No one could belt out a love song quite like he could.
James Ingram, the incredible soul and pop balladeer who was born in Akron, Oh, and who graced us with some of the best songs of a generation, died on January 29, 2019, in Los Angeles after a lengthy cancer battle.
He was just 66.
His legacy – forever enhanced by that smooth-as-silk baritone (and sometimes tenor or falsetto) voice – will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of old-school music lovers everywhere for years to come.
We were blessed with Ingram’s versatility for nearly four decades, particularly during a ten-year period beginning when we first dropped the needle on Quincy Jones’ 1981 album The Dude, where James sang lead on two enduring hit ballads: “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways,” both top-20 pop hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
The latter tune won him the first of two Grammys (“Ways” won in 1982 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance). That was later joined by his duet with former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, the song “Yah Mo Be There,” which won in 1985 for Best R&B Performance by Vocal Duo or Group.
The award-winning artist had 13 top-40 R&B singles during his career, and just eight songs that reached the top 40 on the pop chart. But there were some big ones scattered among them.
For instance, his signature duet with Patti Austin – also produced by Quincy Jones – was “Baby Come To Me,” a song that initially gained very little interest and fizzled out quickly when it debuted in early 1982, seemingly peaking on the Hot 100 at No. 73 before falling off the chart entirely.
Then, exposure on the daytime TV soap opera “General Hospital” allowed a much bigger audience to fall in love with the ballad, causing it to re-enter the chart in fall 1982 before slowly climbing all the way to No. 1 for two weeks in February 1983 and selling a million copies in the process. Ironically, “Baby” was knocked out of No. 1 by another Quincy Jones production: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
Ingram’s connection to Jackson and Thriller, however, went beyond the dubious honor of having his first No. 1 single displaced by MJ’s iconic song.
James had shown off his songwriting skills by teaming with Quincy Jones to pen another Grammy-nominated song for Thriller, the penultimate single (and this writer’s recent fave) “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” That dance nugget, on which Ingram also played keyboard and sang backing vocals (along with Janet and LaToya Jackson plus Howard Hewitt), was the sixth of seven top-10 hits from Thriller and earned James a songwriting Grammy nomination for Best R&B Song. He would also lose in that category to… who else?… Michael Jackson (who won for “Billie Jean”).
“Billie Jean” had proven to be Ingram’s Achilles heel (twice), but the talented singer/songwriter was clearly on a roll as he was beginning to emerge from the shadows of being Quincy Jones’ protege to becoming an artist in his own right.
The rising star had collaborated again with Patti Austin on another ballad, “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?,” which didn’t fare as well as their earlier hit, but made it abundantly clear on which side his bread was being buttered: the collaboration side.
Big name artists began seeking out Ingram for duets, trios, quartets or even more. He had the Grammy-winning Michael McDonald collabo (“Yah Mo Be There” had also been co-written by Ingram), plus he was part of a threesome with country superstar Kenny Rogers and “Bette Davis Eyes” singer Kim Carnes on “What About Me?” Both “Yah” and “What” were top-20 pop hits in 1984.
He was tapped by Quincy Jones in 1985 to contribute to the mammoth charity hit “We Are The World” by USA for Africa, where he was one of only a handful of artists that had multiple lead vocal parts. In addition to his line in the first verse, Ingram alternated lead vocals with the late Ray Charles (at the 6:12 mark in the video below) during one of the final choruses and even crooned one of his distinctive falsetto “whooo-oooo’s” (but not the MJ variety) towards the song’s end.
In 1986, he teamed with Linda Ronstadt on “Somewhere Out There,” the smash ballad from the animated motion picture An American Tale. The song would end up being Ingram’s third-biggest pop hit overall, peaking at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in March 1987.
In 1990, he was part of the only set of four solo male singers to ever team up on a No. 1 soul single, along with Barry White, El DeBarge and Al B. Sure. The quartet sang on Quincy Jones’ “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)” from Q’s Back On The Block album. Ironically, “Secret Garden,” became Ingram’s last song ever to reach the soul chart’s top 40.
Later that year, the same kind of fate befell Ingram regarding his last No. 1 song on the pop chart. Except, this time it was a solo effort and not one of his many collaborations that topped the Hot 100.
The ballad “I Don’t Have The Heart” became Ingram’s first solo top-40 pop hit – after nearly ten years of charting as either a featured act on Quincy Jones’ songs or as part of duets and trios with other artists.
The tune – co-produced by Ingram and legendary Philadelphia producer Thom Bell – failed to reach the soul top 40, but hit No. 1 on the pop chart and earned James one of two Grammy nominations that year (along with “Secret Garden”). He would lose in both cases.
“I Don’t Have The Heart” also provided a bit of deja vu for Ingram. The ballad was displaced from the top by another song from a Jackson, just as “Baby, Come To Me” had been seven years earlier.
But this time it was Janet, not Michael, who duped James. Her “Black Cat” knocked Ingram’s “Heart” out of No. 1 in October 1990, sending his ballad on a downward course that would mark his last top-40 pop chart appearance.
Although his chart fortunes had ended, Ingram continued recording throughout the 1990s and beyond, contributing to albums by Anita Baker, the late Nancy Wilson and even the German hard rock group Scorpions. He also re-teamed with familiar partners Kenny Rogers, Michael McDonald and, of course, Patti Austin.
He continued displaying his versatility by recording pop songs – taking on classics like Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which he retitled “A Natural Man” for his album It’s Real.
He also continued contributing songs to movie soundtracks, securing Best Original Song Academy Award nominations in two consecutive years for “The Day I Fell In Love” (1994) from the movie Beethoven’s 2nd, and “Look What Love Has Done” (1995) from Junior. He would lose both of those.
Ingram’s last studio album, 2008’s Stand (In The Light) was a mixture of R&B and gospel and contained spirit-filled gems like “Blessed Assurance,” a remake of George Benson’s “Everything Must Change” and a remake of his own “Yah Mo Be There,” the old tune he did with Michael McDonald some 35 years earlier.
Indeed, James Ingram left an indelible mark on music from many genres and eras and will surely be missed.
As a tribute, here is a special djrobblog playlist containing many of those great songs that were either sung, contributed to, featuring or written by the late James Ingram.
Rest well, Sir.