Singer, songwriter, keyboardist
The music of James Ingram may be familiar to mainstream audiences, but his name most likely does not prompt recognition among listeners. After more than 20 years in the pop music industry, Ingram’s voice has been heard on radio and in films, his songs and performances have been nominated for many Grammy awards, and his musicianship has backed up several Top Twenty artists. Yet the popularity of his collaborative work has overshadowed that of his solo output; he is, consequently, what one might call a musician’s musician: well known and respected among his colleagues, but less visible to the public.
Ingram was born on February 16, sometime in the early 1950s—he is notoriously reluctant to reveal his age. His musical biography, however, begins in the early 1970s, when he immersed himself in that decade’s enthusiasm for soul and funk. Skilled in an array of instruments, including piano, synthesizer, drums, bass, and guitar, Ingram decided to relocate to Los Angeles when his band, Revelation Funk, returned to their hometown of Akron, Ohio, after a brief stint on the West Coast. Ingram described those first years in Los Angeles to Billboard’s David Nathan, explaining simply, “I had a lot of doors slammed in my face.” 1973 offered him his first real opportunity, as keyboardist for Leon Hayward, the RCA artist and producer who would become known for his hit single “Don’t Push It Don’t Force It,” which featured Ingram’s piano work.
The association with Hayward afforded Ingram a brief relationship with an RCA executive who wanted to sign him as a solo artist. Ingram cut three songs with RCA before the executive who had championed him left the label. RCA summarily dropped Ingram—paying him for the work, but never releasing any of the cuts. After this disappointment, Ingram struggled to get by. Several years passed before he made the first significant contact of his career—that of legendary pianist-singer Ray Charles. Through his work with a musician named Joel Webster, Ingram developed a connection to Charles’s label, Tangerine Records, and eventually met Charles himself. When Charles scored a hit in 1977 with the single “I Can See Clearly Now,” Ingram could be heard backing him up on organ.
Perhaps the most momentous step in Ingram’s career occurred, however, when he entered the orbit of acclaimed producer Quincy Jones. Ingram met Jones in Charles’s studio but first impressed him some time later, when the producer had an opportunity to hear
For the Record…
Born February 16th, early 1950s, in Akron, OH; married wife Debbie, c. 1974; six children.
As a child, taught himself to play piano, synthesizer, drums, bass, and guitar; member of band Revelation Funk, Akron, until 1973; played keyboards for Leon Hayward, c. 1973; recorded three singles for RCA; began working with pianist-singer Ray Charles, late 1970s; began working with producer Quincy Jones; appeared on Jones’s album The Dude, 1981; as solo artist, released It’s Your Night, 1983; recorded with numerous artists; released Never Felt So Good, 1986; switched from Qwest label to Warner Bros., 1987, and released It’s Real, 1989, and Always You, 1993.
Awards: Grammy awards for best R & B male vocal, 1981, for “One Hundred Ways,” and for best R & B performance by a duo or group, 1984, for “Yah Mo Be There”; gold album for It’s Your Night, 1983.
Addresses: Record company —Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694.
Ingram’s voice on some demo tapes. The tapes were actually intended for a music publishing company, ATV Music, and were supposed to sell Jones the songs, not the singer. Ingram described the scenario to Nathan: “I was singing demos for a publishing company... at $50 a song and doing two or three a day. I must have done that for three or four months. Quincy was listening to some of their songs for The Dude album and he heard ‘Just Once.’ He wanted to know who the singer was on the demo and he got my number... and called me at home.”
In 1981 The Dude introduced listeners to Ingram’s voice—and Ingram to the taste of success. After hearing the demo, Jones signed the singer to record vocals for three of the tracks on the record: “Just Once,” “One Hundred Ways,” and “The Dude.” The first of these reached Number Seventeen on the pop charts but since the album was credited to Quincy Jones, many listeners assumed the rich, emotive voice they heard belonged to Jones. This odd, peripheral fame persisted despite Ingram’s performance of “Just Once” at the 1982 Grammy Awards presentation. He was nominated for three awards that year: best new artist, best pop male vocal, and best R & B male vocal. He won in the third category for his performance on “One Hundred Ways.” Several critics, and Ingram himself, have noted the singularity of this achievement; indeed, it is highly unusual for a vocalist to win a Grammy without having a single album to his or her credit.
Ingram followed the success of his work on The Dude with a 1983 duet with singer Patti Austin. The single, “Baby, Come to Me,” registered some chart movement but had no explosive impact—until it appeared as a theme on the television soap opera General Hospital, after which the song rose to the top of the charts. Also in 1983, moviegoers became more familiar with Ingram’s voice when he recorded “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” for the movie Best Friends; audiences once again had the opportunity to put a face with the voice when Ingram performed the song at the Academy Awards.
