Joni James shot to pop stardom in the 1950s but walked away from the stage a decade later to care for her seriously ill husband, manager-conductor Tony Acquaviva, and their two adopted children.
“I missed [the pop world] terribly,” James told the Times during an interview return to the stage in 1985. “I missed the people. I missed the music. I missed the love. But there was something more important to me . . . Tony and the children.”
James, who was born Giovanna Carmella Babbo, grew up in an Italian family in Chicago. As a teenager, she dreamed of being a dancer and sang in Chicago-area clubs to raise money to go to ballet school in New York.
She was 21 when her first MGM Records single, “Why Don’t You Believe Me,” hit No. 1 on the charts in 1952 and stayed there for six weeks. She followed up with a series of Top 40 hits that included “How Important Can It Be,” “Have You Heard” and a pop cover of Hank Williams’ country classic “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
She sold millions of records for MGM over the next decade, counting among her fans pop heavyweights like Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley.
James met Acquaviva in a recording session and married him in 1956. He became her conductor and manager.
When James left MGM, she bought back the masters of her entire catalogue of singles and LPs, turning her albums into high-priced collector’s items. Acquaviva was planning to assemble a carefully remastered special edition of the collection.
Acquaviva died in 1986, but James would not return to the stage in the United States for another eight years. She gave sporadic overseas performances in the Philippines and Japan in the interim.
For years, fans had no idea what had led to James’ sudden retreat from the limelight. Before her mid-90s comeback, many assumed she was dead. The Times labeled her a “Garbo of pop,” referring to reclusive actress Greta Garbo.
James’ second husband, retired Air Force Gen. Bernard A. Shriever, was famous in his own right for leading the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile. He died in 2005.