JAMES INGRAM knows how stiff the competition is for good songs.
"Trying to get James Ingram's music on a James Ingram album is sometimes tough," he said yesterday from his downtown hotel, where he was preparing for tonight's "Night on the Town" show with Patti Austin and others at Pier Six Concert Pavilion.
"Even though I do a lot of songwriting," he said, "there's always other great material out there that you have to be aware of."
So when a song like "I Don't Have the Heart" comes along, he explained, you either act immediately or lose the opportunity.
"I hear hundreds of songs because people send me tapes all the time," Ingram said. "But that one was special. I said, 'I have to cut that now.' "
The song was written by Alan Reed and Jed Freidman. Ingram got halfway through the first listen and jumped to the phone to get the first crack at recording it.
"I need to hear the song," Ingram said. "Seeing the words written on paper is nice, but, to me, melody is king. It's everything.
"The first time you hear a song you might not remember the words, but you can go to the record store and hum the melody. The story almost becomes secondary."
The story of "I Don't Have the Heart" was hardly in the background once Ingram's smooth tenor got hold of it.
"When I heard it for the first time, a female was singing it," he said. "I thought it would be really nice to hear it from a male's point of view. I thought it would be really beautiful for a man to stand up and be truthful with a woman instead of playing games."
Ingram, on his first headlining tour after more than 10 years in the background under Quincy Jones and as Patti LaBelle's opening act, obviously doesn't play games when it comes to performing live.
Just two nights ago he strolled into town and stumbled onto the news that LaBelle, one of his closest friends, was playing at Pier Six. He arrived just before the show and was immediately invited on stage to perform "On My Own," which the pair did together many times during their 1989-90 tour.
"I felt funny because I was in a sweat suit and a pair of sneakers," he said. "But I love Patti and she insisted."
Since leaving the side of Jones, who went on to do television and movie projects, Ingram said he has found strength and support through means other than pondering the past and his work with Jones.
"All the gold and platinum records and all the awards are in my son's bedroom," said Ingram, who has a pair of Grammys along with 13 nominations. "Any time I want to look at them I can go in there.
"But when I'm writing new music I can't have those distractions. When I sit down to create music, I can't be disturbed with the past. I look ahead because that's what is important now.
"Quincy and I are still great friends, but he's doing something else," Ingram said. "He's moving ahead, expanding his horizons, and I really respect that."
Ingram will release a greatest hits album, "The Power of Great Music," on Sept. 17. It also includes three new songs. "Where Did My Heart Go," the theme song for the film "City Slickers," will be the first song to be released as a single.
"It would have been nice if it had come out when the film did," said Ingram. "But that's OK. I always say that if the song is strong enough, it'll stand on its own."