A soulful R&B singer and songwriter who had a hit with “What You Won’t Do for Love” in 1978 as well as a voice and musical style that was adored by generations of his peers, Bobby Caldwell passed away on Wednesday. A long illness led him to die in Mary Caldwell’s arms at their home in Great Meadows, New Jersey, on Tuesday.
Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love” went to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 6 on the Hot Selling Soul Singles chart, becoming a long-term standard and career-defining hit.
The song was covered by artists, including Boyz II Men and Michael Bolton, and was sampled by Tupac Shakur on his posthumously released song “Do For Love.” Hip-hop artists such as The Notorious B.I.G., Common, Lil Nas X, and Chance the Rapper sampled other Caldwell songs as well.
There are numerous accounts of listeners learning after his death that Caldwell was white, not black. Caldwell appeared only in silhouette on his self-titled debut solo album, on which “What You Won’t Do for Love” appears.
Questlove said on Instagram that Caldwell was the end of a generation when record executives were hiding artists’ faces on album covers so maybe they could succeed. “Thank you for your voice and gift #BobbyCaldwell,” Questlove wrote. Chance the Rapper shared a screenshot of a direct message he had with Caldwell last year when he asked to use his music. “I’d be honored if you sampled my song.”
Chance expressed his admiration for him, stating that he and many others found him inspirational. In a social media post, he mentioned that no one had ever thanked him for using their song in his music before and that the news of Caldwell’s death hit him hard. Caldwell grew up with parents who were singers and hosted a popular TV show called “Suppertime.” He was a talented musician who started performing professionally at 17 years old, eventually landing a guitar-playing gig with Little Richard in the early 1970s. After playing in several bar bands in Los Angeles during the mid-70s, Caldwell signed on for a solo record deal.
The singer never had a hit as big as “What You Won’t Do for Love,” but he released several respected albums, including “Cat in The Hat” in 1980, on which he wore a fedora, and “Carry On” in 1982, on which he produced and played all the instruments himself. John Legend covered his “Open Your Eyes” from “Cat in The Hat” and Common sampled it for his Grammy-nominated 2000 single “The Light.”
Since the 1990s, Caldwell has recorded and performed American standards, including songs made popular by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.
Caldwell is survived by his wife of 19 years, Mary, and daughters Lauren, Tessa, and stepdaughter Katie.