In soulful remembrance of Timmy Thomas ( (November 13, 1944 – March 11, 2022), renowned for his 1973 classic “Why Can’t We Live Together,” multi-talented singer, songwriter, keyboardist and producer, we revisit three interviews conducted by John Abbey in 1973, 1977 and 1978. Rest Peacefully, Mr. Thomas
Timmy Thomas: Classic Soul 1973 Interview
The One Man Band
Most people probably figure that “Why Can’t We Live Together” is the first time they have heard the hypnotic and highly individualistic style of organ playing of Timmy Thomas. However, most readers would certainly be wrong because Timmy is the pianist and organist on most of those great old Goldwax records of the mid and late 60’s that came from Memphis. Classics by James Carr, The Ovations, Spencer Wiggins, O.V. Wright, Percy Mylem and Barbara Perry all featured Timmy’s keyboard work.
Fact is that Timmy T. was the resident keyboard man with the Goldwax people and also he made two records in his own right. How did he get there?
“I was living in Memphis in those days,” explained the youthful and still-dazed hit maker, who literally just heard the good news that “Why Can’t We Live Together” had passed the million sales mark that very day, whilst he was some three thousand miles away from his Miami base in Los Angeles.
“I took in a rough tape that I had done and played it o Quinton Claunch, who was one of the owners at Goldwax. He liked it and we made an agreement by which the record would be released and I would work in his studio on the sessions he was working on. They were great days, man.
“Working with James Carr was really an experience. I have never seen a singer more interested in the music he was singing on – he would know better than hiss producer if there was a bad note or something. He was nothing short of being a perfectionist in the studio in those days, though I believe he’s changed for the worse these days – which is a terrible shame.”
In those halcyon days, Memphis was the place to be if you wanted to make Soul oriented records. Yet Goldwax didn’t survive. Whilst the city’s other main Soul outlet grew to dizzy heights, Goldwax died. “I think Stax did us more harm than good.” Timmy thoughtfully confided. “You see, if an artist in the area thought he had talent, he would always go to Stax first and if they didn’t like him, he’d end up trying a Goldwax or one of the other recording companies in the city. Stax took up most all of the real talent and Goldwax got mostly the leftovers.”
In those days, though, Timmy’s talents were not restricted only to Goldwax sessions. He naturally worked for Stax and was an automatic stand-in with The Mar-keys when Booker T. was unavailable. In fact, he did a jamming session one time with Booker T., which Stax presumably has filed away someplace
On the demise of the Goldwax situation, Timmy went back to college, achieving a degree as a Bachelor of Arts in Music Education in 1966. He went on to teach music while completing a further and higher musical degree at the University of Tennessee. All the time though, he would play with local bands over the weekends.
In 1970, Timmy went to Miami, where he had been selected to head the development programme at the Florida Memorial College. And it is from the city of Miami that his current worldwide acclaim began its upward trend. Timmy became the first black to own a lounge in the exclusive Miami Beach area when he opened Timmy’s Lounge last spring and it was in Timmy’s Lounge that “Why Can’t We Live Together” was born.
“I had written the song out of frustration,” Timmy Explained, “It was written out of my concern for the world. Not a racial trouble but a general problem of why we can’t all live together- not necessarily black and white but take a look around the world and see all the little problems that are being experienced – and the big ones in places such as Israel and Egypt of Viet Nam.
“The song means a lot to me and not just because it’s been fantastically successful for me but because of what it says and of the things that have happened to me since the record became a hit. A lot of folk have listened and analysed what I am saying and I’m proud of some of the compliments I have received from people who appreciate what the song actually says. The success bit? Well, I know it’s happening to me but I’m afraid to think about it too much in case it’s all a dream – in which case, I never want to wake up!”
However, I suspect that the most important singular element of the record that started its climb for the top some six months ago is the rhythm. The record has a highly contagious rhythm pattern which makes it totally irresistible in a club – or, in fact, anywhere that it gets played loudly enough to set your feet tapping. Without actually acknowledging it, I think that Timmy would secretly agree with this point though the strength of the lyric has certainly aided it to attain the fantastic success it has undoubtedly garnered.
