Old soul anew
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.