Last September, artists and musicians of note across genres and decades gathered in L.A.’s Microsoft Theater to pay tribute to Quincy Jones for his 85th birthday TV special.
I was chatting with a show producer during dress rehearsal, when the house band began playing the opening notes of “One Hundred Ways.” I turned to the stage, “Is James Ingram here?” I couldn’t recall seeing the soul singer, who scored one of his first career hits with his appearance on Jones’ 1981 ballad, on awards shows or in tributes with his peers in years. The producer’s face turned down, her voice dropped to the whisper one uses to deliver solemn news. “No. He’s not well.” Now, the world knows Ingram had been battling brain cancer, and finally succumbed on January 29th, at the age of 66.
James Ingram’s name doesn’t come up often in current music discussions. He didn’t have the vast catalogue and longevity of Luther Vandross, or the skyrocketing pop success of Lionel Richie. He and a few other contemporaries who spent time at the top of Billboard’s R&B and Hot 100 charts in the ‘80s and early ‘90s – Jeffrey Osborne, Billy Ocean, Peabo Bryson – now live on Quiet Storm and Easy Listening radio, and in ‘80s LP collections. But during Ingram’s run of just over a decade, spanning from 1981 to 1994, he knocked it out of the park consistently.
His ratio of cultural impact to overall output is phenomenal. In addition to 14 career Grammy nominations, two Grammy wins, consecutive best original song Oscar nominations, and multiple top 40 hits, Ingram penned one of the biggest hits for one of the biggest pop stars in history, soundtracked one of the major love stories in daytime soaps, proved Disney didn’t have the market locked for animated theme songs-turned-pop hits and contributed to several of mentor Quincy Jones’ most iconic productions. Casual music fans and younger audiences who may not have known Ingram by name have likely started to realize they were, in fact, familiar with his smooth baritone and his work.
Jones discovered Ingram through the demo for “Just Once,” and immediately got him to his studio. He proceeded to style Ingram’s Pentecostal church-bred voice with just enough restraint to be pop friendly, without removing the depth and soul that made it powerful. Nelson George wrote of Ingram in his book Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson, “[He] sonically would have been right at home wailing on a Stax single backed by Booker T. and the MGs. But this [was] the ‘80s, a time when crossover to white audiences drove most creative decisions for black singers.” The controlled-but-emotive sound Jones and Ingram developed positioned Ingram to become one of the foremost balladeers of the era.
The Dude was Jones’ first collaborative opus, and Ingram was the breakout star, featured as lead vocalist on two of three album singles. “Just Once,” and “One Hundred Ways” both cracked the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “One Hundred Ways” earned Ingram a Grammy nomination for best new artist and win for best R&B vocal performance.
Ingram was not only signed to Jones as a singer, but also to his publishing company as a songwriter. Before he started work on his first solo project, Jones asked him to rework a song idea Michael Jackson had for the Thriller album. The final product was “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” a lighter and more playful song than Ingram ever cut for himself — in Thriller, George also speculates that it would have been a much sexier song had Ingram recorded it. In writing “P.Y.T.,” Ingram coined the term “tenderoni,” the foundation for one of Bobby Brown’s biggest hits several years later.
In 1983, Ingram’s duet with Patti Austin, “Baby Come to Me,” became the love theme for soap opera General Hospital’s leading man Luke and his love interest Holly. The song originally stalled on the Hot 100 at No. 73 upon release in 1982, but General Hospital’s use spurred a reissue, driving the single to No. 1 in early 1983. It stayed on the charts for seven months, and by my memory was included in every love songs album compilation commercial for the rest of the decade. (Another Ingram and Austin duet, “How Can You Keep the Music Playing” was the theme song for Luke and Holly’s later divorce.)
Following that, Ingram was the duet king. He and Michael McDonald confused but delighted listeners with the slightly coded, Grammy-winning “Yah Mo B There” (for those still wondering, it’s shorthand for Yahweh — God — will be there). McDonald has kept the song in his greatest hits repertoire as a solo performer, contributing to a running bit in the movie 40 Year Old Virgin, in which Paul Rudd’s character is worn down by a continuous loop of McDonald’s live DVD until he threatens, “If I have to hear ‘Yah Mo B There’ one more time, I’m gonna yah mo burn this place to the ground.”
As part of Jones’ stable, Ingram was also among the hitmakers and A-listers who came together as USA for Africa and the most ubiquitous and inescapable song of 1985, “We Are the World.” Appropriately, Ingram closed the anthem along with Ray Charles; he began his career singing background for the soul legend.
A couple of years later, Ingram continued his duet streak with Linda Ronstadt and a song about a lost Russian mouse in a strange country gazing at the stars and missing his family. “Somewhere Out There,” the theme from Amblin Entertainment’s An American Tail, was a pop smash and a critical darling, garnering an Academy Award nomination and two Grammy wins in 1988, including song of the year. The movie and the theme song gave Disney a run for their money; at the time, American Tail was the highest grossing non-Disney animated feature, and “Somewhere Out There” was one of the most commercially successful songs from an animated film. There’s still a great number of GenX’ers and Xennials who will need to borrow a tissue while hearing Ingram sing about sleeping underneath the same big sky as a distant loved one.
I became an Ingram fan with one of his last career hits. Quincy Jones’ “Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)” from 1989’s Back on the Block was and remains an R&B Quiet Storm masterpiece. As part of the new-school to old-school mix of male vocalists that included Al B. Sure, El DeBarge and Barry White, Ingram’s voice was like velvet over the track, and his trademark “whooo hooo” was sing-in-the-mirror perfection (I was 14). The song was No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart (then called the Black Singles Chart), a mainstay on slow jam mixtapes, and contributed to an album of the year win for Jones in 1990.
That same year, Ingram landed his first and only solo Hot 100 No. 1 (and last career No. 1) with the let-her-down-easy power ballad “I Don’t Have the Heart,” released his final album (Always You) on Jones’ Qwest label in 1993, and scored back-to-back Academy Award Nominations for best original song in 1994 and 1995. He released a final studio album which returned to his church and gospel roots, Stand (In the Light), in 2008.
Ingram’s brand of R&B/Pop crossover vocal styling fell out of vogue in mainstream music by the mid-’00s. John Legend, who performed “One Hundred Ways” in Ingram’s stead for the Jones tribute, is maybe the last true balladeer who remains relevant outside of an urban adult audience. The church-trained soul vocal, able to convey every emotion from adoration to anguish and adept at using instrumentation as canvas, has given way to auto-tuned singing in a somewhat more limited range of voice and subject. The smooth and easy love songs of Ingram’s era are mostly overlooked for sampling and licensing in favor of funkier, uptempo boogie music, or the grittier preceding soul of the ‘70s and ‘60s. As such, the voices that provided the sound bed for much of the ‘80s have faded.
But when revisited, the material feels like examining hand-worked craftsmanship after living with prefab. Ingram may be part of a bygone time in music, but his career whole was greater than the sum of its parts, impacting and reaching beyond his direct fanbase into broader culture, as tributes across social media since his death have illustrated. For that, and for his raw talent and respect amongst artists as a singer’s singer, he deserves to finally be acknowledged among the soul and R&B greats.