predicted that by November of that same year, one of the great nightclub careers of the early 1950's would be over and - eventually -almost completely forgotten by popular culture.
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