Gary James' Interview With John Townsend Of
The Sanford - Townsend Band

These guys had a bit hit in 1977 with a song titled "Smoke From A Distant Fire". It went all the way to number nine on the Billboard charts and number one in Cashbox. They opened for Fleetwood Mac on their Rumours Tour and shared the stage with the likes of Heart, Foreigner, Jimmy Buffett and Charlie Daniels to name just a few. We are talking about the Sanford - Townsend Band. John Townsend spoke with us about the history of the band as well as what they've been up to lately.

Q - I was watching your appearance on The Midnight Special on YouTube and the group being introduced by Helen Reddy. What, if anything, do you remember about that experience?

A - It's funny that you should ask because I was explaining it to someone yesterday who had recently seen the video. It's actually a neighbor of mine. What happened was, a lot of people thought that we were Black because of the style of music we were playing. I'm sure there were elements because we were so heavily influenced by Muscle Shoals and New Orleans, being from the South. I'm sure some of those elements appeared in our music. People that were on that show were Marvin Gaye, Thelma Houston, The Commodores and The Sanford - Townsend Band. Quite honestly, without seeing photos of us, they thought we were Black and we were booked on the show with three other acts that were people of color that were actually some of our heroes. Gosh, Marvin Gaye is one of my all-time influences. Anyway, it was a wonderful show. We got to meet all those people and got some very nice compliments by some people we really respect. So, it was a very cool experience. It all happened in one afternoon. We had been on the road prior, so we were pretty cracking. We were pretty on our game. We did two takes, one for the sound guy just so they got their levels right and the second take was the one. If you notice at the end of it I'm singing and I stop and I kind of give a thumbs up. I was looking right at the sound man when that happened. I was thinking, "That was good, right?" (laughs) It was really fun. I remember that from a really long time ago because it was so special to be on that show with those people. That was so amazing for us.

Q - There's something else people probably don't realize. Helen Reddy didn't meet all the acts she introduced. Her introductions were pre-recorded. Was she actually on the same stage with you when she introduced you?

A - We actually didn't meet Helen Reddy then. If she was in the building at the time we weren't aware of it because we were concerned with our own things. If she was in the building she didn't see us out, but we had met her when Sanford and I were with Kenny Loggins and were a part of the very first American Song Festival and she was one of the introductory personnel. And also she performed at the event. So we met her there because Kenny Loggins and Sanford and myself, my partner Ed Sanford, had co-written a song called "Oriental Gate", which actually won one of the divisions. There were like six divisions and one grand prize. But yeah, that's when we met was her. Her husband was kind of a beast, Jeff Wald. He was one of these guys who ruled everything with an iron thumb. No one wanted to work with this guy. No one wanted to get in this guy's way. So, he pretty much isolated everyone from Helen. She was very nice, a very pleasant woman.

Q - Had Jeff Wald ever met up with another guy with his personality, there would've been trouble.

A - Yeah, most likely, because there would be two immovable objects.

Q - Was your home town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama known for being a music city?

A - Well, actually not really. Because it was a university town there were always bands around because there were always fraternity events and parties and always homecoming events and parties after football games. That's how we got started. Several of my friends from high school started a band in my freshman year in college and worked primarily at fraternity parties. I remember my freshman year in college. I made more money then my Dad working on the weekends. A lot of times we would rent an armory in say Meridian, Mississippi or some Masonic Temple for $100 a night, hire two cops for $20 a piece and have the event sell the soft drinks and make money off that. That's where they make most of their money. A bunch of eighteen year old guys putting themselves through college would walk out of Meridian, Mississippi with $1,800 in our pockets.

Q - That was big money!

A - We got good at it. Coming to California was taking all our entrepreneurial type of attitude along with our music and trying to take it to the next level.

Q - When were you were playing all these fraternities?

A - It would've been the late '60s and early '70s.

Q - When you made the move to Los Angeles you and Ed became session musicians?

