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 second Hot 100-topper, the emotionally brutal power ballad “I Don’t Have the Heart.”
If there’s one explanation for why the late James Ingram didn’t get the respect he deserved in life for being one of the great soul singers of the ’80s, it’s probably that most of his signature hits… well, they weren’t totally his.
Ingram broke through in 1981 with two top 20 Hot 100 hits rightly seen as classics of their period, “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways” — but both were as a guest vocalist, on tracks that ended up on legendary producer Quincy Jones’ set The Dude. He was nominated for best new artist at the 1982 Grammys, before he’d ever even released a single of his own. Then, his first hit apart from Quincy was 1982’s “Baby, Come to Me,” a duet with Qwest labelmate Patti Austin that rode a General Hospital placement all the way to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in early 1983 — but which ended up being housed on Austin’s Every Home Should Have One album, never appearing on an Ingram LP.
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.
But the song is most surprising in its sound. Rather than try to keep up with the kids as he did by working with the likes of Riley, Gerald Levert (of star R&B trio LeVert) and Gene Griffin (manager of new jack hitmakers Guy) on It’s Real‘s first half, Ingram went the other direction for “Heart” — reaching all the way back to ’70s superproducer Thom Bell, one of the primary sonic architects of Philly soul, via iconic hits for The Spinners, The Stylistics and The Delfonics. But no one would confuse “I Don’t Have the Heart” for a classic release on Philadelphia International: though the heavy strings and full-bodied production of the song require aren’t a world away from Bell’s trademark sound, it’s much chillier with its piercingly plunked keys, and — most notably — much starker with its total lack of percussion. In that sense, Bell might’ve taken a page out of Jam and Lewis’ book, as that duo’s work on Force MDs’ 1986 crossover smash “Tender Love” set the standard for how powerful a piano-led ’80s ballad could still be without any drums behind it.
Well, almost without any drums behind it. “I Don’t Have the Heart” does hedge its bets slightly with a very late full-band entrance and key change, crashing in with just a minute to go in the song. It’s actually a little bit of a bummer when it happens, since it seems to shatter the song’s exquisite fragility and turn it into just another roaring megaballad of the H.W. Bush years. But luckily, Ingram is up to the task of elevating along with the song, matching the ripping guitars with a signature “WHOOOOOOO!!!” falsetto, and going to the next level with his belted ad libs from there, making sure any ounce of shame and longing and sympathy that hadn’t properly gotten across in the song’s first three quarters has been ripped from his chest. It’s still something of an unfortunate distraction, given how the song feels most powerful is at its most delicate, but it’s ultimately a forgivable one.
The importance both of Bell’s production and Ingram’s performance on the song can perhaps be best viewed through another version of the song, released practically concurrently by fellow ’80s R&B star Stacy Lattisaw. Her rendition of the ballad is strong, delivered over a gently percolating beat from LeMel Humes, a regular collaborator of ’80s soul stalwart Miki Howard, and the song probably would’ve sounded perfectly in place on R&B radio at pretty much any point in the ’80s. But it doesn’t transcend the way Ingram’s does: the more composed delivery and conventional sonics lead it to sounding — like the song’s narrator — uncommitted by comparison. It’s not a surprise that of the two versions, Ingram’s was the one that caught the public’s imagination, while Lattisaw’s failed to chart altogether.
Still, it’s surprising that Ingram, an artist who’d never even cracked the top 40 of the Hot 100 without a co-lead before, should reach the Hot 100’s penthouse for the second time with a solo entry — and with a fourth single off an album that would hardly be considered a blockbuster. (The song hit No. 1 before a music video was even filmed for it, possibly reflecting a lack of commercial expectation for the single.) But Ingram did have certain advantages of era: “I Don’t Have the Heart,” which enjoyed its one-week run at No. 1 the week of Oct. 20, 1990, was the 21st of 26 No. 1 hits on the chart in 1990, as there was generally more movement at the top of the listing towards the end of Billboard‘s pre-SoundScan era. (In 1992, the first full year following the institution of SoundScan tracking — which allowed for more accurate reporting on the country’s most popular songs — that number was cut in half to just 13 separate No. 1s.)
It was also a friendly time for R&B balladry at the top of the chart in general, in the period just before grunge, G-funk and dance-pop came to set a more original sonic template for popular music in the 1990s. In the months that proceded “I Don’t Have the Heart” hititng No. 1, Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love,” Sweet Sensation’s “If Wishes Came True” and Maxi Priest’s “Close to You” all spent time on top — and the year would be closed out by the four-week run of Stevie B.’s “Because I Love You (The Postman Song),” another lush, percussion-less slow song. Ingram might not have totally succeeded in modernizing his sound as intended, but perhaps somewhat by accident, he still ended up with the right song at the right time.
Though “Heart” may have provided late-career validation for Ingram, it didn’t revitalize his career with modern audiences: It’s Real‘s fifth and final single, “When Was the Last Time Music Made You Cry,” topped out at No. 83 on the R&B chart, and his next album (1993’s Always Love) failed to crack the Billboard 200. Ingram never scored another Hot 100 hit — though a John Tesh collab from 1998 did scrape the Radio Songs ranking — but he did find success in another lane: as a go-to singer for movie soundtracks. He had minor Adult Contemporary hits throughout the ’90s with singles from City Slickers (“Where Did My Heart Go”), Beethoven’s 2nd (“The Day I Fall in Love”) and Forget Paris (“When You Love Someone”) — even getting nominated for a pair of Oscars in the process. (And yes, two of those songs were with duet partners — “Fall in Love” with Dolly Parton and “Love Someone” with Anita Baker.)
We may remember James Ingram better as a co-star than as a solo sensation, and that’s fine: Even just a compilation of his biggest collabs would be more impressive than a single disc of 90 percent of his peers’ solo greatest hits. But “I Don’t Have the Heart” and the chart success it briefly experienced remains a crucial part of Ingram’s legacy, showing how his voice and musical instincts were strong and bold enough to essentially materialize a memorable chart-topper out of nowhere — and giving him a signature hit that no one could claim as anyone’s but his own.