Famed for “What You Won’t Do For Love”
“It’s the very first night in Cleveland, at an amphitheater. We’re talking about 7,000 brothers and sisters, and I was the only cracker there,”
— Bobby Caldwell on his opening night before a live audience
Bobby Caldwell, the White singer who made his mark with the 1978 hit single “What You Won’t Do For Love,” died at his New Jersey home on March 14.
New York-born Caldwell grew up in Miami, and was shaped by that city’s musical melting pot of Latin, reggae, and of course Rhythm and Blues. He eventually became a multi-instrumentalist and composer, whose tunes are regularly sampled by hip hop and soul artists.
After toiling in a series of bar bands, Caldwell got a break by backing Little Richard, and eventually found his way to TK Records, a Florida-based independent label that found success during the Disco era with The Hues Corporation, KC & The Sunshine Band, and George McCrae.
Given that their listening base was African-American, executives there were apprehensive about their talented acquisition’s lack of pigmentation (in spite of the fact that chart-topper “KC” Harry Wayne Casey was Caucasian).
“I guess they got skittish with going to Black radio with somebody who was whiter than a loaf of bread,” he remembered.
As a result they released his eponymous debut album with a silhouetted figure lounging on a park bench. As it climbed the charts he got the opportunity to open for Natalie Cole on her national tour. Strolling onto the stage before a predominately Black crowd, he was greeted by deafening silence.
Ignoring his stage fright as his band started the opening number, he belted out the lyrics and “...after about ten minutes, I had them in my pocket. That was the night I became a man, I’ll tell ya.”
“Bobby Caldwell” eventually became an RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America)-certified double platinum album, and secured his position within the late-1970s “quiet storm” musical genre geared towards upscale, mature African-American listeners. Moreover, it earned him a “Hood Pass” of sorts, or acceptance/validation from the Black community much like the late, great Lady Teena Marie.
While “What You Won’t Do For Love,” remained his career-defining hit, Caldwell’s versatility enabled him to stay relevant, and financially solvent. An all-around performer, he played his role-model Frank Sinatra in a Las Vegas musical; composed songs for pop singers Peter Cetera and Amy Grant; and his own musical catalog is a popular source for sampling by hip hop and R & B performers.
Caldwell, who had been ill from a variety of ailments including peripheral neuropathy for many years, reportedly died from the adverse effects of antibody treatments. He leaves behind his wife Mary, two daughters and a stepdaughter.
For more on this seminal soul stylist, visit http://www.bobbycaldwell.com/.