Gary James' Interview With
Joni James

She was born Joan Carmello Babbo, but the world knows her as Joni James. Joni belongs to that elite group of recording artists such as Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and Frankie Laine, who have sold over 100 million records* worldwide. She recorded her first tracks for MGM Records in 1952. "Why Don't You Believe Me?" became a million seller and a number one hit on the US pop charts. Joni James was on her way!

Q - So, how did Joan Babbo become Joni James?

A - I went around for years spelling "Babbo. Then, I went around for years with Acquaviva, my late husband's name. In the meantime, I got so tired of Babbo, Blabbo, Babbala, I just said "give me anything easy", when I was in the model agency in Chicago, studying for the ballet and working wherever I could get money for my war chest to go to the American Ballet Theatre in New York. It turned out I went to the Paramount Stage in New York instead. Who would've thunk? That's what happened. I said to the agency, "please, they slaughtered my name for years, if you could just call me Smith, I'd be happy."

Q - So, originally, you were a dancer?

A - A ballet dancer. I was scheduled to join Bloomer Girl, a Broadway musical that came to Chicago, but instead I had the middle of the night emergency. I had toured before that with The Canadian Exhibitions, a big, giant line of girls, sort of like The Rockettes. So, that was my background.

Q - And the middle of the night emergency was an appendectomy?

A - Right.

Q - While you were on the mend, a friend who was getting married asked you to fill in for her on a singing job at a nightclub?

A - That's right.

Q - But, you were a dancer. Did you also consider yourself a singer?

A - Well, I didn't think I was. Like every Italian girl, we eat, we sleep, we sing, we make babies. That's just ordinary, everyday stuff. In my family, we all sang.

Q - What happened when you debuted at the club?

A - People all turned around, kind of quiet and very mesmerized. I wanted to look around and say "What's that?" I didn't understand myself what it was, but, it made such an impression on people. It was nice to have attention. I liked that.

Q - Just two years later, you're a major TV, movie and recording star.

A - Right.

Q - That's a Horatio Alger story if I ever heard one.

A - It's like Ella Fitzgerald went in for a dancing job and they didn't have any more, so they said "What else can you do?" And suddenly, she became a singer. Or Doris Day. She was dancing and she had an accident. She couldn't dance for a while and she became a singer. It's like destiny.

Q - According to the book, "Rock On", by Norman Nite, you grew up in an extremely poor neighbourhood. It that true?

A - I don't know what's extremely. I grew up on the Southeast side of Chicago, which is near the steel mills or was then. It's changed now. My father had come from Italy. He died when I was five. We were in a very poor position. It was after the Great Depression. Everybody was poor. We didn't notice that we were poor. We thought that's the way everybody is. When I got a little older, the ballet thing brought me into a whole different sphere. I would go into the heart to Chicago, where everything was more luxurious. It was a whole different world. But, when you grow up in a little neighborhood, and Chicago is full of neighborhoods, the one that we were in, was poor.

Q - Did you select the material you wanted to record?

A - Yes.

Q - You had a say in the production of the material?

A - Always. I didn't know it was a big deal. I had always picked my songs in the little nightclubs where I sang. I kind of had a feeling what people liked. Of course, I liked what they liked. We both had the same taste, the people and me. I'm not an intellectual musician. I was not a snob about it. I did "Your Cheatin' Heart" and they said "what? That thing?" I said "oh, it's great." They could only hear Hank Williams twanging. I said "you don't hear what he's singing. It's not June, moon, spoon. It's different. He's saying it really straight out." By that time, I'd had four in a row million sellers and they said "leave her alone...let her pick." I thought everybody got to do that. Later, I heard, no, that's unusual. The other girls have to sing the songs that are picked for them.

Q - Did you have any regrets about not having pursued a dancing career?

A - No, because I stood still at the microphone and saw people were very taken. It was something magical, not from me, but from beyond me. Between me and they or they and me, connection. I loved being significant. When you're a dancer, and seen from the third balcony, one of twenty-five girls, you're like a little dot on the stage. It's beautiful and you love it, but you don't get that wonderful connection with people. I'm a people lover.

Q - Speaking of people, did you get to meet the stars of the day...Elvis, Frank Sinatra?

A - Oh, I met Frank Sinatra several times, yes. Elvis I never met and they told me my album covers were on the back of his wall, his den at Graceland. We didn't happen to connect at a certain place. I never had the pleasure. But, Frank I did, a couple of times and that was a huge thrill for me, because he was my big hero.

Q - What kind of a guy was he?

A - He was smooth, I'll tell you that. (laughs) He was something. All those stories you read from people who knew him very, very well...I only knew him in quick vignette type things. I was supposed to play the part of his sister. We were gonna do a certain movie at one time. He decided against the script. That's how close I would've been...his sister! (laughs) I don't think anybody will ever equal his special understanding of lyrics.

Q - He had a unique voice.

A - Yes. Just spectacular. When he sang a song, it stayed sung. The other one I loved was Nat Cole.

Q - Did you ever meet him?

A - Yeah. He was a darling prince of a man. Beautiful.

Q - Did you ever meet The Beatles?

A - No. I wish I did, although I was the first American to record at Abbey Road Studios and that's historic. I did a series of five albums there with a hundred strings and Joni and a hundred voices.

Q - How did you travel in those days, by bus or by plane?

A - Not by bus. Oh, God, thank God I didn't do that. I know about Doris Day and what she went through. By plane because things were spinning quicker. When I did college concerts, one woman shows, that's another first my manager dreamt up. We found that they didn't have a bigger airport nearby to land commercially, so we got ourselves a plane. A Cessna 310 D. My pianist was instrumental in swaying us in that direction. He was taking pilot lessons, to get a commercial license. So, we got the plane and later got another one, a Beechcraft D-18. They painted it pink for me and called it "Joni's Pink Cloud". We'd go commercial for long distances, overseas, to Europe or the Far East or to the West coast, you know, coast to coast.

Q - Were you always the headliner?

A - I always did a one girl show. That was another new thing. I'd have Little Richard on my show.

Q - That was some combination!

A - That was really startling the first time I experienced that. It was really excitement. Then, there were The Four Freshmen with me on college dates. I can't think of them all off-hand right now. I had Stan Kenton back me and Muddy Morrow, and the Billy May Band at the Navel Academy. That was the time when Big Bands were not a potent as they had been. I thought it was sad.

Q - Could you record some of today's music?

A - Some...certain songs. I don't show my belly button. I'm of the melodic belconto school.

Q - If you were approached by someone to do a rap song, would you do it?

A - Well, it depends. I'd have to hear it. Read it. Think about it. See it. It's which rap? Which ballad? They told me I did the first rhythm 'n blues / pop crossover - "You Are My Love". I just liked it. It was catchy. I love rhythm 'n blues. I always did. It's real authentic. The rock 'n roll is sort of the mayonnaise, white bread version. (laughs)

Q - You've sold over 100 million records?

A - Yes. It's over a long time you know. That was before cyberspace. I don't care about the numbers. I care about all the places I am next to you, singing in your ear. Look, if I go tomorrow, I feel like I've done something while I was here. Not many people have such a great honor.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* Joni James also had two Top Ten hits on the Billboard pop chart. "How Important Can It Be?" (#2 in 1955)
and "You Are My Love" (#6 in 1955) as well as five other Top 40 hits from 1956 to 1961.

Joni James
Photo from Gary James' Press Kit Collection