She used to be one of the hottest torch singers in the country and now she's trying for a comeback, and when she tells her story, it sounds like a paperback best seller, one that would have on the cover a nightclub singer in a skin-tight, plunging gown.
"Torn Between Two Worlds," the cover line might say, and the blurb on the back cover would promise all; the unhappy religious upbringing, the marriage at 14, the stardom at 16, the pills and mobsters and the Hollywood and New Yord high life. And then the abrupt retreat from show business, the move back to the church, then an opera career in Europe. And finally in the present, her figure fuler, but her voice still four octaves and the fingernails still an inch long, the return to the pop stage.
The woman is Joyce Bryant, who in 1953, at the peak of her career, was called "The Black Marilyn Monroe." She streaked her hair with silver radiator plant, she wore tight-fitting gowns, her songs - "Love for Sale" and "Drunk With Love" - were banned in Boston.
She earned between $3,000 and $5,000 a week, she played the Copacababa in New York and Ciro's in Hollywood. Walter Winchell called her "the fastest rising sepian star since Lena Horne.%
And then, with a reported $1 million in nighjtclub and recording contracts, at age 27 Joyce Bryant walked away from show business - not for wealth or to raise a family but to return to the church and to perform missionary work.
Now, after 25 years away from torch songs, she's coming back - the past year in New York, at the Rainbow Grill and Cotton Club. She'll be in Washington - where years ago she got a start on a second career, in opera - tomorrow for a benefit at Lisner Auditorium, for the Frederick Wilkerson Scholarship Foundation. The program at Lisner will be part pop, part classical. But usually it's love songs, not R'n'B, not blues. The act she does now is really more Vegas than Harlem; songs like "You Were So Beautiful to Me," love songs from "Funny Girl," "Stormy Weather."
But if her act sounds a little schmaltzy, a bit intense or dramatic; so in a way, is Joyce Bryant, who this past week in a sublet manhattan apartment, talked about her life.
Though, in her early days, she was compared to Monroe, in the flesh Joyce Bryant is more reminiscent of Liz Taylor. There is somehow a luminescent quality about her. Fifty years old, she looks 20 years younger, with pertetually rounded eyes, opulent body, skin like milk chocolate. There is about her an almost excessive womanliness - almost as if she is trying to prove how feiminine she is - gardenia perfume, one-inch false fingernails (a few are missing), false eyelashes, lare gold hoop earrings, plaid midi skirt and matching vest.
Though she grew up poor in Los Angeles, the speech is refined; Bryant talks like an actress talking like a lady - or like the speech and voice teacher, she has been lately to supplenment her income.
occasionally, she uses the European word or pronuciation. She'll say that a career in show business, as far as her parents were concerned, was "verboten"; she'll say a man in New York once especially built a restaurant for her, no not so much a restaurant for her, as a "salon."
She uses her hands, her eyes, and most of all her voice, down to a low whisper for her most emotional responses, sometimes in a deep, warm laugh. And rather than hide the pain of her life, she seems almost eager to discuss it. She's auditioning for a new musical based on the life of Mahalia Jackson.
"The story of her life reads like the story of my life," she says, sitting on the edge of the couch, close to the interviewer. "I knew that woman. I knew her loneliness. I knew the feeling of do-I-have-to-go-through-life-wanting-to-be-loved . . . she married several times, but she never found happiness. 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."
Joyce Bryant claims she never wanted stardom. Born in Oakland, Calif., one of eight children, Bryant had a father who was a chef for the Southern Pacific. Her mother was a highly religious Seventh Day Adventist. Mother, says Bryant, somewhat comtemptuously, "didn't do anything. We were poor, but (her father) was making good money, we shouldn't have been." Her mother, frequently pregnant, suffered poor health. Bryant took care of her younger brothers and sisters.
And though she sang all the time around the house, she was not encouraged. "Stop all that noise," she recalls her parents saying. Her mother, Bryant says, was against it fgor religious reasons. And Bryant's maternal grandfather, Frank Withers, was a lengendary trombonist in his day, a man, claims Bryant, who brought jazz to Europe in 1907, a man who arranged for pianist Eubie Blake.
But when Bryant's grandfather traveled to Europe, where he stayed for years, he left his family behind. When he came back, he was the "black sheep of the family" - and, says Bryant, the only family member who encouraged her in a career.
At 14, to escape her family, Bryant married a 19-year-old merchant marine. Within a year, her unconsummated marriage was annulled. The reason now makes Bryant laugh. "We were in Reno, on our honeymoon, and we say a mannequin in a window wearing a negligee, holding a toy dog. I wanted the dog, my husband wanted to buy me the negligee.
