The One-Hit Wonder File: “Smoke From A Distant Fire”

If you were a fan of blue-eyed soul in the 1970s, you could locate songs that fit that genre with just a spin of the radio dial, from Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone,” to the late Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love,” and of course, a number of hits from The Doobie Brothers. One of the most enduring of those songs from the decade was the Sanford-Townsend Band’s “Smoke From A Distant Fire,” the group’s lone Top 40 hit.

The Sanford-Townsend Band featured keyboardists/vocalists Ed Sanford and John Townsend, who had played together in a short-lived outfit called the Heart (not the famed Ann and Nancy Wilson-fronted band) in their native Alabama. Both men later ended up in the Los Angeles area, where they found success writing songs for groups like Loggins & Messina. Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer who worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin to The Allman Brothers, heard a demo the duo had put together and helped get them signed to Warner Brothers Records.

The Sanford-Townsend Band band’s self-titled debut, produced by Wexler and Barry Beckett, was recorded at the iconic Muscle Shoals Recording Studio. The album, released in 1976, wasn’t selling well, until the single “Smoke From A Distant Fire,” drifted up the charts, rising to number 9 in 1977. Featuring cool guitars, tasty horns, soulful vocals, and some clever lyrical couplets (Don’t let the screen door hit you, on your way out/Don’t you drown when your dream boat runs onto the ground), this tale about an unfaithful partner drifted up to number nine in 1977. The album was re-released, titled after their top ten hit and the group landed a coveted spot opening for Fleetwood Mac on their Rumours tour, as well as gigs with Marshall Tucker and The Charlie Daniels Band.

Unfortunately, neither of the group’s subsequent releases, 1978’s Duo-Glide (1978), with its single “Eye of My Storm (Oh Woman)” and 1979’s Nail Me To The Wall, made much of a splash, and the band ended its run in 1980.

Sanford and Townsend continued to work in the music industry as session musicians, songwriters, and performers. Sanford co-wrote Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit “I Keep Forgettin,” featured on McDonald’s solo disc If That’s What It Takes. Townsend formed the Townsend/Toler Band with guitarist Dan Toler, and released a solo album, The Road Leads Home. But the duo assured their place in the annals of blue-eyed soul history with a groovy earworm about a lover whose eyes had a mist from the smoke of a distant fire.

-John Visconti

Photo: Sanford Townsend Band cover image (Fair Use)


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John Visconti is a lifelong music and movies aficionado with wide-ranging tastes, from The British Invasion and Motown, to the blues, a dash of jazz, on through to power pop, funk, retro soul, folk, bubblegum and metal. He digs film noir, screwball comedies, classic B movies, and Toho’s original Godzilla series. In the late 1980s, John was a writer and editor for the KISS fanzine Fire. A friend once called him “the human incarnation of an entertainment encyclopedia.” After long stints in the worlds of publishing and IT, he’s currently working in healthcare. You can check out his blog, John V's Eclectic Avenue at http://jveclectic.blogspot.com.

4 comments on “The One-Hit Wonder File: “Smoke From A Distant Fire”

  1. Les Fender

    A pretty good song indeed. In any case, remove the vocals, and it sounds like the SNL band from back in the day.

    • Very good observation; the instrumental tracks on this one are Steely Dan tight and superbly recorded.

  2. WANTAD28

    It was a one hit wonder and I love the ‘Blue Eyed-Soul History’ comment. To me it was Van Morrison, Chicago or Boy Scaggs worthy. The band and the vocals were tight. Not just a good song… a great song.

  3. stephen j terris

    I’ve had this song in my head because of the Canadian wildfire smoke! I probably haven’t heard it since I was 4 yrs old. Just looked it up, it bangs.

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