Joni James was born Giovanna Carmella Babbo to an Italian-American family in Chicago, Illinois, on 22 September 1930.
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 Theater.
After graduating from Bowen High School, she studied drama and ballet and joined a local dance group.
Deciding to pursue a singing career when she had to give up dancing after an attack of appendicitis, she picked the stage name Joni James and was signed by MGM in 1952.
Her first hit, Why Don’t You Believe Me?, sold over two million copies.
She had a number of subsequent hits, including Your Cheatin’ Heart (a cover of the Hank Williams‘ hit) and Have You Heard?, recording five albums at London’s Abbey Road Studios.
Joni James had seven Top 10 hits – Why Don’t You Believe Me? (1952), Have You Heard? (1953), Your Cheatin’ Heart (1953), Almost Always (1953), My Love, My Love (1953), How Important Can It Be? (1955) and You Are My Love (1955) as well as sixteen other Top 40 hits from 1952 to 1961.
She married Anthony Acquaviva, her manager, arranger and conductor, in 1956 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
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.
She sold more than 100 million records and recorded more than 25 albums. Known to her fans as the “Queen of Hearts,” Joni had an intimate vocal style tinged with longing and melancholy.
In 1964, she retired from the music industry because her husband Tony Acquaviva was in bad health. She cared for him until his death in 1986.
Joni James died in West Palm Beach, Florida, on 20 February 2022. She was 91.