A - Not really. How I came to Los Angeles is I had known Duane and Gregg Allman for some years. I met 'em in beach clubs in Florida. Every time they passed through Tuscaloosa they would play and sometimes their band, The Allman Joys, would play fraternity parties too. When they went to California for the first time, that was with John Sandlin who ended up being a notable producer as well as a great drummer. Paul Hornsby also produced a lot of the Marshall Tucker records. He was the keyboard player with the Allmans that came to California. They were out here. I got a call from Sanford, who had another band in Montgomery, Alabama. They wanted to come to L.A. They had some producer interested in them. Their singer was married and didn't want to give up his day gig. So, they needed a singer. I flew back there and rehearsed with the band and then we came back to California. That's how I wound up being here. I just loved California. You could just drive down Sunset Boulevard in those days and The Electric Flag would be playing here. Traffic would be playing across the street. Sons Of Champlin would be playing two blocks over. Paul Butterfield and his Blues Band were playing an after hours show after he performed with The Electric Flag. It was constant music. All the great players and all the popular acts of the time eventually wound up here at some point.

Q - Did you ever watch The Doors at one of those clubs?

A - No, but I had dinner at Ray Manzarek's house one night with my then girlfriend and his wife who were best friends. I didn't really know much about The Doors. I didn't meet Jim Morrison, but I've heard some recorded poetry of his that was quite good that an engineer friend of mine had recorded once. John Hamey was the engineer on that stuff. Sanford and I did the world tour with Fleetwood Mac's Rumours tour.

Q - Hold that thought. I'll be asking about that tour in just a minute. How long did it take you and Ed to write "Smoke From A Distant Fire"?

A - Not very long really. I think we had a meeting with a publisher that day we were going to play some songs for. I was sharing half a house with this other friend of ours from Montgomery, Steven Stewart. One morning I came over to pick Ed up and he hadn't slept because Stephen had been up all night long with his music stand in front of him, practicing Bach on his Classical guitar. (laughs) Ed just made some comment, "When you gonna quit playing that crap and write something that's gonna make you some money?" He had his guitar around his neck at that time. He started playing this amazing Rhythm And Blues riff. It would be something like from a Jackie Wilson song. I'm going, "Now that's cool! Play that again." And I went to the piano and we figured it out on the piano. I said, "Hey, this really nice. So, Ed and I sat down and started writing some lyrics. We didn't finish it that day, but the next day I was coming back into town. We had another meeting that afternoon and getting off the freeway a line came to me from a poem Ed had written in college about a lost girlfriend. We didn't use anything except the title "Smoke From A Distant Fire", and the song just came about. It started as a joke, but it just came about. When we finished it we knew we really had something then.

Q - Your contribution to the song was what? The music or the lyrics or both?

A - It was mostly the lyrics, the bridge, "The lyin', the cryin', upsettin'," those are my chord changes and melody. Quite a bit of that, I'd say seventy to eighty percent of it is my melody. I know Steven contributed some on that. Once you get into the studio, things are always mutable. I always had this saying, "It's only final until it's on vinyl." We'd take songs into the studio and completely change them around. We'd take something that was a ballad and wound up being a Rock song because of the players you had that day. We wrote this song, "Good As Bad Can Be", for example about one of his ex-girlfriends. We were going into the studio one night and recorded it. It was a ballad. The drummer we enlisted that evening was a guy named Mike Huey who was Glenn Frey's drummer at the time. He'd just come from Glenn's rehearsal. He said, "We must've played 'The Heat Is On' for four hours." So, that's what our song wound up being, just an extension of his rehearsal with with 'Heat Is On'. It became an up-tempo Rock 'n' Roll song. (laughs) A lot of times it's just the musicians that you pick. Most of the time you pick 'em for what you know they can do. Sometimes they come in and really surprise you.

Q - Does it necessarily follow that if you write one hit song that you can write another?