Explaining the musical make-up, Timmy says: “It’s almost a bossa nova beat with a touch of Spanish in it. I was originally thinking of a different rhythm although it was close to what we now have. But I tried it out in the lounge and the people there loved it just this way so we settled on it this way,” The record actually got its first big lift –off in the New York area and Timmy thinks that the large Puerto Rican community helped a great deal there. “The rhythm certainly appealed to them,” he states “and I think they could associate themselves with the message too.”
Much of the rest, Timmy lays fairly and squarely at the feet of Lady Luck. “Hey, I’m the luckiest cat in the world,” he loudly laughs with a huge grin on his youthful face. “I stumbled on that rhythm because, like I said, it originally had a funky, funky beat behind it.”
Now for one of the more incredible facts about the whole thing – there is only one man on the whole record. Yes. Timmy is the sole musician and his organ is the only instrument. He even calls his feet and hands different names to give the humorous impression that he has a full band – he plays the bass with his foot and calls it Bernard for example! In fact, his whole album – currently leaping up the American charts – features the same musician alone throughout and to add to the depth of his talent, all but two of the songs included bear the name of the writer T. Thomas. That’s what intrigued me to ask what was so very special about the two other songs on the album.
“Well, that’s an easy question,” grinned Timmy, obviously having answered the same questions himself on numerous occasions. “After listening to the Chi-lites original of “Coldest Days Of My Life”, it gave me a deep feeling of having experienced what they were singing about – the cold, cold feeling of being alone simply got through to me and I wanted to sing that song so badly. “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was for a similar reason though I experienced the feeling when it was included in the movie, “Play Misty For Me”.”
Having heard the album several times, my only negative comment is simply that the rhythm becomes too dominant and too same-y at times and I felt the need for more instruments on several occasions. However, one cannot deny the tremendous achievement of the man for creating a whole album which, from a lesser talent, would undoubtedly have bored all and sundry to the point where the album would never have survived the full thirty-five minutes. Yet, Timmy feels that his record’s success will allow him to experiment far more with his act than ever before.
“Truthfully, I would be the first to get bored if I was getting into the same pattern all the time,” he said, quite aware of the point I was tactfully trying to put to him.
“The success has allowed me to take more chances because I have always got the hit to fall back on. It has also give me the confidence I perhaps lacked before. But, whatever happens, I don’t plan to necessarily take a band on the road,, Right now, people want to see me the way I am and that’s the way I’ll stay – until the people want to see me a different way or I’m not doing the business. Then I will willingly change to what it the takes to be successful. But, I’ll tell you this, I would love to be in a concert where I can have a full string orchestra behind me – that I would love for myself!”
The Timmy Thomas story actually began on November 13, 1944 in Evansville, Indiana. Before even becoming a teenager, Timmy’s life was already being dominated by music. He plays with the school band, standing head and shoulders above the whole school in his know-how to play music. By the time he was only ten years old, he was already playing organ for the various gospel choirs at his father’s church.
His eleven brothers and sisters were all musically inclined but all acknowledged their brothers unique love and understanding of his music. In his early teens, Timmy formed his first band, a five piece affair consisting of school friends for the local Evansville school.
In 1962, Timmy was awarded a scholarship from his school to attend the Stan Kenton Jazz Clinic at Indiana University, where he studied under such renowned names as Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Pete Fountain, Woody Herman and Bobby Baker, amongst others. On graduating, Timmy was awarded a scholarship to attend Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee and it was during this period of his studies that he met up with the Goldwax gang. The biggest of his two Goldwax releases was “Have Some Boogaloo”, which – to quote Timmy – “sold like hot cakes around the Memphis area – nothing like a hit record, just like hot cakes!” He acknowledges those early years of working with people such as James Carr, The Ovations and O.V. Wright as being the most formulative in his short career.
“Why Can’t We Live Together” was recorded in Miami in August of last year, along with its flip side, “Funky Me”. The original cut spans more than four minutes – as on the album – whilst the commercial single was cut to three minutes, twenty five seconds. The rest of the album was done during November; Timmy is the first artist signed to the Glades label in Miami and is celebrating what is undoubtedly a worldwide hit.
