How Bobby Caldwell Inspired Common's Biggest Rap Song

Photo:  Ethan Miller/BET (Getty Images)
Photo: Ethan Miller/BET (Getty Images)

With the unfortunate passing of soul singer Bobby Caldwell at the age of 71, the Black community came together on social media to collectively mourn the death of a beloved and beautiful“Black voice.”

Yes, I know he’s a white man. But when Caldwell broke into the music scene with his 1978 single, “What You Won’t Do For Love,” many people thought he was Black, not only because of his husky, soulful voice but the label he was signed to, TK Records.

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A largely R&B label that was popular among the Black community, TK wanted to hide Caldwell’s race and did not show his face on his self-titled debut album. Fans did not discover he was white until he went on tour with Natalie Cole to promote his album.

Bobby Caldwell - What You Won’t Do for Love (Album Version)

Since then, Caldwell has been cherished by many in the Black community, making appearances at the Soul Train Awards and being sampled by countless Black artists, including 2Pac, Aaliyah, Kool G Rap, Master P, Boyz II Men, The Game, Little Brother and many others.

My personal favorite sample and my introduction to Bobby’s voice was Pac’s 1998 posthumously released single, “Do For Love.” The sample sounded so much like a Black man to me that I didn’t even give it a second thought. When I found out years later that he was Black I was floored. That voice came from that man? I couldn’t believe it, but it also spoke to how talented he was as a vocalist.

The story behind Common’s “The Light”

Outside of 2Pac’s use of Bobby Caldwell’s classic debut single, Common might have the second most iconic sampling of the R&B singer.

“The Light” came out in July 2000; it was released as a single for Common’s fourth studio album, Like Water for Chocolate. The record became Common’s first Grammy-nominated song and is still one of his most popular tracks to date.

Common - The Light (Official Music Video)

The song was a love letter for the Chicago rapper’s then-girlfriend Erykah Badu, and it samples Caldwell’s 1980 track, “Open Your Eyes.”

Beautifully produced by legendary producer J-Dilla, the track is an amazing display of Common’s skill as an MC and Dilla’s versatility as a beat maker.

In an Instagram post shortly after the passing of Caldwell, Questlove shared a phenomenal story on how Common’s hit single came to be and how he never got the chance to meet the R&B singer while he was alive.

In the post, he wrote, “I told @Common that maybe we should lose the beat to “The Light” cause it wasn’t “Dilla enough” 😭——but Rash saw something in it man——he was like “naw man imma write to this” (later found he wrote it already 🤣😂) —-I wasn’t mad at it but at that time as a sophomore at “Dilla U” I thought I had Dilla all figured out and NONE of his trademark characteristics were rhythmically there.”

Questlove later admitted that he was all wrong about the production and he’s glad Dilla or Common did not take any of his advice.

He later continued, “I got word Brother Bobby loved it like in 2001 & so many “we’ll be in town let’s meet” or later on w Fallon “let’s have you sit in!” opportunities missed… Man such a missed opportunity to meet a legend. Thank you for your voice and gift #BobbyCaldwell.”

For whatever reason, every couple of years, a particular figure resonates with the Black community. Even if he doesn’t have the same skin color as us, we still embrace them and Bobby Caldwell was thankful enough to embrace the Black community back.

He will truly be missed by all who enjoyed his music and his legacy will never be forgotten thanks to the timeless music he left behind.

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