Steven Ivory

*I heard it for the umpteenth time just now.  And every time I hear it feels like the first time.

Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 classic, “What You Won’t Do For Love” (which the singer wrote with Alfas Kitten) is, for me, like great Mexican food.  No matter how many times I have it, if I’m hungry,  I  can have it again.

I suppose this is because, no matter what is going on in my life, I often feel I am  never very far from the  yearning sentiment that is Caldwell’s Plaintive Wail.  We all  search for love.  But even when you’re IN love, “What You Won’t Do For Love”–its insistent,  mid-tempo pocket accented by that lonely,  haunting synth line–is too good a musical lament to waste.  

Despite its anguish, during the recording the song doesn’t simply fade out.  Instead, it pridefully SWAGGERS into oblivion–presenting rhythmic, head-bobbing proof that even in desperation,  there can be dignity.    

Typically, Caldwell came up  with  his R&B masterpiece after the label said it didn’t hear a potential hit among  the songs he’d assembled for his debut album.  Since its release, “What You Won’t Do For Love” has been recorded and sampled by more than 100 artists.  

I loved  the song from the moment I heard it.  I had no idea Caldwell was white until the morning I interviewed him for a magazine article  shortly after the single’s release.  It didn’t matter to me.  

However, as late as 1978, T.K. Records wasn’t sure the R&B market–black radio and black record buyers–would feel the same way. The company  strategically left Caldwell’s photo off both  the  single’s sleeve and the cover of his self-titled debut album (This, even though the label’s openly white Harry “K.C.” Wayne Casey, as K.C. and the Sunshine Band, had  a monster hit on the black charts three years earlier with 1975s “Get Down Tonight.”).

When Caldwell began performing live dates, the jig was up.  Hue didn’t matter to black radio and its primary demographic, which helped make the song a Top Ten hit.  They loved “What You Won’t Do For Love.”

And  so did my moody, passionate Natalie.  Both 23 and naive, in 1978 we held  that song up as melodic tenet of our  fervid seven month union, which, in bad times required more than mere pop song wisdom.

One evening a  conversation over dinner at Musso and Franks morphed into pity, tears and finally spitting disdain, with Natalie storming out of the restaurant and taking a cab home.  I talked to her machine all night.  

My last hope was the Lovelight.  Actually, it was  a  thick,  nearly five-feet tall jasmine-scented candle.  Standing by the couch in the living room of her tiny ground floor guesthouse apartment, the Lovelight was Natalie’s way of communicating with me when her pride no longer allowed her to.     

No matter how torturous our arguments, when lit and seen  through her living room window, the Lovelight, she vowed, would signify forgiveness.  We’d  called on the tender language of the Lovelight more than once.  It never let us down.

After not hearing from Natalie all next day,  just after dusk I made the humbling pilgrimage to her place. Lyric: “…I CAME BACK TO LET YOU KNOW/GOT A THING FOR YOU, AND I CAN’T LET GO.”

I parked on the street and,  trying my best not to  resemble a stalker, trudged as quietly as I could through the gravel-filled driveway of the main house.  Once in the backyard, I cast a hopeful gaze at the cottage  nestled under a protective oak tree.

And there it was: the  durable Lovelight,  flickering through window dressing of bamboo shades and sheer curtains, a warm, compassionate beacon of  clemency.  

Ecstatic, I quietly made my way onto the unlit porch. While coming up the steps,  my eyes aligned with a crack in the bamboo–through which I glimpsed, in the betraying glow of the Lovelight, the  sight of   Natalie in lingerie.  She was on her  couch in the big, dark arms of  a shirtless, determined  man.  

I watched longer than I should have. Back in  the car, I was hurt and so angry that I  shook.  

However, the song is not titled, “What You Won’t Do For A Small Caliber Handgun Untraceable By Police. Or A Hand Grenade.”  The next morning,  after telling Natalie about herself on her machine,  I turned my attention to the laborious healing of my heart and the propping up of my sagging ego.    

Remarkably, I didn’t take my misfortune out on   “What You Won’t Do For Love.”  I refused to make Caldwell’s timeless tune responsible for Natalie’s brisk indiscretion. Lyric: “YOU’VE TRIED EVERYTHING, BUT YOU WON’T GIVE UP.”   

That doesn’t mean that two years later, I didn’t practically stand up and salute  Teddy Pendergrass’ 1980 hit, “Love TKO,” a forlorn, consoling slice of Philly soul about knowing when to pack it in.   To be sure, love is a wonderful thing.  Infatuation, on the other hand, has a mean uppercut.        

Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years.  Respond to him via [email protected]