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Bobby Caldwell, singer of 'What You Won't Do for Love,' dies at 71

Bobby Caldwell, a soulful R&B singer and songwriter who had a major 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, his wife said Wednesday.

Mary Caldwell told The Associated Press that he died in her arms at their home in Great Meadows, New Jersey, on Tuesday, after a long illness. He was 71.

The smooth 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 long-term standard and career-defining hit for Caldwell, who also wrote the song.

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."

Other Caldwell songs were sampled by hip-hop artists including The Notorious B.I.G., Common, Lil Nas X and Chance the Rapper.

Stories abound, many of them shared on social media after his death, of listeners being surprised to learn that Caldwell was white and not Black.

Caldwell appeared only in silhouette on the self-titled debut solo album on which "What You Won't Do for Love" appears.

"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," Questlove said on Instagram.

"Thank you for your voice and 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'll be honored if you sample my song," Caldwell wrote.

"You are such an inspiration to me and many others," Chance told him. He said in the post that he had never been thanked for sampling a song before and has "not felt broken like this at a stranger's passing in so long."

Born in New York and raised in Miami, Caldwell was the son of singers who hosted a musical variety TV show called "Suppertime." A multi-instrumentalist, he began performing professionally at 17, and got his break playing guitar in Little Richard's band in the early 1970s. In the mid '70s, Caldwell played in various bar bands in Los Angeles before landing a solo record deal.

Caldwell would never have a hit that came close in prominence to "What You Won't Do for Love," but he released several respected albums, including 1980s "Cat in The Hat" — on which he appeared 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 Grammy-nominated 2000 single "The Light."

In the 1990s, Caldwell shifted to recording and performing American standards, including songs made popular by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, he loved in his youth.

In addition to Mary, his wife of 19 years, Caldwell is survived by daughters Lauren and Tessa and stepdaughter Katie.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press