Joni James, the soul-bearing pop songstress who had hits in the 1950s with “Why Don’t You Believe Me?,” “How Important Can It Be?” and a cover of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” has died. She was 91.

James died Sunday of natural causes in a hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida, her family announced.

Signed by MGM Records, the waiflike Chicago native came out of the gate with “Why Don’t You Believe Me?,” which reached No. 1 on the three Billboard charts in late 1952 and stayed there for weeks.

Her recordings of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in 1953 and “How Important Can It Be?” in 1955 each made it to No. 2, and “Have You Heard?” climbed to No. 4 in 1953.

She had other top 10 hits with “You Are My Love” (No. 6 in 1955), “My Love, My Love” (No. 8 in 1953) and “Almost Always” (No. 9 in 1953).

Nicknamed the “Queen of Hearts,” the down-to-earth James recorded more than 40 albums and sold more than 100 million records during her career. She had a longing sound and style that reviewers described as tender, confidential and urgent, and Barbra Streisand was an admirer who often performed “Have You Heard?” at auditions.

“I always sang from the heart,” she told the New York Daily News in 1966. “I always sang about life and how it affected me. I’m Italian. Italians are passionate people.”

Edward R. Murrow interviewed her in 1954 for CBS’ Person to Person, and in May 1959, she became the first pop singer to have a solo concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, where she was backed by a 100-piece orchestra and 30 other voices.

At the Pantages at the 1960 Academy Awards, she performed the Oscar-nominated song “The Five Pennies,” sung by Danny Kaye in the Paramount film. She was the first American to record at London’s Abbey Road Studios, making five albums there.

Her name also appeared in two Peanuts cartoons — Charles Schulz was a big fan, too — and she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1969.

Joni James circa 1960
Everett Collection

One of six children, Giovanna Carmella Babbo was born in Chicago on Sept. 22, 1930. Her father died when she was 5. She studied ballet and was set to dance in Bloomer Girl, a Broadway musical that had come to her town, but those plans were scuttled by an emergency appendectomy.

Still planning on becoming a dancer, she picked up money singing at a beer garden in Indiana and in Chicago hotels and clubs. She performed “Let There Be Love” on WGN-TV accompanied by pianist Johnny Ray and was signed by Lew Douglas of MGM Records.

“Why Don’t You Believe Me” was originally titled “You Should Believe Me,” but James tweaked the lyrics, and, with the help of a 23-piece orchestra, she found immediate success and sales of more than 2 million records.

James headlined the Paramount Theatre in New York and sang on programs including The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, The Jimmy Dean Show and Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall. She also performed the title song for The Maverick Queen (1956), a Western starring Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan.

She put her career on hold for nearly two decades to care of Tony Acquaviva, her husband, conductor, arranger and manager who had taken ill with diabetes. The two MGM recording artists had married in 1956 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

“I became the nurse and the Italian mother,” James told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I wanted to be near my family. Besides, I couldn’t possibly turn away from Tony. He was in a wheelchair for years. They were going to amputate his leg at one point because of gangrene, but we saved it. I used to bathe the leg six times a day.”

A few years after Acquaviva’s death in 1986, James returned to touring — she made it back to Carnegie Hall in 1998 — and supervised the rerelease of her MGM recordings.

Her second husband was Bernard Schriever, a retired Air Force general who shepherded the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile program and established a framework for the Air Force’s space program. They were married from 1997 until his death in 2005 at age 94.

Survivors include her children, Michael (and his wife, Michelle) and Angela, both adopted from Italy; brothers Angelo and Jimmy; sisters Clara and Rosalie; and grandchildren Jacqueline and Connor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *