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. "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 top-selling 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."
Old soul anew
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 top-selling 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. Another "very special guest" is promised.
The first 100 people at the MoCA show will get a CD single of "Opportunity," from Thomas' first studio album of new material in two decades, "Wings of Change," due for release in September.
"It's just for the fans, to say, 'Timmy Thomas is still here, and he still has it,'" Bowker says.
The Drake effect
There are many legitimate reasons to celebrate Thomas' career again, but it might not have happened if not for rapper Drake and a little song called "Hotline Bling."
It was days after the July digital release of "Hotline Bling" that Thomas' great-niece in Evansville, Ind., where he was raised, called to tell him that Drake was "playing your song."
"I said, 'Drake who?'" Thomas recalls, laughing.
His 19-year-old granddaughter, who lives with Thomas and his wife of 50 years, Lillie, helped him get up to speed on the Internet. He found that Drake had not merely covered "Why Can't We Live Together" but had used the distinctively jazzy chill of Thomas' original keyboard track, stripped of its vocals, as the basis for "Hotline Bling."
Thomas also discovered a couple of other things. One: "It's a super big song, you know?"
Indeed, "Hotline Bling" was one of the most inescapable hits of 2015, topping out at No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart and landing on many critics' year-end best-of lists, with an accompanying video that launched a thousand memes.
Thomas wrote "Why Can't We Live Together" at home in a fit of anguish after watching newscaster Walter Cronkite inform him that tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese soldiers had died that day in 1972 in the Vietnam War. Thomas' appeal for peace and brotherhood later became the theme song during the historic 1994 South African general election that installed President Nelson Mandela.
"Hotline Bling" is Drake whining about the fact that the girl he broke up with has moved on. Spin magazine called it a "skanking late-night moan."
But Thomas has no problem with the repurposing.
"Oh, man, I wanted to jump a couple of flips. I was very happy that he brought my music back and got it heard again," says Thomas, who read that Drake and his producer, Nineteen85, called his work "the most dopest" keyboard track they could find. "I had to learn what 'dope' means," he says, laughing.
Another thing Thomas discovered: Drake and Nineteen85 acknowledged him in the credits on "Hotline Bling" for writing the music, which Thomas owns. If a dime is paid every time the song is played, Thomas says he and Drake each get a nickel.
Broadcast Music Inc., which collects license fees on behalf of songwriters and composers, distributes royalties quarterly starting nine months after a song is published, Thomas says, acknowledging the first check should be coming soon.
"I just got a call from BMI. They said, 'Is this Timmy Thomas? We just want you to know that you're looking good this month,'" Thomas says, smiling. "They didn't tell me how much. They can't tell me that yet. But I can put something on layaway, if you know what I mean. I'm 71 years old, man. My God!"
Timmy Thomas and the Overtown Soul Revue will perform 8 p.m. Friday, March 25, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., in North Miami. Admission is free. Call 305-893-6211 or go to MOCANoMI.org.