Joni James, a successful singer whose records climbed the Billboard charts in the 1950s and who was an early influence on Barbra Streisand, died Feb. 20 in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was 91 years old.
His family announced the death, at a hospital, in an online obituary. No cause was specified.
Known to her fans as the ‘Queen of Hearts’, Ms James had an intimate vocal style tinged with nostalgia and melancholy. She has recorded nearly 700 songs and sold over 100 million records, including 24 platinum records and 12 gold records.
“I’ve always sung from the heart,” she told New York’s Daily News in 1996. “I’ve always sung about life and how it has affected me. I am Italian. Italians are passionate people.
Its first single, “Why Don’t You Believe Me”, reached No. 1 on all three Billboard charts in 1952 (at that time there were separate charts for sales, radio and jukebox) and caused a sensation overnight.
Her subsequent hits included “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, a cover of the Hank Williams hit, which helped Ms James establish herself as one of the first female pop singers to bring country into the pop mainstream.
In the mid-1950s, she had four Top 10 hits, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Have You Heard?”, which sold over three million records, and “How Important Can It Be?” , which sold more. more than four million.
In May 1959, she was among the first pop singers to give a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, where she was accompanied by an orchestra of 100 musicians and 30 singers.
It was Mrs. James’ recording of “Have You Heard?” which drew Mrs. Streisand to her. “My favorite singer growing up was Johnny Mathis,” Ms Streisand told The New York Times in 1985. “I also listened to Joni James’ records a lot and sang his hit ‘Have You Heard?’ at club auditions, but I didn’t really want to sound like her.
Whether she liked it or not, some of Streisand’s early recordings were reminiscent of Mrs. James’s, at least to the ears of Times critic Stephen Holden, who wrote in 1991: “Without having developed a rounded vibrato, she sounded much like her . childhood idol, Joni James, a vocalist with a rudimentary technique who imbued early ’50s pop ballads with a naïve plaintiveness.
There was enough of a connection between the two singers that Ms. James was invited to be part of an all-star cast for the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tribute to Ms. Streisand in 2001. On stage at the At the Beverly Hilton hotel, Ms. James performed one of Ms. Streisand’s signature songs, “The Way We Were,” accompanied by Marvin Hamlisch on piano.
Giovanna Carmella Babbo was born in Chicago on September 22, 1930. Her father, Angelo Babbo, who sang opera arias as a shepherd in Italy, came to America when he was 18. He died at 36, when Giovanna was 5. This left his mother, Mary Chereso, struggling to raise six children on her own during the Depression.
Giovanna babysat and worked in a bakery to help the family and raise funds to train as a ballerina. A petite woman – she was 5 feet tall and wore a size 4 shoe – she dreamed of going to New York and dancing with the American Ballet Theatre.
This does not happen. After graduating from high school, she toured Canada with a local dance group, then took a job as a backup singer at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel. By then, she had changed her first name, after her high school newspaper misspelled it. Later, when she worked as a model, her managers told her to come up with a new last name; Ms. Babbo quickly turned to the phone book and picked out “James” at random.
While she focused on dancing, singing was second nature to her. She grew up singing in the school choir and has said her influences were the blues and Gregorian chants. Later, when she sang in nightclubs and took part in talent contests, the public always reacted warmly to her, but she did not consider herself a real singer like her idols, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Doris Day.
Ms. James was eventually noticed by MGM Records, who signed her to a contract in 1952. Her first single had been written as “You Should Believe Me”, but she changed the lyrics and the title, making it ” Why Don’t You”. Trust me.” She paid for and organized the recording session, which included a 23-piece orchestra. The song was an instant hit and sold over two million copies.
She married Anthony Acquaviva, her manager, arranger and conductor, in 1956 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Mr. Acquaviva, known as Tony, oversaw sessions on which she was accompanied by strings, which helped define her lush sound.
She has appeared on every major television variety show, including those hosted by Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and Andy Williams. She was in demand around the world and became the first American to record at Abbey Road Studios in London, where she released five albums.
But at the height of her fame, her husband developed diabetes and she largely left the music scene in 1964 to care for him. She told the Los Angeles Times that this included washing one of her legs six times a day to prevent gangrene and amputation. He died in 1986.
Although she still performed occasionally during her lifetime, she had strayed so far from the limelight that newspapers called her “The Garbo of Song”.
She then met Bernard A. Schriever, a retired Air Force general who oversaw the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. They married in 1997 and, with his encouragement, she returned to the stage, giving memorable concerts in New York at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall.
“I was a bent-winged sparrow,” she told The Oakland Tribune, “and he pushed me to come back.”
Mrs. James is survived by her son, Michael Acquaviva; his daughter, Angela Kwoka; his brothers, Angelo Babbo and Jimmy Contino; his sisters, Clara Aerostegui and Rosalie Ferina; and two grandchildren. General Schriever died in 2005.
Asked by The Daily News in 2000 why she was singing so many sad songs, Ms James had a simple answer: “Because I know what they mean.”