Famed R&B singer and songwriter James Ingram has died. He was 66. Ingram scored eight Top 40 hits, won two Grammys, and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Song. He also collaborated with a host of musical legends, including singers Linda Ronstadt, Patti Austin, Michael McDonald, and Donna Summer.
Great artists always make it look easy, but Ingram’s career—like his singing—seemed effortless. Growing up in Ohio during the early 1960s, he learned piano by watching his brother Henry play. “When he’d get up from the piano,” Ingram told the Chicago Tribune, “[I’d] sit down and start banging. And when I got older, I started banging better and better.” As a teenager, he joined the choir of his father’s church “to keep my mother from pinching me when I was talking,” but never sang solo.
Wen Ingram moved to Los Angeles with his band Revelation Funk in the 1970s, he stayed there after his bandmates moved back home. Soon he was playing session piano and singing background vocals for Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. He also wrote and recorded demos for $50 a song in a studio on Sunset Boulevard. One of those tunes, “Just Once,” caught the ear of famed producer Quincy Jones.
“I hung up on Quincy,” Ingram remembered of their first phone call. “I was never no singer. I never shopped a deal, none of that. My wife said, ‘James, that was Quincy.’ He called back, and we started talking.” Jones put Ingram’s “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways” on his 1980 album The Dude. For the latter, Ingram won the Grammy for Best New Artist.
Even at this early stage of his career, Ingram’s voice was fully formed. He sang with a quiet authority and communicated powerful emotions with restraint. His falsetto was clean and slightly feral. Although clearly from the church, Ingram was primed for crossover fame, at a time when black artists were being marketed to a white audience. He was smooth but always soulful.
Jones was producing a new Michael Jackson album and asked Ingram to contribute a song. “P.Y.T.” hit the mark and appeared on 1982’s monster-selling Thriller. Ingram attended the recording session.
“Michael was dancing while he was singing,” Ingram recalled. “I’m not talking about just moving a little bit, he came out and he was sweating.” Jackson asked Ingram if he was singing it right. “Man, you’re killing it,” Ingram replied. To date, Thriller has sold an estimated 66 million copies. “It’s almost like I got the chance to go to Oz and Quincy was the Wizard of Oz and Michael Jackson was who he was dealing with in his world,” Ingram said of the experience.
Jones mourned Ingram’s death, saying, “There are no words to convey how much my heart aches with the news of the passing of my baby brother James Ingram. With that soulful, whisky-sounding voice, James Ingram was simply magical.”
Beginning in the ’80s, Ingram embarked on a series of successful collaborations. “Baby, Come to Me,” his 1982 duet with singer Patti Austin, reached No. 1. He teamed up with the Doobie Brothers’ blue-eyed frontman Michael McDonald for 1983s “Yah Mo B There”—Ingram’s keening falsetto in that song’s opening bars is absolutely haunting. He collaborated with Linda Ronstadt on the hit “Somewhere Out There” (another Grammy winner), and paired beautifully with jazz singer Anita Baker on “When You Love Someone.” He even sang with Dolly Parton, because he could. And it worked.
Ingram also struck gold in popular film soundtracks from the ’80s, contributing songs to An American Tail, The Color Purple, and City Slickers, among others. His contributions to Beethoven’s 2nd and Junior each earned Academy Award nominations.
The production values of these tracks is dated, to be sure; there’s a kind of easy listening blandness to the thin-sounding drums and brittle keyboards that hasn’t aged particularly well. However, the melodies that Ingram wrote, and the emotional directness with which he sang them, still sound as fresh and intimate.
Ingram scored his own No. 1 with “I Don’t Have the Heart” in 1990, the end of more than a decade of extraordinary achievement. His recorded output slowed considerably after that, culminating in 2008s gospel album Stand (In the Light).
Ingram’s crossover ability, though, brought its own kind of limitations. “It’s frustrating at times when I release a record and they tell me it’s not black enough for some radio stations,” he said in 1982. “It’s like telling the black audience they’re not important, like I’m not interested in them.”
Tellingly, musician Questlove remembered Ingram for his blackness, crediting his career with setting the stage for Dr. Dre’s rap album The Chronic. “It’s a GIFT,” Questlove wrote, “to navigate a thin line of EXPLICIT blackness..and still occupy a space that the Pendergrass and Marvin Junior’s of the world never got to enjoy…as we dwell further into auto tune abyss his brand…of sho nuffness will be missed DESPERATELY.”
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.