Pop singer Joni James has a voice that is crystal clear and carries a melancholy sound deep within it. She has perfect pitch which grew out of the frequent singing of Gregorian chants. James was born Joan Carmello Babbo on September 22, 1930, in the southeast side of Chicago, Illinois, the oldest of four children born to an Italian immigrant father, Angelo Babbo, and Mary Tareso, a first generation Italian. Angelo Babbo was only 18 when he came to America seeking a better life. He had learned to sing operatic arias as a shepherd boy.
James was not yet five years old when her father died of cancer at the age of 36, leaving his wife five months pregnant. It was the Depression and times were hard for Mary and her four children. James recalled,” She would cry a lot” and make games out of poverty to make life less grim for her children. James attended St. Peter and St. Paul Elementary School where she sang in the school choir at daily mass, vocalized Gregorian chants, and realized she was poor when the nuns would ask for money to pay for books and she had none. James told Contemporary Musicians: “The experience of being poor was a great benefit because it gave me a greater depth and appreciation when we later lived in affluent Beverly Hills, California.” The family spoke Italian in their home and as a child, James began to learn Italian folk songs. During the summertime the facilities at a nearby public park were used to provide free dance lessons to children of the area. The lessons stimulated James’ passion to become a dancer.
When James was 14, she entered high school, sang in the school choir, became feature editor of the school paper, and packed cookies at a local bakery for eight dollars a week. Half of the money went toward ballet lessons and the other half to helping her family. Her name was misspelled in the school paper so she changed it to “Joni.” James was also active in the Civic Opera Ballet in Chicago and told Contemporary Musicians, “My heartfelt dream was to go to New York to appear in the American Ballet Theater.” She wanted to be a prima ballerina and never gave much thought to singing. In 1948, James was a high school honor student and was offered a college journalism scholarship to Northern Illinois State Teachers College. After graduation, James participated in Ernie Young’s Review as a dancer, performing in several Canadian cities. Later that summer she turned the scholarship offer down to pursue her goal of becoming a dancer. James began modeling in Chicago to save money to go to New York. She was not only very attractive, but wore a size four shoe and was barely over five feet tall, which was advantageous in the modeling profession. Management encouraged her to select a new surname, and she used the telephone book to arbitrarily select the name “James” because it was easy to remember and fit nicely with her high school nickname.
Unfortunately, James had an appendectomy which restricted her dancing. A friend who was going on her
For the Record…
Born Joan Carmello Babbo on September 22, 1930, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Angelo Babbo and Mary Tareso Babbo, the oldest of four children; married Tony Acquaviva, 1955 (died September 17, 1986); married General Bernard Adolf Schriever, 1997; two adopted children: Michel Angelo and Angela Mia. Education: Attended Northern Illinois State Teachers College and Los Angeles Community College.
Major hit songs include “How Important Can It Be,” “Have You Heard,” “My Love, My Love,” “Why Don’t You Believe Me,” “Wishing Ring,” “Purple Shades,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart;” has recorded almost 700 songs on more than 50 albums; sixth appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City, 1999.
Awards: Big Band Hall of Fame, 1998; Rock & Roll Museum, 1997; Hollywood Walk of Fame; Television Hall of Fame; 24 platinum records; 12 gold records.
Addresses: Manager —Alan Eichler, Personal Manager, 6064 Selma Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90028. Fan club —Joni James International Fan Club, P.O. Box 7207, Westchester, IL 60154-7207; email: [email protected]
honeymoon approached James and asked if she would substitute for her as a singer at a nearby family beer garden club in Rochester, Indiana. James performed a dance from the Nutcracker Suite at the club but drew little attention. When she began to sing George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” accompanied by only a church pianist, everyone turned their chair around and paid close attention and expressed great delight. “It was a stunning experience. I was used to people liking my songs but I thought it was because I was friendly and being nice,” James told Contemporary Musicians. She later performed at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago as a chorus girl.
