Mates’ Crates: Timmy Thomas – Why Can’t We Live Together

Written by on 1st July 2019

Mates’ Crates, a series headed up by our friend Andrei Sandu, dives into the tales behind records and digs deeper into our connections to music. These are not reviews, they’re stories. This time, Timmy Thomas’s Why Can’t We Live Together.

Label: Vogue |Year: 1972 | Discogs: Timmy Thomas – Why Can’t We Live Together

Forty years before Drake got calls on his cell phone, one-hit-wonder one-man-band Timmy Thomas performed this soulful call for peace and unity.

I picked this 45 up in Nice’s Sonic Import last year, a re-release on the suitably French Vogue Records, with a 1979 live version on the flip which I can’t find online.

To call the instrumentation ‘stripped-back’ would be an understatement: just Thomas accompanying himself on the organ while the bossa-nova setting of a rhythm machine ticks along behind. TK Records’ producer Steve Alaimo was close to re-recording the track with a full band, but decided not to, leaving the message at the fore. Andrew Hamilton calls it one of the cheapest Top Ten hits ever made, topping the R&B chart, hitting three on the Billboard Pop Singles and eventually selling over two million copies.

When Thomas heard reports of the Vietnam War’s death toll, he started writing. The line, “no matter what colour, you’re still my brother” was influenced by Thomas’ visits to South Africa during Apartheid. He later saw that Why Can’t We Live Together was used as the theme for the broadcast of Mandela’s election. TK”s president, Henry Stone, believed that the record’s profound impact was precisely why none of Thomas’ later work enjoyed remotely comparable success.

I’ll admit that I first became aware of it after Drake sampled the instrumental on 2015’s Hotline BlingWhereas Thomas’ use of the instrumental to call for global unity is arguably more noble than Drake admonishing his ex girl for going out too much, both are heartfelt and vulnerable. Indeed, Thomas was simply excited and grateful for Drake’s use of the sample, emphasising that he was pleased it was all done the right way.

Of course, covers existed before Drake’s sample. Steve Winwood’s beautiful version fills out the instrumentation slightly, Santana’s performance unsurprisingly emphasises the lead guitar, whilst Sade’s version emphasises… well… Sade. Even MC Hammer has put his own spin on it. Australian disco maestro Late Nite Tuff Guy also put together an edit a few years ago in response to the November 2015 Paris attacks.

As he put it, this record has a simple, clear and beautiful message which is as relevant to the world today as it was back in 1972.

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