© 1973, John Abbey
Reprinted courtesy John Abbey
Timmy Thomas: Classic Soul 1977 Interview
The Sweet Smell Of Success Revisited
Timmy Thomas is back in chart business with his “Stone To The Bone” disco giant. He reflects on his previous success and how he’s learned by his mistakes…
Back in 1973, Timmy Thomas exploded into international prominence with his classic record of “Why Can’t We Live Together”. It was a haunting, simple but effective commentary on life at a time when people were genuinely conscious of their need to ‘live together’. Happily, times have progressed and though that need is still there, circumstances have improved to the point where it isn’t necessary to make such social commentaries quite so blatantly. From a musical standpoint, though, the record was unique because it featured just one musician! Timmy! He became known a ‘The One Man Band’ and he used to travel the world over with his massive keyboard on which he could reproduce virtually any basic instrument that he needed. And to make it even more special, he’d synchronise the thing to sound like a whole rhythm combo.
That explains the strange but unique quality that dominated Timmy’s biggest selling record of all time but it was a sound that could not really be followed up on and Timmy was allowed to drift into something of a musical wilderness. That statement is even more true of Timmy’s domestic American career because it is only now that he is beginning to reassert himself — mainly with the driving disco giant of the moment, “Stone To The Bone”. Reflecting on those early years, Timmy says: “It was a novelty, I guess. I didn’t think so at the time but now looking back, that’s what the public probably thought. For me, it was accidental because I had always been that kind of entertainer. In fact, until less than a year ago, I had never carried a band on the road with me. It was always my one-man band. But music is changing and if I am to survive, I have to face the fact that I have to change, too. That’s why I took on the band — just after the second album was released and around the time of ‘You’re The Song I Always Wanted To Sing’.
He continues, “You know something, I never even knew it did so well for me here in Britain! Anyway, with the release of my newer product — on which a band is used — I wanted to be able to reproduce my records and that meant adding a band. I still do my part just like before — only now I have five other musicians to give a fuller, heavier sound than before. For example, you’ll hear two distinct bass lines — my one on keyboard and the bass player himself. Changes? Well, yes, it has meant a change for me. Before, I could do a completely spontaneous show because I only had me to follow — now, I have to think of the guys and I go off into something, they have no way of staying up with me. And I never used to have to actually rehearse; sure, I was always playing my piano but it wasn’t like actual rehearsing. Now I have to be considerate to my band…although, they’ve learned that anything may happen during a show. But, if I had to really tell the truth, I think I would prefer to be the one-man band because that’s the way I feel more relaxed.”
Now, with the release in this country of Timmy’s “The Magician” album, it looks likely that his international acclaim will start to spiral once more. “I’m so happy with the album,” he enthuses. “It coincides with the success of ‘Stone To The Bone’ as a single back home. Does it remind you just a little of ‘Why Can’t We Live Together?’ Sure, it’s funkier but it does have that flavour to it — right down to that little piano figure. It’s funny but my life always seems to come back to that record. Let’s face it, it took me from oscurity to the top in one go so I’ll always be grateful to it. And it seems that the public like me that way. It must be something in the rhythm pattern because the other hit in England, ‘You’re The Song’, also had that same feel to it, didn’t it? In between I have tried to vary what I’ve done — and they’ve all been stiffs! I’m the first to agree now that the public always know best. Sure, I’d like to progress but I’ll do my best to make records that I can be recognised by. Going all of that time without a hit record was so frustrating and annoying. Sure, you start to doubt yourself. Many is the time that I’ve prayed for a second chance! And now that I have been blessed again, I’ll try not to abuse it in any way. I think that I have matured a great deal since those days, anyway. It’s funny, though, because I had far less problems before that first hit — all I had to worry about was getting to the club every night on time and feeling like playing. Everything else was academic. Then, suddenly, I’m all over the country, doing concerts, appearing on TV.
