TIMMY THOMAS: RHYTHM KING

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Timmy Thomas: In the Beginning (Glades, 1972, Why Can’t We Live Together?

The infectious success of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” (memes and all) is one of those semi-annual reminders that Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together” exists.1 You can’t call Thomas’s 1972 single “obscure” by any means; it was a huge hit for him at the time and it’s been liberally sampled and covered over those years but still, we haven’t seen Thomas’s work get this kind of shine in years.

The Glades issue of “Why Can’t We” (picked up for redistribution after Thomas’s initial release on the smaller Konduko label) is one of those great cheapies that find their way into everyone’s collection but I was lax in messing with Thomas’s full-length album that came out after the single blew up. I finally just picked it up at Noz’s new store in Oakland, Park Blvd Records. Therefore, file this under “really late pass” but the Why Can’t We Live Together? album is fantastic.

For one – and I could be totally wrong about this – but I’d imagine it’s the first major release that uses a drum machine on every track. Thomas was almost certainly following Sly Stone’s lead with There’s a Riot Goin’ On – like Stone, Thomas used the Maestro Rhythm King – but Stone didn’t hook the machine on every song. Nor did Shuggie Otis, who also busted out a MRK on the Inspiration/Information album.

EDIT: So…as it turns out, I was very wrong. A reader alerted me to the fact that Thomas wasn’t using a Rhythm King but rather, a Lowrey organ with percussion presets. I confirmed that with Dave Tompkins, who’s spoken with Thomas.

Does Thomas need to plop MRK drum presets on every song? This is what makes the album so fascinating…in some cases, you can make a solid musical argument that the drum machine detracts from a few of the songs because its unmistakably mechanical sound and tempo contrasts against the otherwise “natural” feel of Thomas’s voice and style. However, this entire album is already incredibly lo-fi in sound. The mix is raw, the instrumentation is hella basic, there’s barely any arrangement. Throwing a primitive drum machine in there only accentuates the whole rather than undermining it.

You could pluck any song off the album to hear this but I like “In the Beginning,” partially because of those crashing sound effects only adds to how “basement lab” everything sounds. That said, at some point, I definitely have to open a mixtape with the hypnotic drone of “The Coldest Days of My Life.”

  1. My dude Dave Tompkins wrote a fantastic piece about Thomas and the song for NPR.org.

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