Joni James, Garbo of Pop, Resurfaces : Pop music: Singer, who walked away from music scene 30 years ago after a string of hits, sells out shows, plans new album.


There’s a movie in the Joni James story, a story that resurfaced in dramatic, heartwarming fashion Saturday night at the Academy Plaza Theatre when the one-time queen of American pop gave her first formal Los Angeles concert in 35 years.

“How Important Can It Be?” isn’t just the title of one of James’ biggest hits from the early 1950s, but it’s also the question the Chicago-native had to ask herself about her own stardom three decades ago.

You could see from her thank-yous and occasional misty-eyed moments Saturday that James loves the applause and music, but she walked away from all that in the mid-'60s to care for her seriously ill husband, manager-conductor Tony Acquaviva, and their two adopted children.


“I missed [the pop world] terribly,” James said during an interview before Saturday’s concert. “I missed the people. I missed the music. I missed the love. But there was something more important to me . . . Tony and the children.

“I became the nurse and the Italian mother. 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.”

It was a decision without compromise. James did an occasional performance overseas, in the Philippines and Japan, but she didn’t go through a series of false starts and stops in America.

Indeed, she left the pop scene so swiftly and fully that she became a sort of Garbo of pop. Several fans at Saturday’s show assumed that she had died.

“I guess I have been Garbo-ish in my way,” the bubbly singer, who’ll be 65 this week, said in an apartment near the North Hollywood theater. “I am very private by nature. I did my singing, but it was behind the garden walls of our house on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills.”

James is the first to tell you that she’s not a great singer, technically. But there’s a quality in her voice--a longing and a warmth--that made her records endearing in a sort of every-girl way. It was that quality that made her a star at 21 when her first MGM Records single, “Why Don’t You Believe Me,” went to No. 1 in 1952, triggering a series of double-sided hits that also included a version of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Not bad for someone who wanted to be a dancer.

During her late teens, James (whose real name is Giovanna Carmella Babbo) sang at clubs in the Chicago area to raise money to go to New York to study ballet. She even mixed dancing and singing in some early shows, but found audiences responded far more to her singing than her dancing.

One of the factors that contributed to her convincing vocal style, she believes, was a certain insecurity as a singer.

“Singing was something we grew up with,” she says. “I’m Italian. Italians breathe and Italians sing. There was always music around the house, but when I thought of real singers, I thought of Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday and Doris Day and Hank Williams. I was just little Joni.

“I think what people heard in those records was my heart. I always felt I had to work hard to be good enough. I had to tell the story and pour everything into a song . . . my heart, my soul, my guts.”

James’ husband died in 1986, but it has taken until now for her to think seriously of resuming her career on even a limited basis. In a shrewd business move years ago, Acquaviva purchased from MGM the rights to all 41 of James’ albums and she has spent months getting the records ready for the CD format. A few CDs have already been released by small labels, but she is now thinking about a box set on a major label. She also is planning to record a new album.

At the Academy Plaza for the first of three sold-out weekend shows, James performed her biggest hits with a 13-piece orchestra. She seemed a bit uncertain in the early minutes, but there were times her voice reflected that special old quality. The high point was when she took the biggest risk. Backed only by a harp, James stepped away from her list of hits to sing “Danny Boy,” and she infused the song vocally with the emotion and desire that has been stored up all these years.

At the end of the night, she got a standing ovation.

It’ll make a great scene in the film.