Every time a soul singer famous in the 1960s/70s dies I discover wonderful music. So much wonderful music was made on smaller, indie labels in the USA over these decades that remains obscure to anyone apart from big time soul heads. It takes his death to discover Timmy Thomas performing Love Me as part of Philip and the Faithfuls, for instance, or It’s My Life (1967), both released on Memphis based label, Goldwax. It’s My Life is a searing slice of soul, a song about personal freedom that indicates the sadness that comes with constantly moving on.
Timmy Thomas, who has died aged 77, was famous for the compulsive plea Why Can’t We Live Together, a 2 million selling hit in 1972 with a basic message of peace and, considering the context of America’s continuing war in Vietnam, an anti-war song. Built on a drum machine rhythm from a Lowry organ modified by electronics whiz Henry Kones , who also specialised in pacemakers and, apparently, ironically, nuclear missile parts, and clocking in at nine and a half minutes in all its glory, Why Can’t We Live Together connects in its simplicity.
If this was the hit that defined Timmy Thomas he obviously had a lot more going on. But, sometimes, when a song is so huge and iconic it can be hard for an artist to get beyond it at all. Every follow up is judged against a unique moment. That said, I’m sure Thomas was grateful as a revolving set of generations rediscovered his classic and his name remained familiar for decades, most recently revised when Drake decided to use a break from Why… for his stupidly lovely (and best track) Hotline Bling, which, in the mind-spinning tumult of modern pop releases was, in turn, eclipsed by Erykah Badu’s version.
The song, taking on a life of its own, took Thomas to South Africa in 1994 to play it live at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration and has inspired rumination and thoughts from music lovers and social observers. But, delve a little and you find an artist, a voice, a songwriter who deserves wider attention.
This is an excellent article worth reading as a follow up from NPR →
Here is my favourite version of Why Can’t We Live Together, performed live with Timmy’s sparse set up proving that drum machines can be soulful all by themselves.