THE LOST DIVA Documentary

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 stage-craft of a woman once renowned as much for her four-and-a-half octave range and metalic-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, and re-emerged 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 mid-1980's, broadcaster and filmmaker JIM BYERS stumbled across several articles about Joyce Bryant at the public library.  "Even as a teenager, I realized that only major African-American stars rated feature articles in 'mainstream' magazines such as LIFE and TIME back in 1953."  Yet, Joyce Bryant is virtually absent from current histories of '50s pop music.  "It didnt make sense, and that fascinated me," Byers says of her obscurity. "When I began collecting her, noted dealers at Black memorabilia shows would routinely ask me who she was."  He became increasingly intrigued by Bryant's story:  Why were her records banned and still unavailable?  Why was she absent from each of the 1950's Hollywood films that it was reported that she had made?  Why did she give up her career?

"How did you find me..., WHY did you find me!?, "a disbelieving 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. The two established a great rapport over several months and, feeling that her amazing story demanded more than an article, Byers received permission to be the singer's authorized biographer. 

In the midst of that research, opportunity quickly transformed the project into a documentary.  With his Co-executive Producer ROB FARR (Co-Founder of the Slapsticon silent comedy film festival, and Executive producer for  Arlington Virginia Network/AVN) filming began in 1999, 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. 

Although most of the interviews were completed by 2005, Byers decided to halt final production while continuing research.  With every interviewee from the great Nancy Wilson to Berle Adams 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.  I had no idea it would take six years to find."

Until now, the only footage of Bryant in her prime was an early Ed Sullivan Show appearance,  filmed several months before she transformed into the silver-haired, sheath gowned  siren of international fame.   Finally, in 2008 Byers research uncovered two spectacular lost performances buried in private collections, showcasing Bryant with several show business legends!  For the first time in 55 years, documentary audiences will experience the stage-craft of the forgotten entertainer Walter Winchell called "The Voice You'll Always Remember." 



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 among those fortunate enough to have seen her live performances combining fifties high-glamour with a raw emotional investment a decade ahead of its time.  But popular culture did forget her almost entirely.  A documentary-in-progress, Joyce Bryant: The Lost Diva explores the how and the why of our lapse of memory.  It also illuminates a spectacular career as told by industry giants, fellow performers and by Joyce Bryant in her own voice.
Raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family, Joyce Bryant would seem an unlikely candidate to become the first dark-skinned African-American woman celebrated by the mass media as a 'sex-symbol'.  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 hydraulic tricks, 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 Valdes (who would ultimately become the designer for the Dance Theater of Harlem for nearly three decades from its 1969 inception).  At once carnal and classic (such as the sheath at left, spun from 14k gold fabric), Zelda's creations perfectly mirrored - 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.

Outspoken on issues of racial inequality, in 1952 Bryant defied Ku Klux Klan threats as the first black entertainer to perform in a Miami Beach hotel-nightclub (then a key prestige stop on the winter nightclub circut that was entirely off-limits to black performers).  In an age when only major black performers 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 to 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 (later affiliated with Sammy Davis, Jr.), Bryant's career just kept gaining momentum.  She dropped the 'gimick' 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 SRO gigs 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 a decade later as a trained classical vocalist.  After six years of study with instructors from Howard University, she won a contract with the New York City Opera, touring internationally in lead roles with such co-stars as LeVern Hutcherson, Florence Henderson, Ricardo Montalban and Avon Long.  She 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 succeeded in reinventing herself as an artist on her own terms - refusing to be a victim of the entertainment machine. 

"Too Young"

Alternately intimate and startling, Joyce Bryant's 4.5 octave range is on full-display here. 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 stage wardrobe until she left pop music in late 1955.

"That Old Devil Moon"

Called "The Bronze Blonde  Bombshell" for tinting her hair with metallic silver radiator paint, Joyce Bryant was the first dark brown skinned African-American woman glorified as a 'sex symbol' in mainstream media. Garnering features in Life and Time, Bryant was among the five entertainers in Ebony magazine's first 'Most Beautiful Women' feature.

Joyce Bryant Interview Pt. 1

In this excerpt from Joyce Bryant: The Lost Diva, the vocalist recalls becoming the first black entertainer to headline on glamorous Miami Beach, a major stop on the nightclub circuit in 1952 (pt.1 of 2).

Joyce Bryant Interview Pt. 2

Joyce Bryant continues to detail her experience breaking the color barrier as the first black entertainer to perform in a Miami Beach nightclub in 1952 - finding the humor in a harrowing situation.

Piano Keyboard


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