An accomplished songwriter and keyboardist known most for his rich and smooth tenor voice -- plus an astonishing howl -- James Ingram spent the majority of his five-decade career alternating between the roles of exceptional journeyman and reluctant star solo recording artist.
Having spent several years performing in gospel and funk groups and supporting the likes of Ray Charles and Leon Haywood, Ingram inched toward fame in 1980, the year he first hit the Billboard R&B chart as a writer (Carl Carlton's "This Feeling's Rated X-Tra") and vocalist (Zingara's "Love's Calling"). These moves immediately preceded a strong alliance with Quincy Jones. A mainstream breakthrough was made in 1981 on Jones' The Dude, for which Ingram fronted "Just Once" and "One Hundred Ways," resulting in his first three (of 14 total) Grammy nominations, as well as his first win, for Best R&B Vocal. Ingram went on to release five solo albums, beginning with the Top Ten R&B hit It's Your Night (1983). He had even greater pop success as a duet partner with the likes of Patti Austin ("Baby, Come to Me"), Michael McDonald (the Grammy-winning "Yah Mo B There"), and Linda Ronstadt ("Somewhere Out There"), and eventually topped the Hot 100 on his own with "I Don't Have the Heart" (1990). Ingram didn't record as frequently during the ensuing decades but collected additional accolades with prominent soundtrack duets beside Dolly Parton and Anita Baker. Before his death in 2019, he wrote a musical with Debbie Allen and released his fifth album, Stand (In the Light) (2008).
As a youngster, Akron, Ohio native James Ingram taught himself to play piano and was part of his church choir. He co-wrote both sides of a 1973 single credited to the Christian All Stars of Akron. By his late teens, he had joined Revelation Funk, a local act who opened for Ohio Players and released a couple obscure singles. The band headed to Los Angeles and appeared in the 1975 blaxploitation film Dolemite, performing a song they contributed to the soundtrack, but they soon returned to the Midwest. Ingram opted to stay put and eked out a career as an L.A.-based session musician, musical director, and songwriter, and established himself through the end of the '70s by working in varying capacities with Ray Charles, Leon Haywood, Cuba Gooding, and High Inergy, among others. In August 1980, he scored his first charting single as a songwriter with Carl Carlton's "This Feeling's Rated X-Tra," written with Haywood.
Ingram was truly showcased as a lead vocalist first with Zingara, a group whose lone and self-titled album was written and produced entirely by Lamont Dozier. Ingram took the lead on the single "Love's Calling," a stirring ballad that entered Billboard's R&B chart the last week of 1980 and eventually reached number 29, despite being released by the miniscule Wheel label. Ingram's breakthrough continued through 1981. Floored by the singer on a demo recording of a Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil ballad titled "Just Once," Quincy Jones got in touch and initiated a lasting association. In March 1981, Jones released The Dude, for which Ingram provided lead vocals on the title track and its biggest singles, "Just Once" (number 17 pop, number 11 R&B) and "One Hundred Ways" (number 14 pop, number 10 R&B). Ingram's performances on both songs were nominated for Grammys. Through the latter hit, Ingram bagged the award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male ("One Hundred Ways"), and despite not having headlined made such an impact that he was also nominated for Best New Artist.
Concurrent and subsequent sessions continued to raise Ingram's stock. Among his work with Quincy Jones was Patti Austin's Every Home Should Have One, a September 1981 release promoted with the Ingram duet "Baby, Come to Me." The single charted in March 1982, scraped the Top 40 of the R&B chart, and with a boost from the soap opera General Hospital re-entered months later, ultimately peaking at number nine on the R&B chart and topping the pop chart. Ingram was also part of the all-star team that made Michael Jackson's Thriller. He co-wrote and performed on "P.Y.T.," the blockbuster LP's penultimate single, released in 1983. The same year, his and Austin's second duet, "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" (recorded for the film Best Friends), hit the R&B Top Ten and concluded It's Your Night, Ingram's debut solo album for Quincy Jones' Warner Bros.-supported Qwest label. The Top Ten R&B LP, released in July 1983, featured "Party Animal" (number 21 R&B) and the Michael McDonald collaboration "Yah Mo B There" (number five pop, number 19 R&B). During the Grammy ceremonies for 1983 and 1984, Ingram was nominated a total of five times, and with "Yah Mo B There" won Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
Brighter spotlight notwithstanding, Ingram didn't forgo commissioned work behind the scenes. Ingram-assisted recordings by George Benson, Nancy Wilson, the Pointer Sisters, Jeffrey Osborne, Kenny Rogers (the number 15 pop hit "What About Me?"), and Steve Winwood, as well as USA for Africa (the chart-topping "We Are the World"), among several others, all occurred by the time Never Felt So Good was racked in July 1986. Ingram's second album went Top 40 R&B and charted two singles but was outshone that year by David Pack's adult contemporary hit "I Just Can't Let Go," featuring Ingram and Michael McDonald, and more significantly by Ingram and Linda Ronstadt's "Somewhere Out There," recorded for the soundtrack of An American Tail. A number two pop hit, it was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and won Song of the Year (awarded to writers Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and James Horner).
Ingram closed out the decade with It's Real, a new jack swing-flavored album that hit number 44 on the R&B chart and featured two big hits among its five charting singles; "It's Real" itself went Top Ten R&B and was followed with "I Don't Have the Heart," a number one pop hit, nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male. Although he had shifted from Qwest to Warner Bros. proper, Ingram was still tight with Quincy Jones, who featured him on "The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)," the biggest single off his Back on the Block album. It topped the R&B chart, went Top 40 pop, and led to yet another Best R&B Performance nomination for the singer.
During the '90s, Ingram released only one under-promoted album, Always You, the source of his last charting solo single, "Someone Like You." Otherwise, Ingram was occupied with an assortment of duets, soundtrack contributions, and other collaborations. He was up for two additional Grammys. The Dolly Parton duet "The Day I Fall in Love," from the family film Beethoven's 2nd, was nominated for the 1994 award for Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television. "When You Love Someone," an Anita Baker duet off the soundtrack of the romantic comedy Forget Paris, was among the nominees for the 1995 award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
The following decade, Ingram and Debbie Allen worked together on the musical Brothers of the Knight, a recording of which was issued independently in 2001. The same year, Ingram was featured on house production duo Masters at Work's "Lean on Me" (an original) with background vocals from Patti Austin and Jocelyn Brown. Ingram seven years later independently released a gospel-leaning mix of classic and new material entitled Stand (In the Light), with Debbie Allen, Leon Ware, Hubert Laws, and Ohio Players/Funkadelic veteran Junie Morrison among the guests. Ingram continued to perform occasionally into the 2010s, and died from brain cancer on January 29, 2019. ~ Andy Kellman, Rovi