Rest in power, Bobby Caldwell, the blue-eyed soul singing legend who is not — spoiler alert — a Black man

8 months ago 6
Singer Bobby Caldwell attends the Soul Train Awards 2013 at the Orleans Arena on November 8, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for BET)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The music world lost a legendary artist in Bobby Caldwell, the 71-year-old singer, songwriter and musician, whose most famous song, “What You Won’t Do For Love,” can almost literally be heard in everything, everywhere all at once. He passed away Tuesday at his home in New Jersey. Whether you’re at CVS or on a Tom Joyner cruise in your white or off-white linens, “What You Won’t Do For Love” is never far away. In addition to the music world losing a legend, depending on where you are in your journey, it’s entirely possible that for some, the Black community also lost a legend. 

It would absolutely not be true, but some of you don’t know that yet. You see, every year, like clockwork, some new legion of Black people find out that Bobby Caldwell is, in fact, not a Black man but a white man whose silky voice just so happened to be so silky smooth that he has been mistaken for a Black man and claimed by the Black community, since, well the late 1970s. Now, it’s not entirely the fault of the Black community that some of us don’t know. If you listen to him sing, well … then you get it. Also, his biggest song has been adopted by the community en masse. And why wouldn’t it; it’s an R&B song, through and through. 

You see, when Bobby Caldwell got his big break and that song was packaged and marketed, everything left off his face. It was kind of the reverse of the issue the Five Heartbeats had with their first album cover, which featured white people. The art for the “What You Won’t Do For Love” single simply featured a heart, and the album from which the song came — similarly titled “What You Won’t Do For Love” — had a silhouette of a man sitting on a bench. There was literally no way to tell who that brother was. The song itself was served to R&B radio stations. The point is, Bobby’s label, TK Records, wasn’t exactly NOT trying to make him a stalwart of the Black community, and it seems that upon that first release, folks just took it and ran with it and oddly passed that knowledge down to their kids, who have continued to do this, even now, through social media. 

One of the most read articles I’ve ever written was literally titled, “Where Were You When You Found Out Bobby Caldwell Was White?” — an article that poked fun at the constant discovery by Black folks — I have zero idea if white people have this same discovery or if he’s always been white to them — even in the year of our lord 2023. The highlight of that article was Bobby Caldwell retweeting it. I’m sure he got some level of kick out of the whole conundrum when he was apprised of it. It’s hilarious after all. And the various other more significant musical contributions will guarantee he lives forever and probably will continue to receive an annual invite to the cookout. 

You see, while the joke about him being white — well, that’s a fact, but you know the joke about the discovery — will be something we’ll talk about forever, we can’t forget his other wonderful musical contributions that also helped lay the groundwork for some classic hip-hop songs. For instance, his song “Open Your Eyes” was the foundation for the J. Dilla-produced, Grammy-nominated hit by Common, “The Light.” Or the Clark Kent-produced song “Sky’s The Limit” from The Notorious B.I.G. that samples Caldwell’s song “My Flame.” While he will be forever known for “What You Won’t Do For Love,” which was famously used by Soulshock & Karlin to create the Tupac record, “Do For Love,” his many other songs and contributions to hip-hop make him an artist who many of us hold in high regard. 

Just for public record, I made the discovery in college that he was white on an alley-oop from the homie as we talked about Caldwell. Now, this was before Google and using the internet to verify things instantly, so I’m sure my pushback was significant. But it also couldn’t be disproven either. Eventually, I must have verified this fact and accepted it, so I’ve had some decades to sit with this information, which also lends itself to a different way to hear this man’s music because that silky smooth voice is something else, Jack. But for those of you who will see his name in this headline and then see the spoiler, trust me — he’s white. And that discovery is part of the legend of one Robert Hunter Caldwell. 

Rest in power to the legend, Bobby Caldwell. 

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.

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