AllMusic's Andrew Hamilton labels it "the cheapest Top Ten hit ever made." Regardless of its minimalist production, the 1973 single "Why Can't We Live Together" by Timmy Thomas ranks as one of the most unlikely and influential hits of the 1970s. Its hypnotic beat, Latin percussion, and heartfelt lyrics retain timeless appeal, with artists such as MC Hammer, 3rd Bass, Leaders of the New School, and (more recently) Drake sampling its distinctive elements.
Born in 1944 in Evansville, Indiana, Thomas gradually honed his keyboard skills and later performed with jazz legends Donald Byrd and Cannonball Adderley. After a brief stint with the group Phillip and the Faithfuls, he relocated to Memphis and became a studio musician. Eventually he landed a contract with Glades, a subsidiary of TK Records (later known as an early and highly influential label in the disco era). In late 1972, the label released Thomas' single "Why Can't We Live Together" with the B-side "Funky Me."
Thomas told Spin in 2015 that he wrote "Why Can't We Live Together" after watching coverage of the Vietnam War on the evening news. "I was sitting in my study, and I heard Walter Cronkite," he said. "I'll never forget this. He said, '35,000 Viet Cong died today, 15,000 Americans.' I said 'WHAT?! You mean that many mothers' children died today? In a war that we can't come to the table and sit down and talk about this, without so many families losing their loved ones?' I said, "Why can't we live together?" Bing! That light went off."
After writing the lyrics, Thomas recorded the track entirely on his own, playing the electric organ and singing lead vocals. Once he completed the track, his company sent the song to local radio station WEBF; according to Thomas, the phone lines immediately lit up. The single subsequently became a surprise hit, peaking at number three on the Billboard Pop Singles chart as well as the number one spot on the R&B chart.
What makes "Why Can't We Live Together" instantly recognizable is that distinctive introduction: the moaning organ, accompanied by the precise electronic beat. After an unusually long organ solo, Thomas begins his lament. The first verse and the chorus repeats variations of the title phrase, but the second verse directly addresses the Vietnam War. "No more war," he cries. "All we want is some peace in this world." The final verse refers to the ongoing civil rights movement. "No matter what color / You are still my brother," he wails. Critics Richie Unterberger and Samb Hicks summarize the song's aura as "a spooky exercise in soul minimalism whose backing track featured only a squeaky organ and a drum machine that emulated the sound of bongos with its Latinesque patterns" (Music USA: The Rough Guide, p. 143). Indeed, its stripped-down sound stood out among intricately arranged songs of the time, and its starkness still radiates a timeless quality.
Thomas never duplicated the success of "Why Can't We Live Together," although he continued recording solo albums into the 1990s. "[T.K. Records founder] Henry Stone summed it up for me. I said, 'Henry, I'm trying to back up "Why Can't We Live Together." And it seems like I'm having a problem.' You know, I did an album, then I did another album, I still didn't have anything as big as 'Why Can't We Live Together,'" Thomas told Spin. "He said, 'Timmy, your major problem was what you said was so profound, that you could never back it up. Listen to what you said, you asked, "Why can't we all in the world live together? No more wars, everybody wants peace, no matter what color, 'You know, that's tough...' I had some nice regional records after that, but nothing that worldwide." Today, he enjoys success once again as a session musician, contributing to albums such as Joss Stone's The Soul Sessions.
While some artists do not enjoy having their music sampled, Thomas was instead thrilled by Drake basing his 2015 hit "Hotline Bling" on Thomas's sparse arragnement. "I was very proud to listen to what he had done with it. Even though he had changed the message that I had, you know, 'Why can't we live together,'" Thomas told Spin in 2015. "But what it does is it gives me a chance for my name to be back out there, and gives me a chance to say something to the young people again. And that's what exciting about it with me."