And so it would go for the majority of Ingram's career. He did score two top 50 Hot 100 hits off his 1983 debut album It's Your Night, but as duets with Austin and soft-rock superstar Michael McDonald, respectively. Future hit collabs would come alongside Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes (1984's "What About Me"), Linda Ronstadt (1986's "Somewhere Out There") and Jones again (1990's "The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)") -- but on his lonesome, Ingram managed just one Hot 100 hit for the entire 1980s, the No. 58-peaking "There's No Easy Way" in 1984. Consequently, the singer never enjoyed album sales commensurate with his crossover stardom: It's Your Night was the only LP of his to make the top half of the Billboard 200 Albums chart, topping out at No. 47, while also being his sole studio set to be certified Gold by the RIAA.
All of this combined to make Ingram's solo showcase "I Don't Have the Heart" one of the most unexpected Hot 100-topping singles of the early '90s. Ingram was hardly at a career high by the time he released third LP It's Real in 1989. The singer may have been riding a certain amount of momentum from "Somewhere Out There," the An Ameican Tail theme which had reached his highest chart peak (No. 2) since "Baby Come to Me," but that was already years in the rearview. And in the meantime, the sound of mainstream R&B had been upended by the future-forward pop-funk of production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and the hard-hitting hip-hop energy of new jack swing maestro Teddy Riley. The latter producer would even appear on It's Real, as an arranger on two tracks on the set's up-tempo A-side -- dubbed the "It's Real Hard" half of the album -- including the title track, which saw Ingram groaning like Johnny Kemp, over a beat conspicuously reminiscent of Kemp's Riley co-produced '88 new jack classic "Just Got Paid."
"It's Real" became a top ten hit on Billboard's R&B chart when released as the album's lead single in 1989, but it never crossed over to the Hot 100: Nor did the set's next two releases, the similarly slamming "I Wanna Come Back" or the gender-flipped Carole King cover "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Man." It wasn't until the fourth single -- after a gentle bump in exposure from his appearance on Jones' "Secret Garden," a top 40 hit alongside soul stars Barry White, Al B. Sure and El DeBarge on which Ingram still stole the show -- that power ballad "I Don't Have the Heart" finally had the chance to soar.
"Heart" was something of an anomaly, both within turn-of-the-'90s R&B and within Ingram's own catalog. Melodically, the single was firmly in his wheelhouse -- a massive showstopper co-written by pop-soul vets Allan Rich and Jud Friedman, it served as a much better vehicle for his robust tenor than any of the set's less-than-convincing new jack workouts. But lyrically, the song was unconventional. Far from a straightforward love ballad or breakup song, "I Don't Have the Heart" serves as a wrenching confession of guilt and shame over not being able to quite get all the way to complete emotional commitment: "I don't have the heart to love you/ Not the way you want me to."
The song goes out of its way to make its let down seem especially painful for its subject, by initially setting them up as the picture of blissful naivete: "Your face is beaming/ You say it's 'cause you're dreaming/ Of how good it's going to be." But unlike some past No. 1 hits featuring an unmoved male singer who can't get both feet out the door fast enough, Ingram appears leveled by the emotional gravity of what he's forcing himself to do: "Inside I'm dying/ To see you crying/ How can I make you understand... I'm trying to say this as gently as I can." It's a torch song by proxy, a stunning expression of empathy. George Costanza might've invented "It's not you, it's me," but no one ever sold it as convincingly as James Ingram.