In September 1978, Bobby Caldwell dropped his most famous and commercially successful single, ‘What You Won’t Do For Love’, a sensual, groovy R&B classic that has stood the test of time. I’ve been recently listening to his eponymous record and, much like many listeners both today and at the time the single was released, I was surprised to find out that Bobby Caldwell was actually white. Surprised because that voice, those trumpets cascading off sultry melodies in R&B’s soul evolution through the 20th Century was unmistakably similar to what the pioneers of the genre were creating; the likes of Little Richard, Etta James, Ben. E King, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and so the illustrious list goes on.
When I first learnt of this, I initially assumed it was a lesser well-known instance of cultural appropriation within Black music. This was most evident through the huge success of rock ‘n roll superstars, who had adopted musical styles and influences from early R&B and boogie woogie, with Black artists in those genres receiving a fraction of the reputational or artistic credit. The record label that put out Bobby Caldwell’s smash hit, which had a large Black following at the time, made the decision not to use Caldwell’s face in any of the album artwork as to not alienate their core listenership who might not want to listen to a white guy with a beard on their favourite radio station. ‘What You Won’t For Love’ became a sensation and the rest, as they say, is history. We’ll never know whether the record label’s marketing strategy of omission helped put Caldwell on the map. In the context previously discussed, this appears to be a more subtle approach to gain a market share with a white artist rather than utilising Black talent, but I was intrigued to learn about ‘Blue-Eyed Soul’, a sub-genre of soul music specifically performed by white artists.
This seemed incredibly bizarre to me, not least because white artists have historically dominated popular music genres both in terms of critically-acclaimed artists and commercial success. The need to carve out a sub-genre of soul music for white artists to claim ownership of and operate in seems awkward and clunky. A spotlight should be shone on the pioneers and their cultural heritage by the current custodians to prevent the reckless abandon in which marginalised artists are exploited, but what makes us all gravitate so much towards music is its universality – the way the sound makes us feel, completely independently of the maker of the music. Music has evolved by the very nature of diverse groups tweaking and putting their own stamp on established patterns, and there should be space for both acknowledgment of where music comes from in terms of its special connection with a community and room for the baton to be passed on to see where the music could take us.
The fact that a generation of R&B-heads had no idea about Caldwell’s complexion may be an indication that when there’s soul, there’s soul. Authenticity, appreciation and paying homage to those who have innovated for the benefit of the current crop of artists may just permeate any divide.