In 1977, the Sanford-Townsend Band’s “Smoke from a Distant Fire” raced up the charts, peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June. They seemed to come from out of nowhere, and just as suddenly, they seemed to disappear; the band was never again to have a Top 40 hit. But as my interview with co-founder John Townsend revealed, they had paid their dues for more than a decade before they reached that pinnacle of success in the summer of ’77, and both Townsend and Sanford have been far from inactive since.
REBEAT: John, thanks for talking to me again. I know I interviewed you for one of my books a few years ago, but I thought REBEAT readers might like to hear about your career as well. Tell us how you got started.
JOHN TOWNSEND: I seemed to have some musical abilities at an early age, so my Mom had me start piano lessons in the fourth grade. When I was 17, I saw this band called Big Ben Atkins and the Nomads, and they blew me away. On the way home that night, I started singing along with the car radio, and my friend Jimmy said, “Hey, you sing pretty good! Want to start a band?” So we did.
Our first gig was a junior high prom and we were paid a grand total of $20, but it told me we could actually make money at this thing. By the time I reached college, we were making money hand-over-fist and were one of the most popular bands in a three-state area in the Southeast. We called ourselves the Magnificent Seven and we were seriously influenced by the rhythm and blues coming out of places like New Orleans, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals. We started to get a little more exposure and eventually became part of the Florida Gulf Coast club scene. In Panama City, there was a popular band called the Swinging Medallions that had a big hit with their song “Double Shot,” and as a result, vacated their club gig at the Old Hickory, leaving a spot for us to slide in and grab an audience of high school and college kids vacationing in Florida for the summer.
I know from a couple of conversations we’ve had before that you recorded a great song under the name the Rubber Band.
As the Magnificent Seven, we recorded some songs at Boutwell Studio in Birmingham, and they found their way to a producer in New York named Charlie Calello. He liked the songs, but we had to change the name of the band because the Magnificent Seven was a copyrighted movie title. So we changed our name to the Rubber Band. One demo we did was for the song “Let Love Come Between Us,” which was written by band members Johnny Wyker and Joe Sobotka. That got us an invitation to record at CBS Records in New York, and so we flew to New York and spent two evenings from midnight to dawn in the Columbia Studios on Madison Avenue, recording “Let Love Come Between Us.”
Well, CBS sent out promo copies of our version to radio stations, and within a couple of months, it went to #1 in major cities across the country. But Columbia didn’t even seem to know it was their own record, so no records were in the stores while it was on the air, and we didn’t know enough about the business to take things to the next level. It was what was called a turntable hit. Then a few months later, James and Bobby Purify did it. When we heard their version on the radio, we knew that we should have had the big record but were proud of it just the same. “Let Love Come Between Us” was also recorded by the Pointer Sisters and Mavis Staples. Quite an honor.
Okay, so we’re still in the ’60s, a decade from the Sanford-Townsend Band. Where’d things go next?
As happens with all bands, we eventually broke up. In 1967, I got a call from my old friend Paul Hornsby whose band the Hour Glass — the members were Hornsby, Gregg and Duane Allman, Johnny Sandlin, and Bob Keller — had just signed with Liberty Records. Paul wanted me to go to California with him but I declined. Later I did go, but not long after I arrived, Duane left for Alabama, and he eventually formed the Allman Brothers Band.
I knocked around for about six months in LA until I got a call from Ed Sanford. He’d been a member of the Rockin’ Gibraltars back when I played in the Magnificent Seven, and he was in Montgomery planning a trip to California because his band Heart had a recording opportunity with Reprise Records. This was, of course, before the group Heart from the ’70s and ’80s, but we did have a few single releases before we broke up. Next, I was in a band called Feather. We had a chart record called “Friends” and had a nice run and made a little money but I never was completely happy with the overall musical style of the band. After that, I was bandless once again when I ran into my old friend Ed Sanford.
Based on where things went I guess you two formed the Sanford Townsend Band this time.
Right. After Ed and I reconnected, we wrote maybe a dozen songs together. We were just taking a crack at it because we had come to realize that was where the money was in the business. Ed and our friend Steve Stewart were living in a duplex down in Hollywood, and I’d go hang out with them every day. Ed had a little piano, and Steven was an excellent classical guitarist, and he was one of these driven people who would sit up all night with a music stand in front of him with his guitar thinking if he couldn’t be Bach, then life wouldn’t be worth living. I went over one morning, and Ed had been up all night because he’d been kept awake by Steve playing in the next room.