As useful as this kind of exposure may have been, in 1983 Ingram’s real energies were devoted to recording his first solo album, which Quincy Jones produced. It’s Your Night reached record stores in November and quickly earned a gold record. Reviewing the album for Stereo Review, music critic Phyl Garland noted that Jones had “given Ingram a very classy treatment. The rich arrangements feature far more sophisticated and imaginative instrumentals than are usual for an album of love songs and dance music. But Ingram’s resonant voice is fluid enough to handle everything.” Decent sales and some critical acclaim, however, were not enough to take It’s Your Night to the top of the U.S. charts, though it rose to the Number 25 spot on the British charts by April of 1984. Still, just prior to this chart action, Ingram had attained greater fame—in conjunction with another artist; when pop superstar Michael Jackson released his chart-busting Thriller album in 1983, one of the songs that hit the Top Ten, “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing),” was a Quincy Jones/James Ingram collaboration.
In 1984, however, Ingram gained some ground with one of the singles from It’s Your Night: “Yah Mo Be There,” recorded with former Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald, hit the U.S. Top 20. The song fared even better in the United Kingdom and would earn Ingram a second Grammy—the 1984 award for best R & B performance by a duo or group. Unfortunately, it was another two years before Ingram released his second album, Never Felt So Good; and it did not earn the kind of critical attention that It’s Your Night had.
Soon enough, though, Ingram would again achieve recognition for work he did outside of his solo career; he had a second hit in 1984, with Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes, with the Number 15 single “What About Me?” And he offered a soulful turn to the phenomenally successful charity single “We Are the World” in 1985. Similarly, a tear-jerking 1987 duet with pop vocalist Linda Ronstadt, “Somewhere Out There,” from Steven Spielberg’s animated An American Tail, landed Ingram at Number Two. The song went on to win song of the year honors at the Grammys that year—the event’s most coveted prize. (The duet would also garner an Oscar nomination, with Ingram and Ronstadt performing it at the awards ceremony.) “Better Way,” from Beverly Hills Cop II, further showcased Ingram’s voice—just not on his records.
After working again with Patti Austin in 1988 on her album The Real Me, Ingram rededicated himself to his solo career. The previous year, he had made a break from Quincy Jones and his Qwest label, moving to Warner Bros, in order to work with producer Thorn Bell. That association culminated in Ingram’s first Number One—and a solo hit at that; “I Don’t Have the Heart,” from the 1989 album It’s Real, rose to the top of the charts in 1990. Eager to capitalize on Ingram’s momentum, Warner Bros, released a compilation album in 1991; The Power of Great Music featured songs Ingram had recorded largely during the 1980s. In 1993 Ingram debuted a second album of originals for Warners, the ballad-oriented Always You, which featured vocals that, in the words of an Upscale reviewer, “run the gamut from falsetto to some soulful groans, to that world famous Ingram howl.” Nonetheless, Ingram had kept his hand in the lucrative soundtrack game, contributing “Where Did My Heart Go” to the hit movie City Slickers in 1991.
Aside from his many achievements in music, Ingram has also established a reputation for his commitment to charity work and family. In the mid-1970s, he married his wife Debbie, a friend since grade school. She has assisted him in his work since 1986. The couple have six children, the sixth born in 1993. Ingram’s devotion to family life has also influenced his charitable impulses; a 1993 issue of Billboard noted that a cut from Always You, “Sing for the Children,”—particularly notable for the appearance of the Boys Choir of Harlem—will become the theme song for the Children’s Defense Fund, augmenting Ingram’s role as the organization’s spokesperson.
(With Patti Austin) “Baby, Come to Me,” Qwest, 1983.
“How Do You Keep the Music Playing?,” 1983.
(With Kim Carnes and Kenny Rogers) “What About Me?,” 1984.
(Contributor) “We Are the World,” 1985.
“Better Way,” 1987.
(With Linda Ronstadt) “Somewhere Out There,” MCA, 1987.
“Where Did My Heart Go?,” Varèse Sarabande, 1991.
(Contributor) Quincy Jones, The Dude (includes “Just Once,” “One Hundred Ways,” and “The Dude”), Qwest, 1981.
It’s Your Night (includes “Yah Mo Be There”), Qwest, 1983.
Never Felt So Good, Qwest, 1986.
It’s Real (includes “I Don’t Have the Heart”), Warner Bros., 1989.
Jones, Back on the Block, Qwest, 1989.
The Power of Great Music, Warner Bros., 1991.
Always You (includes “Sing for the Children”), Warner Bros., 1993.
(With Dolly Parton) “The Day I Fall in Love,” Beethoven’s 2nd (soundtrack), Columbia, 1993.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
Billboard, November 2, 1991; May 8, 1993.
Melody Maker, July 15, 1989.
Musician, October 1989.
People, August 21, 1989.
Stereo Review, May 1984.
Upscale, October 1993.
Village Voice, September 30, 1986.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Warner Bros. Records, 1993.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc