Forever No. 1 is a new Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late James Ingram with a dive into his first Hot 100-topper, the slow-and-low Patti Austin duet “Baby Come to Me.”
James Ingram sounds like the ’80s.
The Akron, Ohio-born singer and songwriter, who passed away Tuesday (Jan. 29) at the age of 66, came from the Quincy Jones school of music, and made his debut on the master’s solo album, The Dude, in 1981. A showcase of quiet storm R&B for Jones’s label, Qwest, the record featured jazz vocalist (and former in-demand commercial jingles performer) Patti Austin and Ingram, who sang the tender Grammy-winning jam “One Hundred Ways” and the potent ballad “Just Once.”
Inviting and soothing, Ingram’s tenor was an ideal match for the sleek R&B of his heyday, as exemplified by artists like Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, as well as producers like Kashif and, of course, Jones himself. To deliver a line like “If it’s violins she loves, let them play” without the track melting into liquid cheese, you need a supple but strong voice. Ingram had that: listen to how he rasps the “all” in the first “all night long” in the opening minute of “One Hundred Ways.” That sudden, but not quite inappropriate, roar tells you that this is a man who knows about control — maintaining and relinquishing it both. That’s sexy.
“Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways” charted well, both reaching the top 20 of the Hot 100, but his biggest hit of the decade came as a duet with Austin, then his Qwest labelmate. “Baby, Come to Me,” written by Quincy’s right-hand man Rod Temperton, is slow-burning bedroom music. White candles, satin sheets, a pinky ring twisted off before things get serious — you get the picture from the opening guitar line and a little crystalline keyboard action lower in the mix.
Austin strolls in first with a wistful verse about realizing you have to hold on to love when you’ve found it, and then Ingram joins her for the chorus. The drums pick up while their voices intertwine, enacting the scene they’re describing: “Let me put my arms around you, this was meant to be.” You don’t want those voices to unbraid: “Baby always stay, ’cause I can’t go back to livin’ without you.” During his own verse, Ingram leans hard into the first syllable of “spendin’ every dime,” letting you know just how much he’s straining his pockets to keep her “talkin’ on the line.” There’s a real brawniness to his vocals that is only hinted at on The Dude — Austin’s bringing it out of him.
The duet appeared on Austin’s Qwest debut, Every Home Should Have One, released the same year as The Dude. After a middling single performance upon its original release in 1982 — it peaked at No. 73 that April — ”Baby, Come to Me” started climbing the charts in earnest later in the year, once it found its true home: as a love theme on General Hospital, the most widely watched soap in the ‘80s. Luke Spencer, one of the most adored characters in the history of daytime TV, was briefly separated from his true love, Laura Webber, and during this vacancy of the heart, he encountered a new character, Holly Sutton. There’s likely some crucial context missing here, but this is a clip — also embedded below — of Luke wincing his way through the woods, his leg in a brace, to the mellow sounds of “Baby, Come to Me.” As you can see, he’s intrigued by the scent left on a handkerchief he discovers while resting against a tree — a handkerchief that Holly has just used to wipe sweat and canteen water from her lips. (Later, they meet for real, while Holly is skinny-dipping. Instant fireworks.)
As Fred Bronson reports in The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, soon after the song began airing on the show, phones at ABC lit up and the letters came in asking for more information about this beguiling number. (It wasn’t a unique occurence: Herb Alpert’s “Rise” instrumental climbed to No. 1 in 1979 after being gassed up by a General Hospital sync.) As it turned out, Jill Phelps, who was the music director for the soap, had a daughter who attended the same school as the daughter of Howard Rosen, who did PR at Warner Brothers. This connection alerted Rosen to the unexpected opportunity and in October 1982 he arranged for the re-release of “Baby, Come to Me,” complete with new single catalogue number. Eighteen weeks later the song bumped “Africa” by Toto out of the No. 1 spot to top the Hot 100 on the chart dated for the week of February 19, 1983.
Quincy Jones’s love for Ingram and Ingram’s broad compatibility as a duet partner led to a series of high-water marks throughout his career. In 1982, he co-wrote Michael Jackson’s smash “P.Y.T.” with Jones. (Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was the song that deposed “Baby, Come to Me” after its two weeks at No. 1.) Three years later, he won his second Grammy for “Yah Mo B There,” a spirited collaboration with one of the kings of blue-eyed soul, Michael McDonald. In 1987, he came one spot away from topping the Hot 100 a second time when he and Linda Ronstadt got to No. 2 with “Somewhere Out There,” from the animated An American Tail. And “The Day I Fall in Love,” his Dolly Parton teamup from family comedy Beethoven’s 2nd, earned Ingram his first Oscar nomination for best original song in 1994.
Play Ingram’s biggest hits today and there’s no question when they came from. The electric piano sounds like pink neon and Ingram’s voice, his phrasing precise and vivid, is lacquered to a high sheen. In 1999, Ingram reached a generation of hip-hop heads thanks to MF DOOM’s jubilantly clever underground classic “Rhymes Like Dimes,” which flips “One Hundred Ways” and even leaves a bit of Ingram’s vocals for the outro. DOOM hopscotches from reference to reference, at one point landing on a line that feels especially poignant now: “When it’s his time, I hope his soul go to heaven.” Now, we’re all like the lovers in “Baby, Come to Me”, wondering how to go back living without Ingram.