Singer-songwriter Bobby Caldwell passed away on Tuesday at his home in Great Meadows, New Jersey. His sensuous R&B smash “What You Won’t Do for Love“ helped push his debut album to double-platinum status in 1978 and was later covered by prominent performers like Boyz 2 Men and Michael Bolton. He was 71.
The cause was long-term complications of a toxic reaction to the antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones, his wife, Mary Caldwell, wrote on Twitter.
Throughout his four-decade career, Mr. Caldwell freely switched between genres, exploring R&B, reggae, soft rock, smooth jazz, and classics from the Great American Songbook. Under his name, he produced more than a dozen albums.
Although he was cast as Frank Sinatra in a Las Vegas show dubbed “The Rat Pack Is Back!” in the 1990s because of his impressive old-school crooning abilities and signature hat, he was best recognized as a silky-voiced master of so-called blue-eyed soul.
“I was in an elevator once and a guy said, ‘Thanks a lot, Bobby, I just lost a bet,’” he recalled in a 2019 interview with Richmond magazine. “Apparently he bet a lot of money that I was Black, and he was wrong.”
He was also well-known for his songwriting. Among others, his songs have been covered by Chicago, Boz Scaggs, Neil Diamond, and Al Jarreau. He co-wrote “The Next Time I Fall“ with Paul Gordon, a hit for Amy Grant and Peter Cetera and peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986. The song was listed as one of Billboard’s 25 best love songs in 2020.
But success did not appear overnight.
On August 15, 1951, Robert Hunter Caldwell was born in Manhattan and raised primarily in Miami. Before relocating the family to Miami, his parents, Bob and Carolyn Caldwell were artists who hosted two early television variety shows, “42nd Street Review” in New York and “Suppertime” in Pittsburgh.
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In a recent video interview, he claimed, “I was a show business baby.” He began creating and performing his songs around the age of 17. He immediately relocated to Las Vegas, where he played with the Katmandu band, which recorded an album in 1971. He gained notoriety as Little Richard’s rhythm guitarist in the early 1970s.
He played in bars and recorded demos over the ensuing years as he tried to establish a name for himself. With the triumph of “What You Won’t Do for Love,” he finally experienced stardom in his own right. With albums like “Cat in the Hat” (1980) and “Carry On,” that success continued in the early 1980s (1982).
While he lost popularity in the 1980s, he kept recording and performing for many years. With the release of his album “Cool Uncle,” which he co-produced with renowned R&B producer Jack Splash, he made a comeback in 2015. The album featured Deniece Williams, CeeLo Green, and Jessie Ware as guests, cut across generational barriers, and rose to the top of the Billboard contemporary jazz list. The album was dubbed “2015’s smartest retro-soul comeback” by Rolling Stone.
Not all of the survivors’ details were readily accessible.
The development of hip-hop also gave Mr. Caldwell an unexpected career boost since several rappers, including Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., and Common, sampled his music.
Such a crossover might have struck some as unlikely, but not Mr. Caldwell. “This business is constantly in a state of flux,” he said in a 2005 interview with NPR. He added that R&B radio “is not what it was” in his early days but that rappers were branching into what he called “adult urban, which is more of the R&B that you and I cut our teeth on.”
“As it constantly changes,” he said, “you kind of have to keep reinventing yourself.”
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