The Black Marilyn Monroe

Cristen Conger

Joyce Bryant. Courtesy: LIFE

It's 1953, and nightclub singer Joyce Bryant looks ready to burst of the page of LIFE magazine in her strapless mermaid evening gown. Embroidered flowers on the bodice and frothy layers of tulle fluffing out the hem are incapable of softening her fierce mid-song pose, right fist raised into the air, mouth wide open and neck muscles bulging. Such a fighting stance is appropriate, too, considering Bryant broke the color barrier of the make-or-break Miami Beach nightclub scene the year prior. Ignoring Ku Klux Klan threats, she performed before its tony white audiences, and judging by her LIFE debut, the potential risk was well worth it:

"Belter Bryant, who comes from a family of Seventh-day Adventists, sings popular songs with religious frenzy, loses four pounds nightly because she plugs so hard, and created such a sensation a few weeks ago in her debut at New York's Copacabana that she has just been booked for a tour of nightclubs in Las Vegas, Hollywood, San Francisco."

And about that dress. The magazine notes it's "so tight that [Bryant] can hardly perambulate...and must be carried down stairs."

The Belter, as LIFE dubs her, is one of many nicknames Bryant quickly amasses as her career crescendos in the mid-1950s: The Black Marilyn Monroe, The Voice You'll Never Forget, and The Bronze Blonde Bombshell among others.

Courtesy: Hairspiration

What the magazine's black-and-white printing doesn't adequately capture is Bryant's silver hair. She later tells Jet magazine she once dyed it with radiator paint for an Easter Sunday performance when she didn't have enough cash to buy a new hat. From then on, her metallic hair became part of her signature look along with her glamorous -- if immobilizing -- gowns.

So why don't we know about this dazzling chanteuse? After rediscovering her in the late 1990s, music critic-turned-documentary filmmaker Jim Byers set out discover why.

Speaking to TBDArts in 2011, Byers sums up the mid-century racism that ultimately held Bryant at bay:

"Her story is emblematic of the hazards of the entertainment business of that particular era. A particular cocktail of race, skin color, of the transition of music from swing to jump blues...Joyce was America's first dark-skinned woman promoted as a love goddess--today it doesn't seem that striking,but at the time it was revolutionary. Southern movie distributors protested, and said, 'we're not going to show this dark-skinned woman in our theaters,' and cut her scenes from the films. So, you can't see her, you can't hear here, and she left popular culture more than a half century ago. Combine those things, and you have someone who literally slipped through the cracks, but every single person you talk to from that time--Nancy Wilson, Maurice Hines--will say she was the most devastatingly powerful stage presence they'd ever seen."

During her heyday, for instance, Bryant's biggest hit is Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," but it never graces American radios. "It is banned because of its sexy lyrics," Jet magazine reports in 1953. Meanwhile, director Otto Preminger wants her to star in his film adaptation of Carmen Jones, but Hollywood passes her over for Dorothy Dandridge. And then in late 1955, Bryant suddenly abandons her six-figure career and enrolls at Oakwood College, a Seventh-day Adventist institution.

She later reemerges in the 1960s sans silver hair and tours with the New York City Opera -- she possessed a four-and-a-half octave range, Byers notes. But today, her musical legacy is all but forgotten, a testament to both pop culture's fickle attention span and the cruel, racist reality of a talent born too soon.

Courtesy: Pinterest

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