Remembering Late Singer James Ingram

By Terrance Turner

During the “In Memoriam” section of the Grammy Awards, the first face pictured was of R&B singer James Ingram, who died on Jan. 29. Ingram, who was 66, had a long history of Grammy recognition. Over the course of his five-decade career, Ingram racked up 14 nominations — and two wins.

Born on Feb. 16, 1952 in Akron, Ohio, Ingram came from a musical family. His father, Henry, was a church deacon and his mother, Alistine — along their six children — took part in the church services. Ingram’s younger brother, Phillip, later became a founding member of the R&B group Switch. In addition to singing in the church choir, Ingram taught himself how to play the piano. He initially wanted an organ but his parents couldn’t afford one. So, the 14-year-old James joined a local nightclub band that played instrumental pop and jazz covers.

At 18, he joined the Akron band Revelation Funk. They became an opening act for the Ohio Players and moved to L.A in 1973 in search of bigger success. They recorded “Time Is on Our Side” for the blaxploitation film Dolemite (1975), however, the band could not make ends meet and returned to Ohio. Ingram stayed in L.A, playing keyboard and sang background vocals for Ray Charles. According to the Guardian, he also recorded demo tapes at $50 per song.

One of those demo tapes changed everything. Legendary music producer Quincy Jones heard Ingram’s demo of “Just Once”, by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Jones was struck by Ingram’s smooth, soulful baritone and called Ingram, hiring him to sing on Jones’ 1981 album The Dude. In addition to “Just Once”, Ingram sang “One Hundred Ways”, which won him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

In 1982, Ingram and Jones co-wrote “P.Y.T”, a top 10 hit written for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Ingram recalled the experience to Jet magazine in 1997:“It’s almost like I got the chance to go to Oz and Quincy Jones was the Wizard of Oz and Michael Jackson was who he was dealing with,” Ingram said, “Their work ethic is unbelievable.”

(Left) James Ingram, (Middle) Quincy Jones, (Right)Michael McDonald

That year, Ingram recorded “Baby, Come to Me”, a duet with Patti Austin. After being featured on the TV soap opera “General Hospital”, the song soared up the charts. It hit #1 on the Hot 100 in Feb. 1983. By the summer, Ingram had released his debut album, It’s Your Night.

In 1984, Ingram received three Grammy nominations, including Best R&B Song (for “PYT”) and Best R&B Male Vocal Performance (for “Party Animal”). Ingram was also nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance with Vocals for “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”, another duet with Austin. In 1985, he was again triple nominated. It’s Your Night landed him a nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. “Yah Mo B There”, an atypically titled duet with singer Michael McDonald, was nominated for R&B Song and won Best R&B Duo/Group Performance (the title refers to the religious figures Yahweh and Mohammed). McDonald and Ingram co-wrote the song; Quincy Jones produced it.

Ingram’s 1987 duet with Linda Ronstadt (“Somewhere Out There”) won the Grammy for Song of the Year. (Ingram and Ronstadt were themselves nominated for pop/duo group performance.) The song, from the animated film An American Tail, made it to #2 on the Hot 100.

In 1990, a ballad titled “I Don’t Have the Heart” made it to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. It would be Ingram’s only number one single as a solo artist. He co-wrote “The Day I Fall in Love” for the movie Beethoven’s 2nd (1993) and “Look What Love Has Done” for Junior (1994). Both songs earned him back-to-back nominations for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Fifteen years passed between the release of Ingram’s fourth album, Always You (1993) and his 2008 gospel album Stand (In the Light). During the 90s, he contributed to the soundtracks for children’s films, according to the Guardian. In later years, he worked on international tours.

Ingram reportedly died from brain cancer. He is survived by his wife Debbie, who he married in 1975, and six children. Quincy Jones paid tribute to Ingram in a statement to Billboard: “With that soulful, whiskey-sounding voice, James Ingram was simply magical… James was a beautiful human being, with a heart the size of the moon.”