Old soul anew

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The last time Mi­ami soul icon Timmy Thomas’ uni­fy­ing an­them “Why Can’t We Live To­gether” was such a fix­ture in pop cul­ture, its fame took him to the South African town­ship of Soweto, where he was dis­turbed to find the streets lined with a lost gen­er­a­tion of idle school chil­dren.

It was 1974, re­sis­tance to the coun­try’s apartheid poli­cies was gain­ing trac­tion, and Thomas’ elo­quent Top 10 sin­gle — de­fined by the re­frain “No mat­ter what color, you are still my brother” — had earned him an in­vi­ta­tion to per­form in Soweto, the seg­re­gated en­clave out­side Jo­han­nes­burg. More than 7,000 black and brown faces greeted Thomas on the tar­mac when his plane landed.

On the road through Soweto, Thomas, also a mu­sic teacher, was trou­bled by the sight of chil­dren by the side of the road. Un­der apartheid, his driver told him, education was not com­pul­sory.

Thomas in­structed the driver to take him to the near­est li­brary, where the shelves sat nearly empty. He pre­sented the li­brar­ian with his pay­check for his five sold-out per­for­mances in Soweto: $10,000.

“I told him, ‘You look and see what th­ese kids need. Teach them how to read,’” re­calls Thomas, who soon af­ter re­turn­ing home re­ceived a let­ter of ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

Timmy Thomas at a re­hearsal days be­fore his de­but at SXSW 2016. Thomas and the Over­town Soul Re­vue will per­form tonight in North Mi­ami. “This is what re­ally hit me. He said, ‘Timmy, the li­brary sys­tem got wind of you leav­ing that kind of money, so they only gave us half of it.’ The au­thor­i­ties kept the other half.”

If there is a cos­mic statis­ti­cian keep­ing score for Timmy Thomas, it seems the Mi­ami Gar­dens res­i­dent is about to be re­paid in full. And then some.

Mr. Brown and Sade

Thomas got his start in the busi­ness dur­ing the 1960s, while at­tend­ing Lane Col­lege in Jack­son, Tenn., and play­ing key­boards in Mem­phis with the likes of the Mar-Keys, Booker T. & the MGs, Otis Red­ding and Isaac Hayes. When “Why Can’t We Live To­gether” hit the charts in 1973, on Mi­ami mu­sic im­pre­sario Henry Stone’s Glades la­bel, Thomas was in­vited to tour with James Brown.

“Mr. Brown. You had to call him Mr. Brown,” Thomas says of the singer who of­ten would sneak up be­hind Thomas on­stage to hit a few notes on the dis­tinc­tive key­board open­ing for “Why Can’t We Live To­gether.”

With de­grees in mu­sic education and men­tal-health coun­sel­ing, Thomas has paid the bills for the past 40 years teach­ing at Florida Me­mo­rial Univer­sity, Mi­ami Nor­land Se­nior High School and, most re­cently, Shad­owlawn El­e­men­tary. At the height of his pop­u­lar­ity, he per­formed reg­u­larly at Timmy’s Lounge, a long-closed nightspot on Mi­ami Beach that he did not own, but al­lowed to use his name.

And ev­ery so of­ten “Why Can’t We Live To­gether” would ex­pe­ri­ence a blip of pop in­ter­est. Sade cov­ered the song on her topselling 1984 de­but al­bum, “Di­a­mond Life,” with other pop­u­lar ver­sions re­leased by jazz bassist Kyle East­wood (“From There to Here,” 1998), Steve Win­wood (“About Time,” 2003) and Car­los San­tana (“Live at Mon­treux,” 2011).

Thomas would re-record his own ver­sions, as well.

“Things would start hap­pen­ing again,” he says. “There was un­rest in the world again, and they started pick­ing up the phone [say­ing], ‘Timmy we need you. We need your song.’ I did two or three remixes my­self.”

Noth­ing, how­ever, com­pares to the spot­light now be­ing shone on “Why Can’t We Live To­gether,” which has helped earn Thomas a new record­ing deal with Over­town Records, a show­case last week at SXSW and, on Fri­day, March 25, a per­for­mance at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in North Mi­ami.

The MoCA show will in­clude the same set list that Thomas per­formed at SXSW, with more re­minders of the 1960s-’70s hey­day of the Mi­ami Soul sound, presided over by Henry Stone and dis­tin­guished by per­form­ers rang­ing from Clarence “Blowfly” Reid and Lit­tle Beaver to topselling stars such as Betty Wright, Gwen and Ge­orge McRae, and KC and the Sun­shine Band.

Thomas will be backed by the Over­town Soul Re­vue, com­posed of bassist Chris DeAn­ge­lis, of Mi­ami honky-tonkers the 18 Wheel­ers; Reg­gie Sears, gui­tarist and long­time Blowfly col­lab­o­ra­tor; and drum­mer Tom Bowker, co-founder of Over­town Records.

Open­ing the out­door show Fri­day night will be a salute to In­ter­na­tional Women’s Month that fea­tures mu­sic writ­ten for women by Blowfly, who died in Jan­uary. Among the per­form­ers will be Tina Valdez, lead singer of Blowfly’s girl group, Reid Inc., and FranCina Jones, who sang with lo­cal leg­end Bobby Stringer.

BEN CRANDELL/STAFF

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