Yesterday, January 29, 2019, we lost James Ingram. And to think, we almost didn’t have him to begin with. Before he became a chart-topping household name in the 1980s, Ingram was a keyboard player with Ray Charles’ road band, while his brother Philip was singing up a storm in the Motown band Switch. Singing on demo tracks to score extra cash, one of those tapes found their way to the hands of Quincy Jones. When Q called him to appear on the song for his album, Ingram thought it was to play keyboards. That song was “Just Once,” and before he could blink, he got him his first Grammy Award in 1982. Yes, Jones had to convince Ingram that his voice was special. As he wrote in an excerpt in the book “Q on Producing,” Ingram felt his voice has too husky, and not in tune with the times, as R&B was becoming more sophisticated and slick. Well, the public agreed with the legendary producer, as did critics.
James Ingram, who was born in Akron, Ohio, on February 16, 1952, had something that few people possess in the music industry today: a distinct voice. When you think about him, you can hear it in your head without turning the music on. Songs like “Just Once,” the Grammy-winning “One Hundred Ways,” and Billboard 100 number one “I Don’t Have the Heart” showcased that manly, yet sensitive baritone that could make grown men cry and women blush. He achieved his greatest commercial success when he paired his undeniable voice with other colossal singers, leading to some truly special moments. Moments like his 1981 smash duets with Patti Austin, “Baby Come to Me” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” Grammy-winning moments like the number one “Ya Mo Be There” with Michael McDonald in 1985. Oscar worthy moments like his 1987 Academy Award winning duet “Somewhere Out There” with Linda Rondstadt from An American Tail or 1993 Oscar nominee “The Day I Fell in Love” featuring Dolly Parton from Beethoven’s 2nd. Classic moments like Jones’ “The Secret Garden,” crooning among El DeBarge, Al B. Sure!, and Barry White.
Suffice it to say, and this may be blasphemous, but it could be argued that James Ingram of the 1980s wouldn’t get a record deal in today’s climate. It’s not an accident that we don’t tend to hear “mature” male voices on today’s radio and streaming playlists. Over the years, it’s gotten harder and harder for artists like James to, number one, be marketed, and number two, be given adequate material to match their vocals that would still make a commercial impact. Despite the powerful raspy baritone that became his trademark, Ingram proved over two decades that he was deceptively versatile as a vocalist. Sure in it’s rawest form, he could overpower anyone on the charts. Just listen to “We Are The World.” On the biggest selling single in American history, Ingram, a man less than four years from his first hit, stood head and shoulders with titans like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and held his own as a soloist.
He had hits on Pop, R&B and Adult Contemporary platforms, and that doesn’t even include the songs he wrote for others, like undisputed Jackson Grammy-nominated jam, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” or his other Oscar nominated song for Patti Smyth, “Look What Love Has Done” from Junior in 1994. He even sang with famed music scorer John Williams and the Boston Pops on the title track of their 1985 album America (The Dream Goes On). In 2019, artists are boxed in more than ever before, and perhaps some record exec might have looked at James Ingram and scratched their heads trying to figure out what to do with him. Well, we were fortunate to have him when we did, otherwise, we might not have ever gotten to know that voice.
Goodbye James Ingram. Thank you for leaving the world better than how you found it.
Check out this playlist of some of James Ingram’s greatest hits:
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.