(March 16, 2023). Bobby Caldwell, legendary soul crooner who gave us one of the most beloved and most sampled songs of the 20th century, passed away Tuesday (March 14th). What follows is the blog’s tribute to the artist and the backstory to how his iconic song and its legacy came to be.
By the late 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for white musicians to cross over and impact R&B/soul stations, especially after white and predominantly white acts like Average White Band, Wild Cherry, Gino Vannelli, Elton John, and David Bowie had found crossover success in the mid-1970s with some pretty funky hits (all of those acts even performed on Soul Train during that decade).
But one need only look at 1978 to find the biggest year of examples where songs were hits on both the pop and the soul charts by white acts, like The Bee Gees (“Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “Too Much Heaven”), Andy Gibb (“Shadow Dancing”), Player (“Baby Come Back”), Peter Brown (“Dance With Me”), the group Foxy (“Get Off”), Gino Vannelli (“I Don’t Wanna Stop”), Alicia Bridges (“I Love The Nightlife”), and Rod Stewart (“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy”).
All of those were top ten pop hits that ultimately reached the top 40 on the soul chart as well (all but the songs by Bridges, Vannelli and Andy Gibb made both the pop and soul chart’s top ten).
Yet while the racial identity of many of those acts (e.g., Rod Stewart, Bee Gees, Gibb, Player, Vannelli) was well known by the time those songs made it to the soul charts, others had the public fooled initially (and, as it turned out, intentionally at first).
For example, when Peter Brown first hit in late 1977 with his debut smash “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me” (a No. 3 soul chart hit that autumn), many listeners first assumed he was Black. By the time “Dance With Me” came around in spring ‘78, it was well known he wasn’t, but by then he had already built a solid R&B base.
A few months later when Foxy took their funk-disco smash “Get Off” to No. 1 on the soul chart, they did so with many people having no clue they were a white group out of Hialeah, Florida.
What Brown and Foxy (not Foxy Brown, the 70s blaxploitation character or ‘90s rapper) had in common was that their hits were big on the soul chart before they crossed to pop, unlike the other examples above that were big pop hits either before or at the same time that they reached their soul chart peaks.
Brown (on the Drive label) and Foxy (on Dash Records) also both recorded for small imprints that were distributed by the same record company that had helmed the career of another highly successful white-led soul crossover act a few years earlier: KC & the Sunshine Band.
That company was TK Records.
So it should have come as no surprise when, later in 1978, another boutique imprint under the TK Records umbrella—Cloud Records—released a very soulful single by an artist who remained incognito for the first few months of the song’s ascension, only to have his identity revealed while the song was peaking at soul and was about to impact pop.
That singer was Bobby Caldwell, whose debut smash “What You Won’t Do For Love” warmed our hearts (and hearted our turntables, literally—more on that below) in the fall and winter of 1978/79.
“What You Won’t Do,” the breezy, mid-tempo ballad by Caldwell, was solely soul in its early existence, debuting on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart in October 1978, nearly three months before it even touched the Hot 100 (pop chart).
“What You Won’t Do” was fully embraced by Black radio almost immediately. The song made strides up the soul chart and was in the top ten by Christmas 1978.
So popular with Black audiences was Caldwell’s freshman hit that it had no problem sharing top-10 space with some of the most iconic R&B classics of the 20th century (Chic’s “Le Freak,” Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under A Groove,” Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real,” Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” were all in the top ten at the same time as “What You Won’t Do”).
Yet, talented as he was, Caldwell was the unlikeliest of crooners to reach the soul chart’s top ten, not just because of his race but because he was an unknown entity, which meant that it would take the song’s stellar quality (and the singer’s exceptional performance), plus some savvy marketing by his label, to get Black radio’s power structure to give “What You Won’t Do” a chance.
But it was ironically Caldwell’s unknown status—much like that of Peter Brown and the group Foxy within the previous 12 months, or KC & the Sunshine Band’s three years before—that played right into the hands of TK Records, an R&B-focused label that was able to leverage Caldwell’s anonymity and parlay his song into yet another soul chart smash for the fledgling company.
