Ingram a defining voice of 1980s R&B

Singer James Ingram was nominated for the Grammys 14 times. He won twice.
Singer James Ingram was nominated for the Grammys 14 times. He won twice.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • James Ingram, whose voice - technically precise, crisp and reserved, yet full of audacious feeling - made him one of the defining singers of R&B in the 1980s, has died. He was 66.

Actress and choreographer Debbie Allen, a frequent collaborator with Ingram on musical theatre projects, announced his death on Twitter on Tuesday, calling him her "dearest friend and creative partner". She did not say where or when he died or specify the cause.

Just as R&B's "quiet storm" phase was peaking, Ingram was plucked from side-gig obscurity by producer Quincy Jones to appear on his 1981 album, The Dude.

Jones discovered Ingram on a demo of Just Once, written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, which he sang for US$50. Jones loved not just the song, but the singer as well, and he called Ingram and invited him to perform Just Once and another song, One Hundred Ways, on that album.

Both songs became huge hits, cracking the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. One Hundred Ways earned Ingram a Grammy in 1982 for best male R&B vocal performance.

Up until Jones rang him up, Ingram had been content in the background. "I was never no singer; I never shopped a deal, none of that," he told The Chicago Tribune in 2012.

But his voice - austere, luscious, commanding - was foreground material. His music was gentlemanly and romantic, the aural equivalent of being courted.

Ingram was born on Feb 16, 1952, and raised in Akron, Ohio. He sang in a church choir - his father was a deacon - and taught himself to play piano. After high school, he passed up a track scholarship to focus on music, eventually moving to Los Angeles.

When Jones discovered him, Ingram had been inching his way into the music business for about a decade. He had been a pianist for Ray Charles; played in a band, Revelation Funk, which contributed a song to the soundtrack of the 1975 movie Dolemite; played in one of Dick Clark's support bands; and done side work as a demo singer.

After the success of Just Once and One Hundred Ways, Ingram became a force in R&B.

In 1982 he recorded a duet with Patti Austin, Baby, Come To Me, which reached No. 1 on the Hot 100. In 1983, he released his first solo album, It's Your Night, which featured several hits, including another duet with Austin, How Do You Keep The Music Playing?, and Yah Mo B There, a duet with Michael McDonald that earned Ingram his second Grammy, in 1985. He was nominated 14 times.

Throughout the 1980s, he worked with Jones on several other projects: participating in the all-star charity single We Are The World; writing for the soundtrack of Steven Spielberg's film The Color Purple (1985); singing on Jones' 1989 album, Back On The Block; and, most crucially, writing, with Jones, Michael Jackson's 1983 Top 10 hit P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).

"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 told Jet magazine in 2007.

In a statement, Jones said: "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."

Ingram's survivors include his wife, Debra, whom he married in 1975.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2019, with the headline 'Ingram a defining voice of 1980s R&B '. Subscribe