He recalls, “I remember the first time we met — that was my first time in California and I was completely out of it. My feet hadn’t hit the floor and I was almost living in a permanent daze. Before that break, life was much more tiring but I enjoyed it because of its simplicity. Now, I have come to face the terms and if ‘Stone’ goes all the way, I’ll be more capable of coping with it all. And musically, I have progressed a great deal. Now I’m more into writing and production whereas in those early days, I admit I was just a lucky novice.” Were there mistakes made the first time around? “Lord, yes!” exclaimed Timmy with a wide grin. “Nothing that I have lived to actually regret because they were all born out of inexperience. And I’ll benefit from all of that experience this time. You know, you suddenly stumble upon a hit record and you become inundated with all kinds of offers. It’s very flattering and a head can be turned! My biggest error was in not co-ordinating my work. I found nyself flying here, there and everywhere to fulfill engagements and I never got to bed or got to go home at all. It was a lack of awareness and the fact that I wasn’t signed to a booking agency. This time, I’ll take care of business, though. In fact, a second chance will be like a blessing and I’m surprised that the shine has never worn off — I still get the same excitement today that I got three years ago. I guess, too, that I was lucky to have such a strong wife behind me to help. She kept me going when I wanted to forget it all and without her I would have never gotten through. And I’ve got a lot to thank Henry Stone (TK’s founder) for he has given me confidence by persevering with me. It was Henry who took me aside and told me where I was going wrong and just as I have to thank him for ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’, it was Henry who helped ‘Stone To The Bone’ come to life. He told me how I had gotten completely away from what I stood for and that was why I wasn’t selling records. That man has the finest ears in the business. He hears a hit when nobody else can and that will always be his strength in the business. ‘Stone To The Bone’ is more of an instrumental and that was Henry’s idea. It’s like a deja vu situation and now I’m back in the right groove, I’m not going to lose it. I’m just grateful that Henry didn’t write me off — because a lot of companies would have done in that situation.
And so spoke the ever-smiling and affable gent from Evansville, Indiana. It’s refreshing to hear an artist who genuinely seems to comprehend where things were going astray and I’m personally happy for him that he has been able to put it right in time.
© 1977, John Abbey
Reprinted courtesy John Abbey
Timmy Thomas: Classic Soul 1978 Interview
The Gospel Freak
The “Why Can’t We Live Together man now has a dual role — as head of TK’s Gospel division and leader of the Freak dancefloor phenomenon…
That may seem like a misleading title to tag on Timmy Thomas — but it has a hidden meaning. You see, the affable Mr. T. is currently climbing the nation’s charts with his hunk of disco funk, “Freak In, Freak Out”, a dancefloor gem that seems destined to be the first Freak hit. However, Timmy’s other hit is in complete contrast because he has just been appointed head of the Gospel Music Division of TK Records. “My roots are firmly in gospel music,” Timmy assures us, “but the only way to relate to kids today is in their own language and through dance records.”
It actually marks Timmy’s first success in over a year and looks a likely bet to finally overtake Timmy’s first and still biggest success to date, “Why Can’t We Live Together”, a record that is easily one of the most distinctive and original R&B records of all time. “It’s very exciting to be back,” Timmy smiles. “Clarence Reid wrote and produced the record and Cory Wade added some extra instruments to give it a today kind of a feeling — and it seems to be paying off. Now, I have just completed a new album and that should be on the streets in a few weeks. The main difference between this record and “Why Can’t We Live Together”, for example, is that this song drags the talent from me — whereas “Why Can’t We Live Together” just flowed on its own. It was unique. Now it looks like I’ll have the first real Freak hit and that will keep my name on the disco circuit.”
On a more sober note, then, what is Timmy’s involvement in TK’s newly formed Gospel Music Division? “Well, we have never treated Gospel as a separate music unitl now,” Timmy begins. “But now that Gospel has become contemporary — with people like Andre Crouch, for example — the company is going to organise itself and make a commercial effort to bring Gospel to the people.”
The label is to be called Gospel Roots and Timmy will share responsibilities with veteran music man, Dave Clark. “We are doing some things with the Reverend C.L. Franklin and you remember Mitty Collier? She is doing a gospel album for us. And a choir called the Fountain Of Life Youth Choir is being produced by Kevin and Marvin Yancy — with Marvin’s wife, Natalie Cole, actually singing backgrounds on a couple of numbers. Then we have the O’Neill Twins and the Brooklyn All Stars. It’s quite an impressive roster.”
Are there any plans for Timmy to do his own Gospel album? “I am planning to do one — rather like the kind of gospel that Billy Preston used to do.” In the past, Gospel has been very much a restricted market. However, as with jazz, it is a music form that is beginning to become more contemporary. Can it successfully make the transition with so many natural things holding it back? “Yes!” Timmy asserts. “Kids today are into the Mighty Clouds Of Joy and James Cleveland because they can relate to their style and still get the message. It happened in a big way, of course, with “Oh Happy Day” and there is talk now that Stevie Wonder is planning to do a Gospel album next year. If that’s so, Gospel will suddenly arrive!” Meanwhile, Timmy’s “Freak” message continues to get over — thus accidentally creating a genuine musical paradox.
© 1978, John Abbey
Reprinted courtesy John Abbey