Singer’s anti-war song reached US Top 3 in 1973 before being widely covered and sampled by artists including Drake
Timmy Thomas in 1973. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images
The Guardian-Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Timmy Thomas, whose spellbinding anti-war song Why Can’t We Live Together was a global hit in 1973, has died aged 77.
No cause of death has been given. His family wrote on his Facebook page: “With appreciation and gratitude, the family extends a thank you for the prayers, support, precious words and other expressions of love and kindness during this time.”
With its organ chords, rudimentary drum machine rhythm and heartfelt vocals from Thomas, Why Can’t We Live Together remains one of the most striking and minimalist R&B songs of the 1970s. It reached No 3 in the US and No 12 in the UK; its lyrics of pacifism and racial harmony chimed with listeners amid the still-raging Vietnam war.
Notable cover versions are by Sade on multi-platinum 1984 debut album Diamond Life; MC Hammer on 1991’s Too Legit to Quit; Steve Winwood for 2003’s About Time; and Lonnie Liston Smith with Iggy Pop on vocals, released in 2021.
The song was also sped up and sampled by Drake for one of his biggest hits, 2016 single Hotline Bling, which went Top 3 in the US and UK and introduced Thomas’s song to a new generation of listeners. “I was very proud to listen to what he had done with it, even though he had changed the message that I had,” Thomas said.
Thomas was born in Indiana in 1944 , one of 12 siblings. He studied jazz under Cannonball Adderley and Donald Byrd but segued into playing soul music after further music studies at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, picking up sessions with Stax records and the smaller label Goldwax, where he cut his first solo singles.
He settled in Miami, and began working as a teacher – it was during preparation for a class that inspiration for Why Can’t We Live Together hit, after a radio broadcast from Walter Cronkite announcing tens of thousands of deaths on both sides in Vietnam.
An accompanying album, also called Why Can’t We Live Together, reached No 10 in the US, and though Thomas couldn’t replicate his hit song’s success, he released six further albums. He also continued to work as a session musician, songwriter and producer, with artists including Gwen McCrae and Betty Wright.
Among those paying tribute was DJ Greg Wilson, who called Why Can’t We Live Together “a haunting plea for peace and unity that remains just as poignant and relevant now, half a century on”.