Drake may be looking for his “Hotline Bling,” but Timmy Thomas is still the king.
Timmy’s historic record “Why Can’t We Live Together” has sold over tens of millions of vinyl copies worldwide, went number three on the pop charts, is the first hit song to use electric organ with a drum machine, established Henry Stone’s TK Productions as the biggest independent music company in the world, and became South Africa’s anti-apartheid rallying cry, and then Nelson Mandela’s official song for inauguration as president.
Timmy Thomas was born in Evansville, Indiana. He later moved to Memphis, and worked as a school administrator and a session musician for Booker T. & the M.G.’s. A job offer from Florida Memorial College led him to Miami, where he followed his dreams and opened a nightclub in an old Miami Beach hotel on 46th and Collins.
One night during the Vietnam War, he saw a TV news bulletin about 46,000 dead Viet Cong and 15,000 dead Americans. He saw a photo of children being burned alive by napalm as they ran down a dirt road, screaming, and he wrote “Why Can’t We Live Together.”
He played it at his club and the audience went crazy, so he cut a demo tape for $350 at sax player Bobby Dukoff’s South Miami studio; and then took it to radio station WEDR on NW 36th St. and paid to get it played on air. The phones lit up with audience requests to hear it again.
Local powerhouse distributor Henry Stone was listening. He brought Timmy in for a meeting and told him: “I love the song. I’ll take it. It’s mine.”
Noel “King Sporty” Williams, who wrote “Buffalo Soldier” for Bob Marley in Henry Stone’s T.K. Productions compound, owned the copyright of the original recording and its publishing through his Konduko label and Rasta Co. B.M.I. Henry Stone bought him out for $75,000.
Then Stone and Thomas made a deal and re-recorded the track in Stone’s tiny upstairs studio using Timmy’s electric church organ and its primordial built-in beat box. In 1972, the single came out on Stone’s Glades Records imprint and it took over the world.
“It was very exciting,” remembers Thomas. “Anywhere in the world that there was unrest, they called me in. I played the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa. I knew my music couldn’t change laws, but it could change hearts. And I never played a single segregated concert anywhere.”
Over the years, the song has been covered by Sade, Santana, Steve Winwood, and Joan Osborne, racking up publishing revenue. But it almost came out on Atlantic Records. As Henry Stone recalls: “I was on a plane on my way up to New York to lease the single to them for national distribution when I said, ‘Fuck it. I can do this myself.'”
And so Stone founded his T.K. Productions empire on the strength of the back of its first hit, “Why Can’t We Live Together” by Timmy Thomas.
The gamble paid off; and next came the first global r&b dance hit of the 70s, “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae. TK Productions and Tone Distribution sold hundreds of millions of records out of a warehouse in Hialeah.
Article and photos ©Jake Katel