However when James was appearing at the Vines Garden Club in Chicago, she was noticed and signed to a contract by the Sharp Company where she did commercials for Zenith televisions and others. She sang “Let There Be Love” on television station WGN and was noticed by Lew Douglas of MGM Records which led to a major recording contract. Her first major recording sessions in 1952 produced “Why Don’t You Believe Me,” which rose to the top of the charts, selling more than two million copies, and remained on the best seller charts for an amazing six months. Originally titled “You Should Believe Me,” James suggested that it be changed to more appropriately fit the lyrics. Variety magazine named it to its “Fifty Year Hit Parade” for 1952. James had also paid for and staged the recording session herself.
She became one of the very first popular singers to take country hits and help them make their transition to popular music, including such Hank Williams hits as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Cold, Cold Heart.” James and Williams were scheduled to sing together; the night he died, she was at MGM studios recording “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Her version sold more than two million copies rising to number seven on the charts. Later James performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, and was one of the first “city ladies” to perform there. She appeared there on three additional occasions. Country singer Conway Twitty was such a big fan, he named his daughter after James.
In 1955, James married her arranger and conductor Tony Acquaviva, a former West Point cadet and band participant at the Academy, who had also been a winner on the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour” with his brother Nick. They had met when she began recording for MGM studios where he had closely worked with composer Leonard Bernstein. Acquaviva was in the orchestral department recording instrumentals and also managed disk jockeys in New York City. Acquaviva skillfully made arrangements that blended violins and other stringed instruments for James. Through him she had heard “My Love, My Love,” which had been written by Nick Acquaviva and New York disk jockey Bob Haymes, the brother of vocalist Dick Haymes. It became a huge hit for James and reached the top of the charts. In the mid 1950s, when James appeared at the Paramount Theater in New York, four of the top ten charted hits belonged to her, including “Purple Shades,” “Have You Heard,” “How Important Can It Be,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” “Have You Heard” sold more than three million records, and “How Important Can It Be” more than four million copies.
James’ television credits include appearances on major television shows including Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, Eddie Fisher, Perry Como, Andy Williams and others. She has performed in many countries around the globe including Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, Canada, and many countries in Europe on behalf of the United States State Department for the armed forces, receiving a USO award for her patriotism.
In the mid-Sixties, James’ husband accidentaly received a massive overdose of insulin from his doctors to treat diabetes; he had been switched to another kind of insulin that was five times more potent. In 1964, James abandoned her entertainment career to care for her children and her ill husband until his death in 1986.
In 1997, James married General Bernard Adolf Schriever, who was the developer of the United States ballistic missile program and the Air Force’s initial space program. Schriever encouraged James to resume her career and soon she ended her retirement and began singing to sold-out audiences at venues around the country including the Lincoln Center and her sixth appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1999.
On MGM Records
Award Winning Album, 1954.
Little Girl Blue, 1954.
When I Fall in Love, 1955.
Merry Christmas, 1956.
Among My Souvenirs, 1958.
Ti Voglio Bene, 1958.
Je T’Aime, 1958.
Songs by Hank Williams, 1959.
Let There Be Love, Jasmine, 1993.
Why Don’t You Believe Me, 1993.
Little Girl Blue, Twinbrook, 1995.
Joni James, 1996.
The Mood is Swingin, The Mood is Blue, The Mood is
Romance, DRG, 1998.
Joni James Sings Songs by Victor Young, Songs by Frank Loesser, Tarragon, 1999.
Jukebox Joni, DRG, 1999.
Latest and Greatest Hits, Tarragon, 2000.
Lax, Roger, and Frederick Smith, The Great Song Thesaurus, Oxford University Press, 1989.
McAleer, David, The All Music Book of Hit Singles, Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
Morino, Marianne, Hollywood Walk Hall of Fame, Ten Speed Press, 1987.
Murrells, Joseph, Million Selling Records From the 1900s to the 1980s, Arco Publishing Inc., 1984.
Osborne, Jerry, Rockin Records, Osborne Publications, 1999.
Tyler, Don, An Encyclopedia of the Top Songs of the Jazz, depressing, Swing and Sing Eras, William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1985.
Bernard Schriever biography, http://www.legendsofairpower.com (August 2000).
“Joni James,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 2000).
Official Joni James Website, http://www.jonijames.com (August 2000).
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Joni James on April 26, 2000.
—Francis D. McKinley
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