Giovana Carmella Babbo a/k/a Joni James was a top selling, popular recording artist in the 1950's and
1960's. Born September 22, 1930, Joni was the oldest of four children born to an Italian immigrant father,
Angelo Babbo, and Mary Tareso, a first generation Italian-American. Joni was not yet five years old when
her father died of cancer at the age of 36, leaving his wife five months pregnant. It was during the Great
Depression and times were very hard for Mary and her four children. James recalled, "She would cry a lot"
and make games out of poverty to make life less grim for her children. James attended St. Peter and St.
Paul Elementary School where she sang in the school choir at daily mass, vocalized Gregorian chants, and
realized she was poor when the nuns would ask for money to pay for books and she had none. The family
spoke Italian in their home and as a child, James began to learn Italian folk songs. During the summertime
the facilities at a nearby public park were used to provide free dance lessons to children. The lessons
stimulated James' passion to become a dancer.
At Bowen, Joni sang in the school choir, became feature editor of the Bowen Arrow, and packed cookies at a local bakery for eight
dollars a week. Half of the money went toward ballet lessons and the other half to helping her family. Her name was misspelled in the
school paper so she changed it to "Joni." She was offered a scholarship to study journalism at Northern Illinois Teachers College (now
NIU), but turned it down to study dance. Joni was active in the Civic Opera Ballet in Chicago and joined a local dance group on a tour of
Canada. She then took a job as a chorus girl at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. She decided to pursue a singing career when her
dancing was curtailed by appendicitis and she agreed to fill a singing engagement for a friend who was honeymooning . Some
executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) spotted her in a television commercial for Zenith, and she 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 hits following that one, including "Your Cheatin'
Heart" (a cover of Hank Williams' hit) and "Have You Heard?"
Joni James had seven Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. "Why Don't You Believe Me?" (#1 in 1952) "Have You Heard?" (#4 in
1953) "Your Cheatin' Heart" (#2 in 1953) "Almost Always" (#9 in 1953) "My Love, My Love" (#8 in 1953) "How Important Can It Be?" (#2 in
1955) and "You Are My Love" (#6 in 1955) as well as sixteen other Top 40 hits from 1952 to 1961. She has sold more than 100 million
Joni came back to Bowen in March 1953 where she was welcomed by Principal William P. Hearne and a large banner. She performed a
gift concert for the Junior and Senior classes, and as part of the program, Joni took her old place in the Mixed Chorus.