The Number Ones

October 20, 1990

The Number Ones: James Ingram’s “I Don’t Have The Heart”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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How do songs become hits? It looks like a simple question, but it almost never is. Songs follow all sorts of weird, unconventional routes to hit status, and sometimes, even decades later, it’s virtually impossible to look back and reconstruct how it happened. For instance: James Ingram, the smooth and sensitive balladeer, reached #1 twice in his career. Both of those chart-topping hits were fairly unlikely. With the first, though, there’s a clear trajectory. Ingram and Patti Austin’s duet “Baby, Come To Me” reached #1 in 1983 because the song prominently soundtracked a General Hospital love scene, back in the era where songs could blow up just by playing in the background on daytime soap operas. But with Ingram’s second chart-topper, I must confess, I have no fucking idea how it happened. I just don’t get it. Sometimes, that happens.

James Ingram was involved in a lot of hits in the ’80s, but he was never exactly a central figure within the pop-music narrative. Ingram got his start as a keyboard player and an occasional demo singer. He didn’t think of himself as a potential recording artist, but Quincy Jones heard him on demos and liked his voice. Jones signed Ingram to his Qwest label, and he featured Ingram on his 1981 album The Dude. In the early ’80s, Jones and Ingram worked closely together. The two of them co-wrote Michael Jackson’s “PYT (Pretty Young Thing),” and Jones also produced “Baby, Come To Me.” (“PYT” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.) In the ’80s, a Quincy Jones association was a good thing to have, but Jones never turned Ingram into a superstar.

All through the ’80s, James Ingram was a constant presence on the R&B charts, but he only broke through to pop radio when he was working with other people. “Baby, Come To Me” included, most of Ingram’s biggest hits were collaborations. Ingram sang on “We Are The World.” He and Michael McDonald duetted on the 1983 single “Yah Mo B There,” which peaked at #19. He teamed up with Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes on 1984’s “What About Me?,” which made it to #15. Ingram was one of four singers on “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite),” a Quincy Jones single that peaked at #31 in 1990. The other singers on that track were Al B. Sure!, El DeBarge, and Barry White. Weird lineup!

In between his two #1 hits, James Ingram only made the top 10 once. The song that took him there was “Somewhere Out There,” a ballad that James Horner, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil wrote for the soundtrack of the animated movie An American Tail. The version of the song that charted wasn’t the one from the movie. Instead, it was the end-credits version that Ingram sang with Linda Ronstadt. “Somewhere Out There” is a great song and a no-shit hit, peaking at #2 and getting nominated for an Oscar. But Ingram couldn’t take too much credit for its success; he needed both Linda Ronstadt and Fievel the mouse to get him up that high on the charts. (“Somewhere Out There” is an 8.)

James Ingram was never really a hitmaker, and he certainly wasn’t a pop star. He didn’t draw attention to himself. He didn’t have a readily marketable persona. But Ingram could sing and write and play, and producers like Quincy Jones could use his voice as a kind of lush texture. Ingram was a valuable collaborator because he knew how to mold his voice to fit whatever he was singing. And Ingram never seemed too thirsty for his own pop-chart success. Mostly, it seems like he was happy playing on winning teams, doling out assists. Before “I Don’t Have The Heart,” Ingram’s biggest hit as a solo artist, with no above-the-line collaborators, was the 1984 ballad “There’s No Other Way,” and that song peaked at #58.

“I Don’t Have The Heart,” the song that James Ingram took to #1, wasn’t exactly a zeitgeist-ready track. By the time “I Don’t Have The Heart” reached the top of the Hot 100, the song was pretty old. Journeyman songwriters Allan Rich and Jud Friedman wrote “I Don’t Have The Heart” together shortly after meeting in Los Angeles; it was the first song that they ever wrote together. (Later on, Rich and Friendman wrote songs for artists like Kenny Loggins, Barbra Streisand, and Tina Turner, and they also penned Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard ballad “Run To You,” which peaked at #31 and got nominated for an Oscar.) Rich and Friedman’s “I Don’t Have The Heart” demo sat in Warner exec Benny Medina’s office for more than a year before he finally listened to it. But when Medina heard the song, it made him cry.

Ingram recorded “I Don’t Have The Heart” for his 1989 album It’s Real, but the song wasn’t a single at first. In fact, it was buried near the end of the LP. For I’m Real, Ingram attempted to keep up with shifting trends. The album’s early singles “It’s Real” and “I Wanna Come Back” were uptempo new jack swing tracks. Ingram’s biggest hits had mostly been easy-listening ballads, so this was a departure. But Ingram turned out to be pretty good at new jack swing. Ingram worked with some of the big names in the genre — Teddy Riley on “It’s Real,” Gerald Levert on “I Wanna Come Back” — and he rode the drum-machine beats with fluid assurance. But those songs never fully caught on. Both “It’s Real” and “I Wanna Come Back” made the R&B charts — “It’s Real” got as high as #8 — but they missed the Hot 100 entirely.

