Bobby Caldwell, a singer-songwriter whose sultry R&B hit “What You Won’t Do for Love” propelled his debut album to double-platinum status in 1978 and was later covered by chart-toppers Boyz II Men and Michael Bolton, died on Tuesday at his home in Great Meadows, N.J. He was 71.
The cause was long-term complications of a toxic reaction to the antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones, his wife, Mary, wrote on Twitter.
Over his four-decade career, Mr. Caldwell swerved freely among genres, exploring R&B, reggae, soft rock, and smooth jazz, as well as standards from the Great American Songbook. He recorded more than a dozen albums under his own name.
While his skills as an old-school crooner — not to mention his trademark fedora — were convincing enough to land him a gig as Frank Sinatra in a Las Vegas revue called “The Rat Pack Is Back!” in the 1990s, he was best known 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 a highly regarded songwriter. His songs were recorded by Chicago, Boz Scaggs, Neil Diamond, and Al Jarreau, among others. “The Next Time I Fall,” which he wrote with Paul Gordon, became a hit for Peter Cetera and Amy Grant, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986. In 2020, Billboard included the song on a list of the 25 greatest love songs.
Success, however, did not come overnight.
Robert Hunter Caldwell was born on Aug. 15, 1951, in Manhattan and spent much of his youth in Miami. His parents, Bob and Carolyn Caldwell, were entertainers who hosted two early television variety shows, “42nd Street Review” in New York and “Suppertime” in Pittsburgh, before moving the family to Miami.
“I was a show business baby,” he said in a recent video interview. By age 17, he was writing and performing his own material. He soon moved to Las Vegas, where he performed with a group called Katmandu that cut an album in 1971. In the early 1970s, he got a turn in the spotlight as a rhythm guitarist for Little Richard.
He spent the next several years trying to make a name for himself, playing in bars and recording demos. He finally found a taste of stardom in his own right with the success of “What You Won’t Do for Love.” That success continued in the early 1980s with albums “Cat in the Hat” (1980) and “Carry On” (1982).
While his star faded later in the ’80s, he continued to record and perform for decades. In 2015, he notched a comeback with his album “Cool Uncle,” which he made with the renowned R&B producer Jack Splash. The album crossed generational lines, featuring guest artists Deniece Williams, CeeLo Green, and Jessie Ware, and it climbed the Billboard contemporary jazz chart. Rolling Stone called the album “2015’s smartest retro-soul revival.”
In addition to Mary, his wife of 19 years, Mr. Caldwell leaves two daughters, Lauren and Tessa, and a stepdaughter, Katie, according to the Associated Press.
Mr. Caldwell also got an unlikely career boost with the rise of hip-hop: Rappers Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., and Common all sampled his songs.
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.”