Bobby Caldwell, a soulful R&B singer-songwriter who had a huge hit with 1978’s “What You Won’t Do For Love” and whose voice and musical style are revered by generations of his fellow artists, has died, his wife said Wednesday.
Mary Caldwell told The Associated Press that he died in her arms Tuesday after a long illness at her home in Great Meadows, New Jersey. He was 71.
The mellow soul jam “What You Won’t Do for Love” peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #6 on what was then called the Hot Selling Soul Singles chart. It became a long-term standard and career-defining hit for Caldwell, who also wrote the song.
The song has been covered by the likes of Boyz II Men and Michael Bolton, and was sampled by Tupac Shakur on his posthumously released song Do For Love.
Other Caldwell songs have been sampled by hip hop artists such as The Notorious BIG, Common, Lil Nas X and Chance the Rapper.
There are many stories, many shared on social media after his death, by listeners who were surprised to learn Caldwell was white and not black.
Caldwell appeared only in silhouette on the self-titled debut solo album, which features What You Won’t Do for Love.
“Caldwell was the latest chapter in a generation where record executives wanted to hide faces on album covers so their artist might have a chance,” Questlove said on Instagram.
“Thank you for your vote and gift #BobbyCaldwell,” Questlove wrote.
Chance the Rapper shared on Instagram a screenshot of a direct message exchange he had with Caldwell last year asking to use his music.
“I’ll be honored if you try my song,” Caldwell wrote.
“You are such an inspiration to me and many others,” Chance told him. He said in the Post that he had never been thanked for sampling a song before and that he “didn’t feel so broken by a stranger walking by for so long.”
Caldwell was born in New York and grew up in Miami. He was the son of singers who hosted a musical variety TV show called Suppertime. A multi-instrumentalist, he began performing professionally at age 17, taking his break as a guitar player in Little Richard’s Band in the early 1970s. In the mid-’70s, Caldwell played in various Los Angeles bar bands before landing a solo recording contract.
Caldwell never had a hit that came close to “What You Won’t Do for Love,” but he did release several acclaimed albums, including 1980’s “Cat in The Hat” — on which he prominently appeared with a fedora on the cover — and 1982’s “Carry On,” on which he was his own producer and played all the instruments.
His song “Open Your Eyes” from “Cat in The Hat” was covered by John Legend and sampled by Common on his Grammy-nominated 2000 single “The Light.”
In the 1990s, Caldwell transitioned to recording and performing American standards, including songs popularized by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, which he loved growing up.
In addition to Mary, his wife of 19, Caldwell is survived by daughters Lauren and Tessa and stepdaughter Katie.
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