Joni James, a popular singer in the 1950s who scored several pre-rock hits including “Why Don’t You Believe Me?” and “How Important Can It Be?” and continued to chart throughout the decade, has died. She was 91.
James’ son, Michael Acquaviva, told The Washington Post that she died February 20 of natural causes in West Palm Beach, FL.
Born Giavanna Carmello Babbo on September 22, 1930 in Chicago, James was working as a dancer by age 12 and toured in Canada in the late 1940s. She also was modeling by high school. After pivoting to music, she first recorded for Sharp Records before moving to MGM.
James was 22 when her first hit topped the U.S. chart. Her version of “Why Don’t You Believe Me?” spent three weeks at the summit in December 1952, starting a run of eight Top 20 singles in 1952-53 including the Top 10 hits “Almost Always” “Have You Heard?” and a cover of the Hank Williams classic “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Decades later, “Why Don’t You Believe Me?” was used in the 1981 raunchfest Porky’s.
Dubbed “the Queen of Hearts,” she scored her second-biggest pop hit just before rock ‘n’ roll began to dominate the airwaves. Backed by the Ray Charles Singers, “How Important Can It Be?” reached No. 2 and went gold. The song was used in Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film L.A. Confidential, and she re-recorded it for a 2009 compilation album.
James followed that song’s success with “You Are My Love,” which hit No. 6 in late 1955 and would be her last Top 10 single. She continued to chart throughout the 1950s, but only reached the Top 20 one other time with 1958’s “There Goes My Heart.” She also recorded several albums, but none made the Billboard 200 chart.
James made several appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show during the 1950s, along with performing on American Bandstand and variety shows fronted by the likes of Frankie Laine, Jimmy Dean, Arthur Murray and Steve Allen. She also performed on the 32nd Academy Awards in 1960.
She married her musical arranger/conductor Tony Acquaviva in 1956 and paused her career to care for him after he took ill. He died in 1986, and James began recording and touring again. She later was married to Bernard Schriever from 1997 until his death in 2005.
Along with her adopted son Michael, James is survived by an adopted daughter, Angela; sisters Clara and Rosalie
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