A - Quite a bit of it is logistics. I think there are songs that we wrote that were hit worthy. Sanford proved that. We just didn't have Jerry Wexler in our lives after the first record. He got involved with Dire Straights. He did an album with Mike Finnegan. There was a period in time when Warner Brothers said, "You need another record out and we can't wait for Jerry." So, we decided to get an engineer and try producing it ourselves. There are guys like Jerry Wexler who probably at one point in time was the most powerful man in the music business between him and Ahmet (Ertegun of Atlantic Records). It was just amazing who they knew. The first week "Smoke From A Distant Fire" was out, we got the back page of Rodman Report, which was pretty much the radio Bible back in those days. Every D.J. got the Rodman Report and read it. Usually the back page was "This is the hot new song. You should check it out." He got us the back page of Rodman because number one, he put Rodman in business, Jerry Wexler did. They say everything in the entertainment business is based on relationships and I've never found fault with that.

Q - I think people have this idea that a producer can turn a few dials and make anyone's song s hit. Just how important is a producer in relationship to that material.

A - Well, it's very important in a lot of ways. It's important to have really good recording engineers that have been there and done that and are mutable. In sports a really good co-ordinator quarterback coach can tailor his offense for the specific talent the quarterback has. I use sports in music references all the time because in some ways they're both in the entertainment business basically. As relates to music it's always important to have those people. But you can't make everything sound good. I'm sorry. You can these days with Pro Tools and all this voice correction technology. I never use it personally. My Dad used to say, and I hope this doesn't screw up your interview, "You can't polish a turd." The music business has become a producer's medium since my day when it was considered an artist's medium. It's not that anymore. If you were making a record in Nashville, there's twelve people from the record company sitting around a table deciding what songs you're going to record and how you're going to do it. It's almost like the old Motown formula where you'd have guys come in and write tracks for Michael Jackson. He'd come in and write some words and somebody else would finish it off and then they'd put Michael Jackson's name on it. It's just a formula. To me, I'm sorry, that's not art. It's just not. They've sold us a lot of stuff over the years. Remember Milli Vanilli and people that didn't actually sing on their own records and have hits. That can be done and a good producer can do something like that, but the great producers are the ones that go out and find the talent. Look at all the people that Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun went out and found. All the artists that made Atlantic Records; everybody from Ruth Brown to the Buffalo Springfield. They don't make producers like they used to. The technology has taken over. I think there's a lot less art to it. That's just my personal opinion.

Q - What you've just said is not the first time I've heard this said. Increasingly this sentiment is coming out. Singers can't sing anymore.

A - And there are some out there that still write their own material. I mean, if you're Bruce Springsteen you're still writing your own songs, but if you're some new Pop artist or Country / Pop artist, somebody has written your songs for you and somebody's picked those songs. It's like you have to decide for yourself whether you're going to call yourself an artist. Is this really what I want to do with my life? I have a pretty recognizable voice. People seemed to like it over the years for whatever reason. When I first came to L.A. I had producers say, "We want to make you the next Gary Puckett." It would make my skin crawl. I like Gary Puckett. I think he has a beautiful voice. He had some big hits, but that's not who I want to be. I want to do something that's my thing. He didn't write any of those songs. They didn't come out of him. I admire the guy, but it just wasn't me.

Q - As I was saying earlier, we'd get to Fleetwood Mac, and here we are. You were the opening act for Fleetwood Mac?

A - Yes.

Q - How many dates did you do with them?

A - Oh, pretty much every city over half a million in the United States and then Canada. We went up the West Coast. We played The Forum three nights. Then we played San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver. From Vancouver we went all across Canada. We went to Calgary, Edmonton and eventually Montreal. We played everything from racetracks to football stadiums. (laughs)

Q - How'd you get that gig?

A - It's relationships. The agents we were with, which was I.C.M. at the time, was Fleetwood's agency. Our manager, who also managed Loggins And Messina, had a little bit of clout with them. Apparently I.C.M. had called him and wanted to put Loggins And Messina out on the road with Rod Stewart. Our manager said, "That's fine. We'll do that. But as a return favor I want to put Sanford And Townsend on the Fleetwood Mac tour." And it was a done deal. It was a phone call. Somebody decided we were going to play with Fleetwood Mac and it was because they had relationships.

Q - Did that tour help your career?

