Grammy-winning singer James Ingram, an Akron native and graduate of East High School, has died at age 66, according to multiple media outlets.
He had been suffering from Parkinson's and early-onset Alzheimer's diseases, according to his Facebook page. Ingram was best known as a smooth, soulful singer with a strong, emotive tenor that he applied to many hit ballads as well as a string of duets with other artists.
Ingram came from a large musical family that included his younger brother Phillip who became a founding member of the R&B band Switch. The older Ingram started singing as a teenager and while a student at the University of Akron performed in a local band called Revelation Funk that collectively moved to Los Angeles in 1973.
"There just wasn't work for me in Akron," he told the Akron Beacon Journal in 2000. "I went out on the road and never came back. We landed in L.A., and we just stayed there," he said.
But Ingram, who is survived by his wife, the former Debra Robinson who is also an Akron native, never forgot Akron or his funky roots.
"I miss those days," he said in 2000.
"When I first had my hit with “Just Once,” my friends called me a traitor because they said I was singing all this 'Frank Sinatra stuff.' I was just trying to make a living. The next thing I knew, I had four pop hits that were all ballads and my audience thought of me as a ballad singer. They didn't want to hear about me and the funk busting out of Akron, Ohio,” he said.
Early in his West Coast career, Ingram sang and played keyboards with Ray Charles, one of his musical heroes, as well as playing keyboards with the 1950s vocal group the Coasters and was the musical director for and played keyboards for singer/songwriter and producer Leon Haywood, appearing on the Haywood-written and -produced R&B hit “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” recorded by Carl Carlton.
At the dawn of the 1980s, Ingram met super producer Quincy Jones who was impressed by Ingram’s demo of the song “Just Once” and enlisted Ingram to record the song along with another song “One Hundred Ways” on his 1980 album “The Dude.” The album sold multiplatinum and earned the then-unknown Ingram three Grammy nominations for best new artist, best pop male vocal and best R&B vocal for “One Hundred Ways.” Ingram not only won the latter award, but also sang live on the Grammy telecast.
Now an established act, Ingram had more hits in the '80s including the spiritual-themed "Yah Mo Be There," a duet co-written with singer Michael McDonald from Ingram’s 1983 Jones-produced debut solo album “It’s Your Night” that charted on both the Billboard Hot 100 top 20 and the Hot R&B Songs top five. The song earned Ingram and McDonald the 1985 best R&B performance by a duo or group Grammy. Ingram's other hits included the 1986 Grammy-winning song of the year “Somewhere Out There,” recorded with Linda Ronstadt followed by back-to-back Oscar nominations for performing “The Day I Fall in Love” with Dolly Parton from "Beethoven 2” and co-writing “Look What Love Has Done” from the film “Junior.”
All told, Ingram charted nine hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including No. 1 hits "Baby Come to Me," with Patti Austin, in 1983, and "I Don't Have the Heart" in 1990.
Ingram also worked on Shalamar's “A Night to Remember” with fellow Akron native Howard Hewett and co-wrote and played keyboards on Michael Jackson's classic hit “P.Y.T.”
Ingram, a member of East High School’s Class of 1970, had few performances in Akron as a solo singer. He did a Rubber Bowl show in 1991 where he sang to recorded tracks and was the featured performer at the 75th anniversary celebration and fundraiser for the Akron Urban League in 2000.
But in 2009 after releasing his first spiritual themed album “Stand (In the Light),” Ingram returned to Akron to promote a planned dual concert with Hewett. The concert didn’t happen but standing in the lobby of the Akron Civic Theatre, Ingram expressed his continued pride in being from Akron.''It's a blessing to come back to Akron every year to see our friends and family because this is home,'' Ingram said to the assembled mix of media and friends and family.
''I am proud to be from Akron, Ohio, because I have been blessed to travel around the world, and we were born with a set of principles in general from the Midwest that the East Coast and the West Coast don't have,'' he said.
Ingram may not have recorded many albums under his own name, but his hits can still be heard on radio, in movies and occasionally sampled by younger artists, affording the singer the lasting impact he sought.
"It's a hard path, but I keep looking for songs that are going to outlive James Ingram — those standards that will be around after me," he said in 2000.
"It's hard to do, but that's what I want. I believe a good song is a good song and that's what I want to bring to people."
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.