Music recently lost one of its classiest vocalists: James Ingram, a Quincy Jones protege who scored an impressive number of hits in the 1980s and early 1990s. His January 29, 2019 passing from early onset Alzheimer and Parkinson disease marks the end of not only a successful career, but an era when smooth, pop-tinged R&B ruled the charts. Even though musical trends changed, Ingram never strayed from his strength, namely skilled interpretation.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Ingram taught himself piano and sang in the church choir. When he reached his teens, he joined the group Revelation Funk and took part in the burgeoning Ohio funk scene (the ultimate honor: opening for the Ohio Players). The band relocated to Los Angeles, but after experiencing little success most of the members returned to their hometown. Ingram stayed behind, however, establishing a behind-the-scenes career as a session musician, songwriter, and musical director. Throughout the 1970s he worked with such artists as Ray Charles, Cuba Gooding, and Marvin Gaye. But he finally reached the spotlight with the group Zingara, scoring a minor hit singing lead on the 1980 track "Love's Calling." Ingram's true breakthrough would come a year later, when he attracted the attention of Jones.
In 1981 Ingram sang on a demo for "Just Once," a Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil-penned ballad. When Jones heard the recording, he immediately recruited Ingram to sing on his current project The Dude. In a 2012 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Ingram remembered hearing from Jones. "I hung up on Quincy. 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. I said, 'Yeah, that's me.' He put that on his album." The vocalist ended up singing lead on two of the album's best-best-known tracks: the aforementioned "Just Once" and "One Hundred Ways," earning Grammy nominations for both as well as a Best New Artist nod.
It turned out Ingram was just getting started. Continuing to collaborate with Jones, he duetted with Patti Austin on the smash "Baby, Come to Me," a track that reached number one on the pop chart. He even worked with Michael Jackson, co-writing and singing backup on the Thriller track "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." Ingram's luck with duets continued with a followup Austin single, "How Do You Keep the Music Playing," and the classic track "Ya Mo B There" with Michael McDonald. He took part in USA for Africa's "We Are the World" and sang with Linda Ronstadt on the 1986 hit "Somewhere Out There." While he clearly achieved great success with these various duets, Ingram may also be best remembered for his 1989 ballad "I Don't Have the Heart." He would collaborate with Jones one more time on the track "The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)" alongside fellow R&B crooners El DeBarge, Barry White, and Al B. Sure. His signature "whoo" cuts through the music, rendering his voice instantly recognizable.
During the 1990s and 2000s he continued working behind the scenes and occasionally recorded songs for movie soundtracks. His last release was 2008's Stand (in the Light), a spiritual-leaning record featuring originals and covers.
What made Ingram such an in-demand artist was his distinctive voice. He could transition from a growl to a raspy, seductive tone to his signature "whoo" howl. Yet he never oversang, his supple voice dramatizing the emotions expressed in the lyrics. The ultimate example, "One Hundred Ways" demonstrates just how crucial a skilled singer in delivering a song's message. Note how his voice starts quietly, instructing the male listener to compliment his lover, buy her roses and "If it's violins she loves / Let them play." He brings in fuller power on the line "hold her closer all night long," a growl entering his voice to underscore the line's sensuality. His singing technique transforms throughout the ballad, sneaking in runs on lines such as "don't forget there could be / An old lover in her memory" and "she's just wasting her time."
Reaching the bridge, Ingram reaches the falsetto aspects of his vocals, gently advising the listener that "being cool won't help you keep a love warm." He returns to the third verse, continuing in the higher reaches of his voice on the lyrics "Sacrifice if you care / Buy her some moonlight to wear." Subsequently he drops back down to his normal range, arguing that "If it's one more star she wants / Go all the way." Raspiness and fuller power next reenter the picture, explaining that a lover will appreciate all her man's efforts to woo her.
Special mention should be made of keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, whose sleepy solo enhances the seductive qualities of the song. In a 2018 Keyboard Magazine interview, Phillinganes recalled that "I recorded it at something like three in the morning. I was asleep under the piano during the session, and someone woke me up and said, 'Hey, it's your turn.' Quincy said, 'Right, you're gonna play a solo.' And this was the first thing that came out of me. Quincy loves it because it was basically my subconscious mind at work."
As the song fades out, Ingram cries out "why don't you love her today?" His ad libbing explodes with passion, making the audience believe in every word he sings. It's a flawless performance, as Ingram never engages in vocal acrobatics. His warm voice whispers, soars, and growls (and yes, delivers his trademark "whoo"). No one else could interpret "One Hundred Ways" in such a sincere way, forcing listeners to hang on his every word. One can identify an Ingram song easily--those slightly gritty vocals can dig down deep or reach the highest peaks. His distinctive voice will be sorely missed.