James Ingram: Grammy-winning R&B singer whose talent was harnessed by Quincy Jones
James Ingram was the popular American R&B singer of the 1980s and early 1990s and a master of duets with other top artists – according to Billboard, sales of his songs have skyrocketed 6,500 per cent since his death two weeks ago.
Known for his soulful baritone voice and his smooth collaborations with such performers as Patti Austin, Linda Ronstadt and Michael McDonald, Ingram became a singer almost by accident.
A versatile musician who played keyboard instruments, guitar and drums, he was a member of R&B star Ray Charles’s band in the 1970s. To make ends meet Ingram recorded demo tapes for $50 apiece.
One of those tapes, of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “Just Once”, reached music producer Quincy Jones, who called Ingram to invite him to make a commercial recording of the song. Ingram thought someone was playing a joke on him.
“My wife said, ‘It’s Quincy Jones’,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992. “Girl, stop playing,” he said.
Ingram later said he hung up the phone, but Jones called him back.
“When Ingram came to me,” Jones recalled in 1990, “he said, ‘I can’t sing. I’m a piano player.’ I said, ‘Yes, you can.’ I love his voice. It’s original, soulful with strong conviction.”
Lacking confidence in his singing, Ingram, who has died aged 66, kept stopping mid-song in the recording studio.
“Quincy said, ‘What’re you doing?’” Ingram told the Sun-Times. “I said, ‘I’m trying to smooth that gruff out of my voice. I’m trying to smooth it out.’ He said, ‘That gruff in your voice, that’s why you’re in here. That’s your sound.’ When he said that, a light went on in my head.”
Ingram performed several songs on Jones’s 1981 album The Dude, including “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways,” which became his first hits. Before he had released an album under his own name, Ingram won a Grammy for best R&B male vocal for “One Hundred Ways”.
His debut album, It’s Your Night, appeared in 1983, with Jones as producer, and included a duet with McDonald, who had recently left the Doobie Brothers. Their spirited performance brought Ingram his second Grammy, for best R&B performance by a duo or group.
Ingram had another successful collaboration with Austin, “Baby, Come to Me”, which reached only No 73 when it was first released in April 1982. After the song was picked up as a theme for soap opera General Hospital, it re-entered the pop charts and hit No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in December 1982. It sold more than 9 million copies.
The singers’ duet of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” – written by Michel Legrand, who also died recently, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman – was featured in the 1982 film Best Friends, starring Goldie Hawn and Burt Reynolds, and was nominated for an Oscar for best original song.
In 1986, Ingram recorded plaintive ballad “Somewhere Out There” with Ronstadt for Steven Spielberg’s animated film An American Tail. The song, with music by James Horner and lyrics by Mann and Weil, received an Oscar nomination for best original song. It reached No 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won the Grammy Award for song of the year.
Two other songs he sang in films, “The Day I Fall in Love” with Dolly Parton in the 1993 film Beethoven’s 2nd, and “Look What Love Has Done” with Anita Baker from Junior in 1994, were also nominated for best original song.
Ingram topped the charts as a solo artist for the only time in 1990 with “I Don’t Have the Heart,” by Allan Rich and Jud Friedman, from his album It’s Real.
Among Ingram’s best-known songs was one he did not perform himself. In 1982, he teamed with Jones to write “PYT (Pretty Young Thing)”, which appeared on Michael Jackson’s blockbuster album Thriller.
“Michael Jackson was in the studio singing, and he was dancing at the same time while he was singing,” Ingram told NPR after Jackson’s death in 2009. “Michael came out of the studio sweating. He said, ‘James, am I singing all right?’ I said, ‘Man, you killed it. You can sing however you want to sing it’.”
James Edward Ingram was born in Akron, Ohio. His father was a church deacon, and the entire family took part in musical and elements of the church services.
A self-taught musician, Ingram began performing in local groups in his teens before moving to Los Angeles in 1973.
He played keyboards for several groups and toured as a backup musician with Charles, Donna Summer, Grover Washington Jr and the Pointer Sisters.
After his career stalled in the 1990s, Ingram released a gospel album in 2009. He co-wrote the Grammy-nominated Good Life, performed by Kanye West and T-Pain in 2007.
He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Debra Robinson, and six children.
Ingram’s projects with Jones included work on the film The Color Purple and singing, along with dozens of other stars, on the 1985 single “We Are the World” which raised more than $100m for charity.
“For Quincy to allow me to get involved like that was a gift,” Ingram said in 1991. “When people ask me, I say I studied at the University of Ray Charles and went to learn with the master, Quincy.”
James Ingram, singer-songwriter, born 16 February 1952, died 29 January 2019
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