Timmy Thomas is in a Hialeah warehouse slapping palms with a Cuban Santero named Oba Frank Lords. In the back room, there's an altar with a straw-hatted guajiro sculpture set down beside a sacrificial blade. Up front, in a 12-by-12-foot production studio equipped with little more than a computer, keyboard, and microphone, the pair are remixing Timmy's historic record "Why Can't We Live Together."
The track has sold more than 10 million vinyl copies worldwide, went number three on the pop charts, might be the first hit song to use electric organ with a drum machine, established Henry Stone's TK Productions as the biggest independent music company in the world, and became South Africa's antiapartheid rallying cry and then Nelson Mandela's official song for inauguration as president.
It was recorded in Hialeah in 1972. And Thomas will perform the new version live with Lords and a full backing band at Charlie Rodriguez Live Entertainment's TK Disco Reunion Concert at Hialeah's Milander Auditorium this Saturday.
As a kid, Lords swept floors at TK's studio and got to see KC & the Sunshine Band record "Get Down Tonight" and Jimmy "Bo" Horne sing "Dance Across the Floor."
Later, he made his own mark on music with classic Miami freestyle groups Erotic Exotic and Secret Society. He currently works with Saul Alvarez at 4Tune Entertainment, where they recently remixed an official Pitbull cut with Elvis Crespo.
But one of Lords' all-time favorite songs is "Why Can't We Live Together," and Timmy Thomas is his idol.
Thomas was born in Evansville, Indiana. He later moved to Memphis and worked as a school administrator and a session musician for Booker T. & the M.G.'s. A job offer from Florida Memorial College led him to Miami, where he followed his dreams and opened a nightclub in an old Miami Beach hotel at 46th and Collins.
One night during the Vietnam War, he saw a TV news bulletin about 46,000 dead Viet Cong and 15,000 dead Americans. He saw a photo of children being burned alive by napalm as they ran down a dirt road screaming, and he wrote "Why Can't We Live Together."
He played it at his club and the audience went crazy, so he cut a demo tape for $350 at sax player Bobby Dukoff's South Miami studio, and then he took it to radio station WEDR on NW 36th Street and paid to get it played on the air. The phones lit up with audience requests to hear it again.
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Local powerhouse distributor Henry Stone was listening. He brought Thomas in for a meeting and told him: "I love the song. I'll take it. It's mine." They made a deal and rerecorded the track in Stone's tiny upstairs studio using Thomas' electric church organ and its primordial built-in beatbox. In 1972, the single came out on Stone's Glades Records imprint, and it took over the world.
"It was very exciting," remembers Thomas. "Anywhere in the world that there was unrest, they called me in. I played the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa. I knew my music couldn't change laws, but it could change hearts. And I never played a single segregated concert anywhere."
Over the years, the song has been covered by Sade, Santana, Steve Winwood, and Joan Osborne, racking up publishing revenue. But it almost came out on Atlantic Records. As Henry Stone recalls: "I was on a plane on my way up to New York to lease the single to them for national distribution when I said, 'Fuck it. I can do this myself.' "
The gamble paid off, and it generated enough capital to fund Stone's creation of the world's first global disco hit, "Rock Your Baby" by George McCrae. Soon, TK Productions became the biggest music indie in the world and, alongside Tone Distribution, sold hundreds of millions of records out of a warehouse in Hialeah.