"Well, men always get their way. he got me the negligee, I got mad and got on the bus and went back home. I was a baby. I was innocent, I didn't understand about being married."
The same year, at a singalong in a club in Los Angeles, Bryant was discovered and apid $125 a week to perform. Within two years, she was a showgirl in a tight gown, her nails silvered, making the rounds of the best supper clubs, singing torch songs.
But looking back on her image as a sex symbol, she laughs. "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."
By the time Bryant was 25, she was singing at New York's Copacababa and Time magazine called her "among the two or three Negro nightclub singers of the day," though the magazine noted that Bryant "seemed to have toruble relaxing on stage." Bryant dated mobsters - one night she was scheduled to go out with Mickey Cohen; the mob came into the club and tried to gun him down.
She began to need pills to sleep, was plagued with guilt for being inshow business, and carried the burden of being a black singer who sang "white" songs - and played white clubs. "I was the first black to play Miami Beach, the Algiers Club, and when I arrived, I couldn't get a cabbie to take me to town," she says.
"I went to Miami with a bodyguard, and they burned me in effigy and they firebombed the clubowner's house - those were the days, you have to remember, when a black needed a pass to walk on the beach in Miami. And once on a train going South I was almost raped, with black busboys standing around, afraid to do anything. And I got spit on in one of your fine white nightclubs in Washington."
"I didn't work Birdland or the black clubs, I played the white. And even the record companies didn't know what to do with me. When my career should have been going where Judy Garland's went, the record people called me on what was called their race label."
She had no close friends. She had no close friends. She suffered nightmares. One of the worst things of all was having to contend with her image as sex goddess. All along she thought she had been singing love songs.
"Those songs were about lost love, about wanting to be loved, about 'one day he'll come alont' - that song's almost my theme song. 'Love for Sale,' the song where a woman has to sell her body, to me that's tragic song. People always cried when I sang. my songs were always very emotional, people reacted to the feelings - feelings of rejection, or whatever."
Her decision to leave show business at age 27, was again, Pure Paperback. Ill with sore throat, she overheard an associate, who she thought was her friend, tell her doctor to spray her throat with cocaine. She finished her date - without the cocaine - and as soon as she had, she went home to the church. For 11 years, she did misionary work, was celibate, and, as had herself in the old situation of not being considered good enough. She remembers a time when a woman in the church called her "lewd." "I was always the fallen woman, the woman who'd had that exotic life back in New York."
In order to do concerts that would earn more money for the church, she began studying classical music with Washington's voice instructor Frederick Wilkerson. He described her while she was signing for a kindergarten class. Those concerts led to stints with the Watergate symphony, with European opera companies, with New York's City Opera. But after a few years in America, where she wanted to be, she felt that her future in opera would be curtailed because of age, and she returned to pop music.
"Age doesn't bother me," she insists, in the same breath she adds, "but a 50-year-old man is not interested in a 50-year-old woman and that leaves only much younger men . . . and the younger men, going out with me, are looking for a mother.
"The subject of men is important to her. After the annulment she never again married. Asked if she's ever been happy, her answer to draw her legs closer to her body, wrap her arms around herself, look into your eyes, and whisper, almost like a little girl, "No."
"I've had glimpses," she says. "When I have a great audience it's like a lovely love affair, but when I go home it's very lonely. There's no one for me to talk to. I can have a tremendous success on opening night with people sending flowers and telegrams and wishing me well, but you can't share happiness with the masses, you can't lie in the arms of the masses at nigh . . . " She sings the old song, the song torch singers have sung for years - but without the musci or the melody.
"What I want is that one special to say to me, 'Baby, you're beautiful.' That's what I want, or 'I love you for you.' I want that and I need that. And in all lthe songs I sing, I'm saying that, and at my age, when there hasn't been anybody, you have to start wondering why. But I know I'm attractive, I know I am . . ."
Wednesday night Bryant performs up in Harlem, at the New Cotton Club, all elegant silver Art Deco. The club is nearly empty - Wednesday is a slow night, the management insists.
But the emptiness doesn't seem to bother Bryant, who rushes into the room in black sequins and black feathers and red fingernails, all body-shaking exuberance and whips into a fast, upbeat, isn't-life-wonderful number. "I want to thank you for rushing into my life," she sings to the eight people in the audience. But that's okay; you know you've always got to have one fo these nearly deserted nightclub scenes in a comeback story.