James Ingram, a hitmaking voice of ’80s R&B
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 Mr. Ingram on musical theater projects, revealed 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, Mr. Ingram was plucked from side-gig obscurity by producer Quincy Jones to appear on his 1981 album, “The Dude.”
Jones discovered Mr. Ingram on a demo of “Just Once,” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, which he sang for $50. Jones loved not just the song but the singer as well, and he called Mr. Ingram — who initially hung up on him — 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 Mr. Ingram a Grammy in 1982 for best male R&B vocal performance.
Up until Jones rang him up, Mr. 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, an aural equivalent of being courted.
Mr. Ingram was born Feb. 16, 1952, and raised in Akron, Ohio. He sang in a church choir 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, Mr. 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; 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,” Mr. 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 would earn Mr. Ingram his second Grammy, in 1985. (He was nominated a total of 14 times.)
Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Ingram 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’s 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).”
Later in the 1980s and into the ‘90s, a time when songs from hit films often became radio hits, too, Mr. Ingram was a soundtrack favorite. “Somewhere Out There,” a duet with Linda Ronstadt from the animated feature “An American Tail,” was one of his biggest chart successes, reaching No. 2. He was on the soundtracks of “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “Forget Paris,” and “City Slickers.”
As a writer, Mr. Ingram was twice nominated for best original song at the Academy Awards: in 1994, for “The Day I Fall in Love” from “Beethoven’s 2nd,” and in 1995, for “Look What Love Has Done” from “Junior.”
“I Don’t Have the Heart,” a song from his third album, “It’s Real,” reached No. 1 in 1990, but Mr. Ingram released music less frequently in the following decades.