Bobby Caldwell, the R&B singer, and songwriter who released the 1978 hit “What You Won’t Do for Love” died on March 14 at his home in Great Meadows, New Jersey after a long illness. His wife, Mary Caldwell, confirmed her husband’s death on his official Twitter page and said that he died in her arms. He was 71.
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“Bobby passed away here at home,” wrote his wife. “I held him tight in my arms as he left us. I am forever heartbroken. Thanks to all of you for your many prayers over the years. He had been “floxed.” It took his health over the last six years and two months. Rest with God, my love.”
Born on August 15, 1951, in Manhattan in New York City, Robert Hunter Caldwell grew up in Miami, Florida where he was exposed to the music that would shape his entire career. Caldwell’s parents were also singers who hosted a musical variety TV show called Suppertime. His mother was a real estate agent who worked with Bob Marley, and he later became good friends with the reggae icon.
Growing up in Miami, Caldwell, who began playing guitar and piano at the age of 12, was drawn to the surrounding cultural music, from reggae and Caribbean to Latin and R&B. By the age of 17, he started out performing standards in a group called Katmandu before getting his first break in the early ’70s playing guitar for Little Richard. He briefly moved to Los Angeles, where he joined several bands before releasing his eponymous solo debut, featuring “What You Won’t Do for Love.”
Co-written by Caldwell and Alfons Kettner, “What You Won’t Do for Love” was released on his 1978 self-titled debut and peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 6 on the then-titled Hot Selling Soul Singles chart.
“What You Won’t Do for Love” was a career-defining hit for Caldwell and was covered by a number of artists from Michael Bolton to Boyz II Men and was also sampled by Tupac Shakur on his 1996 song “Heaven Ain’t Hard 2 Find” as well as his posthumous release “Do For Love,” released in 1998. Natalie Cole and Peabo Bryson also performed the hit as a duet on their 1979 album, We’re the Best Friends.
Other artists, who sampled Caldwell’s songs throughout the years, include Common (“The Light”), Lil Nas X (“Carry On”), Kendrick Lamar on “R.O.T.C. (Interlude)” and late The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s the Limit.”
He later released the albums Cat in The Hat in 1980, followed by Carry On in 1982, on which he produced and played all the instruments, along with more than a dozen releases through Cool Uncle in 2015.
Along with writing some songs for movies, Caldwell also starred as Frank Sinatra in the Las Vegas musical The Rat Pack Is Back in 1999 and 2000. Throughout his career, Caldwell also wrote songs for a number of other artists, including Amy Grant‘s No. 1 hit “The Next Time I Fall,” featuring Peter Cetera.
As news of his death broke, several artists shared their memories of the singer and songwriter.
“Caldwell was the closing chapter in a generation in which record execs wanted to hide faces on album covers so perhaps maybe their artist could have a chance,” wrote Questlove on Instagram after hearing of Caldwell’s death. “Thank you for your voice and gift Bobby Caldwell.”
Chance the Rapper also shared a direct message exchange he had with Caldwell in 2022 when he asked to use his music. “This never happens,” wrote Chance. “I’ve never received a message from an artist thanking me for sampling their record. This is a record that hasn’t even come out, and the legend himself reached out. I was so excited to meet you, I have not felt broken like this at a strangers passing in so long. You are a true legend and incredible person who I know I will see one day.”
Caldwell is survived by his wife of 19 years, Mary, daughters Tessa and Lauren, and stepdaughter Katie.
Photo by Ethan Miller/BET/Getty Images for BET