A - Oh, yeah. We played in front of millions of people. We played like JFK Stadium in Philly in front of 90,000 people and Milwaukee Brewery Stadium in front of 70,000 people. So yeah, every place that we played. We played The Forum which holds 20,000 people. So, in Los Angeles we played in front of at least 60,000 people. As far as financially? They don't pay opening acts nearly what they pay the headliners. So we were just barely being able to afford to be on the road in those days. We eventually graduated to the level where we could get a tour bus. Those first tours we were taking rent-a-cars. We would go to the same radio stations to do interviews that Fleetwood would go. As we were pulling into the parking lot they'd be coming out in a limo and we'd be going in, in some kind of a cheap rent-a-car. (laughs) It was comical from that aspect.

Q - What I'm getting at is, playing in front of all those people, did it translate into record sales?

A - Oh, yeah. Absolutely it did. We sold 50,000 singles in Chicago in one week after we played there. It definitely did help that side of things.

Q - Was there a follow-up to "Smoke From A Distant Fire"?

A - Yeah. There were actually two follow-up albums.

Q - We're talking "Duo Glide" and "Nail Me To The Wall"?

A - Right. Those are our last two.

Q - They did or did not do as wall as you thought they should have done?

A - They didn't do as well. We kind of think part of the reason was by the time we got half way through our second album, Ed and I were noticing that the Punk, New Wave generation was starting to grab a foot hold in the business. In one week or so we became like yesterday's news. Warner Brothers added a new wing to their building after signing The B-52s, The Sex Pistols and four other acts from that genre that I can't remember. Again, logistically and luck if our managers had been on top of it or our producer had more clout like Wexler, the timing of things would have been better. The week our second album was released, everybody at Warner Brothers was out shoveling Fleetwood Mac records on the truck. In that same little time period they were putting all their attention into the new stuff and I can't say as a business decision that I wouldn't have done the same thing. We were all of a sudden, in just a matter of a couple of months, we were yesterday's news.

Q - What did you do then?

A - Well, you try to keep playing. There are groups out there that never had hit records, like The Marshall Tucker Band who played two hundred nights a year and make really good money and made a good living doing that because they spent years building an audience. We were successfully doing that, but we couldn't get bookings. Quite honestly we couldn't get bookings. They would try to pair us with people like Leo Sayer. We did one tour with Leo Sayer. We call it the Gilligan's Island Tour.

Q - Why is that?

A - We flew to Minneapolis. It was going to be the first date with Leo Sayer. Leo was headlining. Leo had a couple of hits. We'd only had the one at that point. So, we go to our hotel, we turn on the TV and we're sitting there waiting to get the call to go to sound check. We're watching Gilligan's Island on TV and we get a call that says the tour's been canceled. (laughs) We didn't even unpack our bags. The roadies picked 'em up and we got in the car and went home. We went back to L.A. A lot of stuff like that happened. You have to remember when Hall And Oates went out they had had several hits. They didn't sell tickets. They weren't as iconic as they became later, until a good bit later. They had great songs, but they didn't have a great 'live' show. That's what I heard. I never saw them, but I remember hearing they went out after like three hits and couldn't sell any tickets. It was weird. It was just a changing of the guard musically speaking. It was a new generation of groups coming. A new genre of music.

Q - You and Ed are still recording and touring?

A - Yes. We are rehearsing a couple of days a week, working on an act basically. It's duo and we're trying to develop it into something more than just a couple of guys doing their songs. We have some staging ideas. The idea we have is doing more like small theatres. Around L.A. for example there's these fifty-five and ninety-nine seat theatres. It's about the size of your basic house concert. We talked about it and the best stuff we've ever done has always been on more of the intimate side. I remember we once played in Atlanta and there was a little theatre in the round and you could just reach out and touch people in the audience. You were down at sort of the lower level and the seats went up. But to just really get in with the crowd and have them be part of what you're doing was always special. Ed and I want to keep it small. We may eventually add some other players, but right now we're working on it as a duo. Basically we want to put together an act that's basically laid out like a three act play. We're having a great deal of fun with that. At our age, to still be doing it is a joy and a privilege.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.