By Katharine Q. Seelye
Joni James, a bestselling chanteuse whose records climbed the Billboard charts in the 1950s and who was an early influence on Barbra Streisand, died on Feb. 20 in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was 91.
Her family announced the death, in a hospital, in an online obituary. No cause was specified.
Known to her fans as the “Queen of Hearts,” James had an intimate vocal style tinged with longing and melancholy. She recorded nearly 700 songs and sold more than 100 million records — 24 going platinum and 12 gold.
“I always sang from the heart,” she told The Daily News of New York in 1996. “I always sang about life and how it affected me. I’m Italian. Italians are passionate people.”
Her debut single, “Why Don’t You Believe Me,” reached No. 1 on the three Billboard charts in 1952 (in those days there were separate charts for sales, radio play and jukebox play) and made her an overnight sensation.
Her next showstoppers included “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” a cover of the Hank Williams hit, which helped James establish herself as one of the first pop singers to bring country into the pop mainstream.
In the mid-1950s, she had four Top 10 charted hits, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Have You Heard?,” which sold more than 3 million records, and “How Important Can It Be?,” which sold more than 4 million.
In May 1959, she was among the first pop singers to perform a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, where she was backed by a 100-piece orchestra and 30 singers.
It was James’ recording of “Have You Heard?” that drew Streisand to her. “My favorite singer while I was growing up was Johnny Mathis,” Streisand told The New York Times in 1985. “I also listened a lot to Joni James records and sang her hit ‘Have You Heard?’ at club auditions, but I didn’t really want to sound like her.”
Whether she wanted to or not, some early Streisand recordings did recall those of James, at least to the ear of Times critic Stephen Holden, who wrote in 1991, “Without having developed a rounded vibrato, she sounded a lot like her childhood idol, Joni James, a singer with only rudimentary technique who infused early-’50s pop ballads with a waiflike plaintiveness.”
There was enough of a connection between the two singers that James was invited to be part of a star-studded cast for the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tribute to Streisand in 2001. Onstage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, James performed one of Streisand’s signature songs, “The Way We Were,” accompanied by Marvin Hamlisch on piano.
Giovanna Carmella Babbo was born in Chicago on Sept. 22, 1930. Her father, Angelo Babbo, who sang operatic arias when he was a shepherd boy in Italy, had come to America at 18. He died at 36, when Giovanna was 5. That left her mother, Mary Chereso, struggling to raise six children by herself during the Depression.
Giovanna babysat and worked in a bakery to help the family and to raise money to train as a ballerina. A petite woman — she stood 5 feet tall and wore a size 4 shoe — she dreamed of going to New York and dancing with the American Ballet Theatre.
That didn’t happen. After graduating from high school, she toured Canada with a local dance group, then took a job as a chorus girl at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. By then she had changed her first name, after her high school newspaper kept misspelling it. Later, when she worked as a model, her managers told her to find a new surname; Babbo promptly turned to the phone book and picked “James” at random.
While she was focused on dance, singing was second nature to her. She grew up singing in the school choir and said her influences were the blues and Gregorian chants. Later, when she sang in nightclubs and entered talent contests, audiences always reacted warmly to her, but she didn’t consider herself a real singer like her idols, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Doris Day.
James was finally noticed by MGM Records, which signed her to a contract in 1952. Her first single had been written as “You Should Believe Me,” but she tweaked the lyrics and the title, making it “Why Don’t You Believe Me.” She paid for and organized the recording session, which included a 23-piece orchestra. The song was an instant hit and sold more than 2 million copies.
She married Anthony Acquaviva, her manager, arranger and conductor, in 1956 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Acquaviva, known as Tony, oversaw sessions on which she was accompanied by strings, which helped define her lush sound.
She appeared on all the major television variety shows, 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 made 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 his legs six times a day to prevent it from getting gangrene and being amputated. He died in 1986.
Though she still performed occasionally while he was still living, she had stepped so far away from the limelight that the 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 eased her way back onstage, performing memorable concerts in New York at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall.
“I was a bent-wing sparrow,” she told The Oakland Tribune, “and he pushed me to come back.”
James is survived by her son, Michael Acquaviva; her daughter, Angela Kwoka; her brothers, Angelo Babbo and Jimmy Contino; her sisters, Clara Aerostegui and Rosalie Ferina; and two grandchildren. Schriever died in 2005.
Asked by The Daily News in 2000 why she sang so many sad songs, James had a simple answer: “Because I know what they mean.”