The third single from I’m Real took Ingram back into ballad territory, but it’s a weird one. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Man” is a gender-flipped take on a classic. That song also missed the Hot 100, and it didn’t do too well at R&B, either. It’s Real was never a big seller; it didn’t crack the top 100 on the album charts, and it still hasn’t gone gold. But Qwest and Warner didn’t give up on It’s Real, and they released “I Don’t Have The Heart” as the album’s fourth single more than a year after that LP had come out. “I Don’t Have The Heart” was a flop on R&B radio, where it peaked at #53. But the song got to #2 on the Adult Contemporary charts, and that somehow carried “I Don’t Have The Heart” to #1 on the Hot 100 for a single week. I don’t quite get how that works, but it’s in the books. James Ingram got his second #1 hit.

“I Don’t Have The Heart” was an old-fashioned song in a lot of ways. The song has no beat whatsoever, and Ingram doesn’t bring the same kind of melisma-heavy vocal theatrics that started to define R&B in the early ’90s. Instead, the track is all strings and gloopy keyboards up until the final bridge, when we get some big drum cracks and an extremely generic guitar solo that must’ve sounded dated even at the time.

Ingram co-produced “I Don’t Have The Heart” with Thom Bell, the Jamaican-born producer and arranger who had been one of the geniuses behind the ornate Philly soul of the ’70s. Just as much as his friends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Thom Bell defined that sound. Bell produced and co-wrote early-’70s classics for the Delfonics and the Stylistics. But before “I Don’t Have The Heart,” Thom Bell had only produced one #1 hit: Dionne Warwick and the Spinners’ “Then Came You,” all the way back in 1974. In 1990, Bell hadn’t had a hit in years.

I wish I could say that “I Don’t Have The Heart” marked a return of the classic Thom Bell sound, but it really didn’t. There are strings all over the record, and Bell arranged and conducted the orchestra on the song, which is cool. Those strings do some nicely flighty things on the bridge, too. But if you weren’t looking at the credits, you’d never know that “I Don’t Have The Heart” was a Thom Bell production. Instead, the song has the same thin, off-putting gloss as way too many other late-’80s ballads.

Lyrically, “I Don’t Have The Heart” is a song about the eternal question of how to dump someone in a sensitive and humane way. Ingram’s narrator is in a relationship that’s getting serious, and he can see that the other person is into him, but he knows it’s not going to work. He just doesn’t feel the same way, and so he breaks the news in the gentlest way that he can: “I don’t have the heart to hurt you/ It’s the last thing I wanna do/ But I don’t have the heart to love you/ Not the way you want me to.”

That’s a grown-up sentiment, and James Ingram sings “I Don’t Have The Heart” like a grown-up. His voice is great: A little gospel rasp, a lot of power, enough finesse to really wrap himself around some of those notes. In another singer’s hands, a song like “I Don’t Have The Heart” could come off disingenuous, but Ingram really sounds torn-up about having to end this relationship. He’s a professional.

Maybe I just never developed much of a taste for this kind of glossy balladry, but even with some well-observed lyrics and a strong performance from Ingram, I just can’t get into “I Don’t Have The Heart.” The production is too saccharine, and the melody’s not strong enough. The final buildup, with the guitar solo, is actively irritating. The whole thing just never escapes mediocrity. Ingram does fine work, but he never makes “I Don’t Have The Heart” sound like much more than hold-music filler.

The week that “I Don’t Have The Heart” spent at #1 may have been the last hurrah for this type of ’80s adult-contempo ballad. Even Whitney Houston, the queen of that style, was moving on to other things by 1990. Ingram himself never really attempted another crossover hit after “I Don’t Have The Heart.” Instead, Ingram mostly spent the ’90s writing music for movies. Somehow, for instance, Ingram ended up contributing songs to two different Billy Crystal vehicles, City Slickers and Forget Paris. Maybe Billy Crystal is a big James Ingram fan?

Ingram wasn’t recognized when “Somewhere Out There” got its Oscar nomination, since the award goes to the songwriters, not the singers. But in the ’90s, Ingram got two Oscar nominations in back-to-back years — both for songs that he co-wrote for family comedies. Ingram and Dolly Parton recorded the duet “The Day I Fall In Love” for the Beethoven’s 2nd soundtrack. They sang the song on the Oscars telecast that year, and the big dog came out onstage while they were performing. (Ingram lost that award to Bruce Springsteen, a man who is kind of reminiscent of a big dog himself.) A year later, Ingram was also nominated for co-writing Patty Smyth’s “Look What Love Has Done,” from Junior, the movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets pregnant. (They lost that one to Elton John and Tim Rice.)

Those family-movie songs were not hits. In fact, James Ingram only made it back onto the Hot 100 once after “I Don’t Have The Heart.” Once again, he needed a collaborator to get there. In 1998, Ingram and John Tesh’s adult contemporary radio hit “Give Me Forever (I Do)” made it to #66. That was it for James Ingram’s pop career, but he had an audience, and he kept touring and performing until the end of his life, which came too early. In 2019, James Ingram died of brain cancer. He was 66.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1990, there were actually two different competing versions of “I Don’t Have The Heart.” That year, the former child star Stacy Lattisaw also released a version of “I Don’t Have The Heart” as a single, but her take on it never charted. Here’s Lattisaw singing “I Don’t Have The Heart” on Showtime At The Apollo:

(Stacy Lattisaw’s highest-charting single, 1980’s “Let Me Be Your Angel,” peaked at #21.)

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