Smoke from a Distant Fire - the genesis
Some songs seem to have a magical ability to take you back to a special place in time the minute you hear them. Sanford Townsend’s “Smoke From a Distant Fire” has always had that kind of magic. When the song was released back in 1977 it turned a pair of struggling musicians in Ed Sanford and Johnny Townsend, into overnight sensations.
Johnny Townsend quits med-school
Born in Tuscaloosa in Alabama, Johnny remembers his childhood as being a series of “Tom Sawyer-like experiences” playing in the surrounding forests and streams. He discovered his love for music at the age of six in the church. Johnny enrolled in the University of Alabama in 1964 as a pre-med student. During this time, he became part of a seven-piece soul band called the “Magnificent 7,” which played campus gigs and Florida beach clubs during the summer months. He met his future musical partner, Ed Sanford during one summer at the beach. Ed’s band “The Rockin’ Gibraltars” was playing at a nearby club and they came by to hear the “Magnificent 7.” It was a fortunate meeting that would soon pay off for both of them.
The partnership with Ed Sanford
One night at a party, Johnny collapsed and wound up in a coma for an entire month. When he awoke from the coma, he had almost total amnesia. Luckily, wit tie, his memory recovered but his desire to continue med school never did. He was hell bent on becoming a musician and determined to do whatever it would take to become successful. In 1966 he headed to California to explore musical opportunities. Some time later, when Ed’s band also happened to be on the West Coast, Ed called Johnny and asked if he’d like to join their band. He did and the pair soon were rewarded with a record deal for that song that is still played on radio stations all over the world today.
Stumbling on the song that would define their lives
Johnny tells us that the genesis of that song began when a sleep-deprived Ed told his roommate Steven Stewart who was a classically trained guitar player, that he should quit trying to be Bach and write something that could make money. Steven replied “Anybody can write that stuff” and proceeded to play what Johnny calls “this really cool bluesy riff.” Johnny, who was visiting at the time, went to the piano and asked Steven to show him the chords. Steven pitched in a few lyric ideas and Johnny filled in some of the blanks with the final chorus and bridge lyrics. The team took the title from a poem Ed had written in college. “Smoke From a Distant Fire” was born.
Later, it was world-renowned music producer Jerry Wexler who suggested the musicians return to Alabama to make “Smoke From a Distant Fire” at Muscle Shoals Sound.
On the road with the biggest name acts
During their time on the road the Sanford/Townsend Band opened for numerous acts including Fleetwood Mac, whom Johnny describes as “a little stuck up for us.” During the year and a half Sanford/Townsend opened for them during their “Rumours” tour, they never gave the band a sound check. The Alabama boys preferred travelling with fellow Southerners in the Marshall Tucker Band and the Charlie Daniels Band. “We all spoke the same language,” Johnny says. “We were always treated as equals and became great friends with most of them.”
During a time when many rock musicians were leading what some might call a less than exemplary life, Johnny managed to stay grounded. He lived by his own motto: “Rich is a bitch if you can’t look at yourself in the mirror.” When he first moved to California, Johnny says people looked at him “curiously.” People in other parts of the country have this image of us “that we all dress and act like we’re refugees from ‘Hee Haw.’ I always set people straight if they fall into the trap of thinking us Southerners are less intelligent than them. In the meantime, he and Ed are working on a project together. They are in the process of remastering some old recordings. Some are original versions of songs that made it on their albums before they formed Sanford/Townsend and others are recordings they made with the Sanford/Townsend Band that were never released. They still make beautiful music together and Johnny, on his own, spends a great deal of time performing solo shows that delight crowds everywhere.