American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/27/73: Timmy Thomas, “Why Can’t We Live Together”

I don’t recall hearing “Why Can’t We Live Together” back at the beginning of 1973 (I can say the same for the other two very fine songs on this show that peaked at #3: “Oh Babe, What Would You Say” and “Last Song”)–I guess I was still just a little too young to be paying regular and active attention to the radio. In fact, it came to my attention only after I started tuning in to AT40 rebroadcasts, first on the 1/20/73 show played seven years ago. I confess I didn’t listen carefully enough at first to recognize the song is about the desire for peace and racial harmony. No, I just heard the title and my brain went elsewhere: as a child more of the late 70s, the last two words meant something entirely different to me.

I bought Barry Manilow Live sometime in the summer of 1977 (which means I’ve been forgetting to include it when recounting the first LPs in my collection). I’ll freely admit I liked a bunch of his 70s hits, and Live delivered many of them in one package. Of course, I got to hear other tunes, too, including “Jump Shout Boogie Medley” and eventual single “Daybreak.” Another one that was new (to me) had a prime location on the double album, song two on side one: “Why Don’t We Live Together.” Very much a song of the times, this one is an invitation to cohabitation. A rough summary: I don’t know exactly what we’ve got here, I think it could be good, but if I’m wrong, “at least we’ll know we tried.” I guess the narrator gets credit for not being starry-eyed?

One of the messages I picked up from watching TV in the 70s was that cohabitation was: a) becoming much more of a thing, yet b) still reasonably stigmatized. (I can imagine my mother tut-tutting it.) But I wanted to see how accurate these impressions were, particularly the first. An internet search on “history of living together 1970s” led me to an academic paper written in 2005 that I found pretty interesting: The Rise of Cohabitation in the United States: New Historical Estimates, by three researchers (at least two of whom are historians) from the Minnesota Population Center, located at the University of Minnesota. While I did get an affirmative answer to my baseline question of “Did cohabitation grow a lot in the 1970s?,” there was much more in the article’s twenty pages for folks with a quantitative bent. I learned that the U.S. Census Bureau began including “unmarried partner” as a status in the 1990 Census; this paper used multiple linear regression to take its best stabs at what self-identified unmarried partner numbers would have been in 1960, 1970, and 1980 had that been an option (bottom line: the authors think the estimates in use fifteen years ago were too high). I geeked out on all this plenty, but the highlight may have been seeing in print an acronym I heard back in college and perhaps not since: POSSLQ, for “persons of the opposite sex, sharing living quarters.” My then-girlfriend used it at least once in reference to the home status of one of the English professors.

But back to Timmy Thomas, who was at #5 on this show. The reason I remember hearing “Why Can’t We Live Together” back in January 2013 was the story Casey told of the song’s genesis. Thomas had a gig at a club in Miami at the time, and one night he was simply jamming on stage. Out popped a keyboard riff and a few lines about getting along better with everyone. Afterward, he was encouraged to put what he’d just performed to record. What we hear today is Thomas’s best approximation of the song he’d spontaneously generated.

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