So Sanford says, “When are you going to knock that crap off and write something that’s gonna make you some money?” Steven turned around — he was making coffee and still had his guitar around his neck — and he said, “Anybody can write that stuff!” and he starts playing this great riff he’d made up on the spot. Ed and I looked at each other and said, “Hey, that’s pretty cool!” We sat down at the piano and started the song using Steven’s riff, and Sanford said, “I think this will fit a poem I wrote in college; check out these lyrics and see if they work for you.” His poem — he’d written it when he was at Auburn — was actually called “Smoke from a Distant Fire.” He’d had this girlfriend who was fooling around on him, and I thought it was a great image; we all did at the time. I don’t remember anything else about the poem; we just took the title from it. The part about “don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out,” of course, that part we borrowed from our longtime experience with the idioms of “Southernese.”
So, you have a great song. How did you get it out there?
When we decided we needed a producer, we wanted the best, and after a long interview process we settled on Jerry Wexler, and I guess, conversely, he settled on us. We were the first group he’d produced — he’d always worked with solo artists like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. He knew everybody. He made Barry Becket co-producer because he had a great musical mind and he could assess material and get the most out of it. Part of our deal with Barry was that in addition to part of his percentage on the record, he got $5,000. Barry didn’t pocket the money, and he hired a promotion man instead. He got “Smoke” on 25 to 30 stations in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, and that was the springboard for us and for the song going national.
The next week, one of the Warner Brothers guys walked in and said, “Hey, this record’s just picked up 30 stations in the Southeast in a week. We need to get on this record.” Well, the minute they did, stations in LA and Boston went big on it, and from that point it was game over. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard “Smoke” for the first time come out over the radio, and I tell you, it’s an experience that’s unparalleled, really. I had a similar experience in Rome, walking around not far from the Vatican. I was walking by some ancient courtyard when I heard the song spiraling down from some apartment through these 3,000-year-old walls, and I said, “Okay, we’ve really made it!” It was kinda cool.
Well it was an incredible song, and has such a great sound. It’s kind of a throwback, but on the other hand, it sounded very modern at the same time.
Most definitely old R&B influenced the sound of the song. We had started as a band playing Otis Redding, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Sam and Dave, the New Orleans music, the Muscle Shoals stuff, mostly by black artists. It was the music of the day. It all influenced the song. When it came time to do our own songs, they came out of the music we were really in love with, and it’s only natural that “Smoke” has that soulful beat. It was the most successful recording that I’ve been involved with to-date, and it’s still paying the bills — some of them anyway. It wound up making us a great deal of money.
We toured for about eight years and went all over the world and shared the stage with a lot of premier acts of that time like Fleetwood Mac, the Marshall Tucker Band, Jimmy Buffett, Foreigner, and others. Ed later co-wrote “I Keep Forgettin'” with Michael McDonald, but eventually we too went our separate ways. I still get a thrill out of playing “Smoke From a Distant Fire.” Everybody still likes it, and it always gets a great reaction. I remember when we played in Myrtle Beach, and there was a great crowd. After we played the song, people came up and said, “You sound just like that guy who sang that song,” and I’d say, “Well, that’s because I am that guy!” Other people would say, “I never knew you guys were white!” For someone with my musical roots, that’s one of the greatest compliments I could ever have.
What are you doing these days?
Sanford and I have remastered some of our early recordings and have plans to do a retro release in the near future. I’m also working with an 11-piece horn band in Virginia Beach called the TGZ Band, and we’re recording a CD and have plans to do some gigs later this year with Tower of Power, Average White Band, and Gregg Allman and Friends. On the west coast, I’m writing and recording with my friends Rick Vittallo and Larry Antonino. Rick was music director for Englebert Humperdinck’s 54-piece orchestra, and Larry is the current bass player and singer with the group Player. We’ve just added former ELP and Doobie Brothers drummer Tony Pia. Hope to have something to show our friends and fans by the end of the year. And, of course, I’ve been married for 25 years to my beautiful Jenny, living in Hollywood. Life is good!