Frank Micelotta/Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP
Bobby Caldwell, a soulful R&B singer and songwriter who had a big hit in 1978 with “What You Won’t Do for Love” and a voice and musical style adored by generations of his fellow artists, has died, announced Wednesday his wife.
Mary Caldwell told The Associated Press he died in her arms at their home in Great Meadows, New Jersey on Tuesday after a long illness. He was 71 years old.
The slick soul jam “What You Won’t Do for Love” went to No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 6 on what was then called the Hot Selling Soul Singles chart. It became a standard and defining long-term hit for Caldwell, who also wrote the song.
The song has been covered by artists including Boyz II Men and Michael Bolton, and was sampled by Tupac Shakur on his posthumous 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.
Stories abound, many shared on social media after his death, of listeners surprised to learn that Caldwell was white and not black.
Caldwell only appeared in silhouette on the self-titled debut solo album on which “What You Won’t Do for Love” appears.
“Caldwell was the latest chapter in a generation where record executives wanted to hide faces on album covers, so maybe their artist might have a chance,” Questlove said on Instagram.
“Thank you for your vote and your gift #BobbyCaldwell,” Questlove wrote.
Chance the Rapper shared a screenshot on Instagram of a direct message exchange he had with Caldwell last year when he asked to use his music.
“I will be honored if you sample my song,” Caldwell wrote.
“You are such an inspiration to me and many others,” Chance told her. He said in the post that he’s never been thanked for sampling a song before and that he “hasn’t felt broken like this by the passing of a stranger in so long.”
Born in New York and raised in Miami, Caldwell was the son of singers who hosted a musical variety television show called “Suppertime.” A multi-instrumentalist, he began performing professionally at age 17 and took his break playing guitar in Little Richard’s band in the early 1970s. During the mid-1970s Caldwell played in various bar bands in Los Angeles before landing a solo recording contract.
Caldwell would never have a hit that came close to “What You Won’t Do for Love”, but he released several respected albums, including 1980’s “Cat in The Hat” – on which he was featured prominently on the cover wearing a fedora — 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 2000 Grammy-nominated single “The Light”.
In the 1990s, Caldwell turned to recording and performing American standards, including songs made popular by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, whom he loved in his youth.
In addition to Mary, his wife of 19 years, Caldwell is survived by his daughters Lauren and Tessa and stepdaughter Katie.