Joyce Bryant, internationally noted nightclub and opera singer with a four-octave range, had a Seventh-day Adventist background. After a meteoric rise to fame as a nightclub singer in the late 1940s, she had a conversion experience in 1955 and then worked in the church for the rest of the decade, singing in evangelistic meetings and serving as a Bible worker. She left the church in the 1960s and eventually resumed singing in nightclubs until her retirement.
Joyce was born in Oakland, California, and raised in San Francisco, the oldest of eight children. Her mother was a churchgoing Adventist and her father a railroad chef who was seldom at home. Following an unconsummated marriage at age fourteen, she moved to Los Angeles to live with cousins.
Bryant began singing at clubs in the Los Angeles area in the late 1940s. She soon gained a reputation for outrageous behavior and provocative clothing, colored her hair with silver radiator paint, and became known as the "bronze bombshell," and the "black Marilyn Monroe."
She was earning as much as $150,000 a year, had been featured in a 1953 issue of Life magazine, and was appearing regularly in African-American magazines when, deeply troubled about her image and the sordid nightclub scene, she abruptly joined the Adventist church in 1955. She enrolled at Oakwood College, now University, that fall. Ebony, the most widely circulated African-American magazine in the U.S., ran a five-page feature article on her conversion in its May 1956 issue titled "The New World of Joyce Bryant." According to the church's primary publication, Review and Herald, the piece accurately described the church's doctrines and pictured her life on campus in a favorable light.
In 1957 Bryant became a Bible instructor in the Allegheny Conference, a regional black conference, initially working in related Washington, D.C., area churches. In 1958 she and Richard Penniman (Little Richard), a recently converted pop music superstar, worked with E. E. Cleveland, famed black evangelist, in a twelve-week series in Washington, D.C. The write-up about that event in the September 11, 1958, Review and Herald, related the following:
The last night of the series will long be remembered by those in attendance. Two former stars of show business, Joyce Bryant and "Little Richard" Penniman, said to be the creator of rock and roll, boldly witnessed to the saving power of God.
As Miss Bryant, who has been billed at the nightspots of two continents, told of her struggles to get away from God, many felt the tears rolling down their cheeks. Two months ago her former booking agent offered her $200,000, tax free, if she would take the leading role in a picture to be made. In relating this experience Miss Bryant said, "Peace of mind, and the knowledge of working with God in saving the souls of men, bring more comfort and lasting joy than all the money and glamour."
The fond title “Little Richard,” a name Richard Penniman acquired when he began to sing as a small boy, still follows him. Tops in his field when he was twenty-four years of age, he gave a glowing account of God’s power to save him from sin. He explained that he had made as much as $10,000 a day, but was glad to lay it aside as nothing compared with what Jesus had done for him. . . . When the one-time rock-and-roller called his former fans from the audience to gather around the pulpit, more than 300 responded. He prayed a touching prayer for them.
Both Joyce Bryant and Richard Penniman have taken training at Oakwood College and are now engaged in soul-winning work.
Bryant left the church shortly after this because of false accusations about her and, following study with a voice teacher at Howard University, worked in touring foreign opera companies, singing music in the classical repertoire in the 1960s, before returning to the nightclub scene and singing on cruise ships. The behavior, dress, and appearance associated with her earlier days of singing were discarded, however, as she resumed singing in these venues.
Because of her talent, Bryant was able to help break racial barriers, gaining access to the most prominent stages in popular music performance. Along the way, she endured her share of indignities, including being burned in effigy when she stayed and sang in a Miami hotel. Martin Luther King, Jr., nationally famous civil rights pioneer, particularly enjoyed her singing and, following Sunday services, she would often join King and his family for dinner at an Atlanta, Georgia, restaurant.
Sources: Andrew Hamilton, "Joyce Bryant," biography on Icebergradio.com; Joel E. Siegel, "Joyce Bryant," washingtoncitypaper.com and other online sources. M. Carol Hetzell, "Ebony Magazine Features Conversion of Joyce Bryant," Review and Herald, 31 May 1956. Other R & H references: 30 August 1956; 14 February 1957; 19 September 1957; 11 September 1958, 20 (quote); Dwight Neilson Esmond, "In the Crossfire: The Ministry of Warren S. Banfield," Adventist Review, 7 February 2002 (Reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.); Columbia Union Visitor, 15 November 1956, 8, and Humboldt Standard (Eureka, California), 4 January 1956 (both state her age as 28 at that time).