It’s been said that TK Records—master soul chart magicians for so many white acts before Caldwell —tried to keep the newcomer’s racial identity hid so as not to alienate his growing Black fan base (his face was not included on his debut album’s cover, for example). But as Caldwell started making the rounds to promote his smash hit (including touring with Black musicians), the song’s and artist’s popularity only increased and pop radio soon caught up to it.
“What You Won’t Do” crossed over to the Hot 100 in the last week of December 1978. By the time it entered the top-40 portion of that chart the following February, it had already run its course at R&B radio and was no longer in the soul top ten. When it finally reached the pop top ten in March 1979, it had already exited the soul top 40 altogether…a tried and true, delayed soul-to-pop crossover (not the other way around), much like what many Black artists had experienced while being marketed to broader audiences by their companies’ pop promotion departments.
During his song’s pop top-40 run, Caldwell would be the subject of a couple memorable stories on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown program.
For instance, when “What You Won’t Do” made its top-40 debut on February 3, 1979, Casey told of how TK Records had pressed 50,000 limited edition, heart-shaped red vinyl singles to be distributed to stores before Valentine’s Day. They were marketed at a list price of $7.98–then the retail cost of a full-length album—instead of the normal $1.98 for singles because of how expensive the die-cut pressings had been to produce.
It was the first time a heart-shaped vinyl single had been issued commercially, although it wouldn’t be the last. Around the same time, Motown Records—by then more followers of trends than leaders—followed TK’s lead and issued heart-shaped vinyl singles of the multi-artist tribute to Berry Gordy’s father (the late Berry Gordy, Sr.) who’d died months earlier, called “Pops, We Love You,” recorded by Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. That song, however, didn’t do nearly as well as “What You Won’t Do.”
Back on AT40, Casey also told of how the song came to be in the show’s March 10, 1979 episode (re-aired this past weekend on SiriusXM’s seventies station) where, in that story, Caldwell had been a struggling musician in Los Angeles who’d even considered suicide after a failed relationship and his struggling career left him depressed. He instead left the ex-girlfriend behind and returned east to his hometown of Miami where he was discovered by TK Records in 1978 after developing a reputation as a talented musician in local clubs.
After being signed by the label, Caldwell set out to record an album of songs to help him get over the earlier failed relationship, only to find that all nine of the tunes he’d written for the album were inspired by or tied to the girl who’d broken his heart, including the last-minute add “What You Won’t Do For Love, which went on to peak at No. 6 soul in January 1979 and at No. 9 pop that March.
Caldwell would continue recording albums and releasing singles for TK Records, the biggest of which (after “What You Won’t Do”) was the 1980 hit “Coming Down From Love,” which peaked at No. 28 soul and No. 42 pop, following the pattern where all of his songs did better on the soul chart than pop.
After TK Records folded in the mid-1980s, Caldwell moved on to other labels and developed a large following in Japan, a country where they didn’t parse music into race-based categories like soul and pop.
He also co-wrote the 1986 No. 1 song “The Next Time I Fall” by Peter Cetera and Amy Grant, after being encouraged by fellow white soul crossover artist Boz “Lowdown”Scaggs to write songs for other artists after TK had folded.
Caldwell as a singer would never duplicate the success of “What You Won’t do For Love,” but his and the song’s legacies have been cemented by the fact that “What You Won’t Do” has been sampled in more than 80 other tunes (according to WhoSampled.com), including hits by big-name R&B/hip-hop acts like The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur (at least three different times), Boyz II Men, Aaliyah, Da Brat, Common, Master P, Father MC, Erykah Badu, and French Montana.
The willingness of TK Records to give Caldwell a chance, and the lengths they went through to initially conceal his identity, ultimately led to the creation and success of one of the most enduring soul and pop classics to come out of the late 1970s. It has been the ultimate poster-child for the “I didn’t know he was white” mantra for nearly 45 years, which was exactly the way those masters of deception at TK Records had initially intended It.
Caldwell died Tuesday, March 14, 2023 at the age of 71, according to a statement issued by his wife on Twitter, although an official cause of death was not given.
Rest in Peace Robert Hunter (“Bobby”) Caldwell (August 15, 1951 – March 14, 2023), and thank you for giving us one of the greatest, most enduring soul classics of all time.
Lover of all music from 1978, DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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