Smoke From A Distant Fire

Album: Smoke From A Distant Fire (1977)
Charted: 9
  • songfacts ®
  • Lyrics
  • Johnny Townsend of Sanford-Townsend Band was kind enough to tell us about this song:

    "In the spring of 1974 Ed Sanford and I had just signed a publishing deal with Chappell Music. They gave us a nice advance and a weekly stipend and for a couple of unknown writers, this was a rare deal. Ed and our friend Steven Stewart (co-writer on Smoke...) were sharing one half of an old duplex in Hollywood at the time. I used to drop by and hang out, write or whatever, almost on a daily basis. Now Steven was an aspiring classical guitarist at the time. He used to stay up 'til the wee hours, sometimes daybreak, bent over his music stand practicing his scales, or some classical piece.

    He was driven to become a great player. I was over one morning as Ed was just waking up and Steven hadn't been to bed yet. Ed was complaining about not getting any sleep and barked at Steven, 'When are you gonna stop wasting your time on that classical crap and write something that will make you some money.' Steven picked up his guitar immediately and started playing what I thought was a really cool R&B type rhythm and replied with 'Anybody can write that crap.' I said, 'Apparently you just did' and went straight to the piano and embellished on his idea. While going through some old song ideas in my notebook I always carried, I found one that actually was the title of a poem that Ed had written while in college. I extracted the title because it seemed to be a perfect fit for the chorus idea I had and that all sort of amalgamated into 'Smoke From A Distant Fire.'

    Basically, the song started as a joke and that joke is still making us money to this very day.

    I love songwriting I guess because I've always enjoyed puzzles, crosswords, anagrams and the like. It's different every time and I still couldn't tell you exactly where they come from. I think many of the great melodies are universal melodies that exist out in the cosmos somewhere and certain people have the knack of reaching out with their minds, hearts or spirits to bring them back to us." (Get more at johntown.com.)
  • This song was recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Alabama. Jerry Masters told us about the session: "I had the pleasure of recording this band and this song. It was without a doubt the best band I have ever worked with in my entire 50 year career as a recording engineer. It was also the last album I did before leaving Muscle Shoals Sound in 1976 and it was mixed by my good friend and excellent engineer Greg Hamm. It was the best album I've ever done and I consider it the peak of my career by being associated with these fine musicians and song writers. It was the perfect ending to a great career at Muscle Shoals Sound - not the end of my career, but still the best I ever put my hands to. I salute the Sanford-Townsend Band as the best of the best, even today, it's my favorite of all time."
  • Regarding the recording of this song, Townsend told us: "We had landed a publishing deal in 1974 and made demos with a lot of the great players of the day that again, caught the attention of another big time New York producer, Jerry Wexler. It was Wexler's idea to take the band to Shoals to record. This time we used our band with Barry Beckett as co-producer and musical supervisor. The experience was incredible. We had some of our friends from the Loggins and Messina band come in and play on the record. I got my younger brother Billy up from Tuscaloosa to help with background singing and we came up with quite a nice record. The most memorable song from that outing was 'Smoke From A Distant Fire.' Still a big favorite with a surprising amount of folks to this day."
  • Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records produced this track. Johnny Townsend told us about working with Wexler: "What can you say about Jerry Wexler (alias Tex Wex) that hasn't been said. He discovered Ray Charles. He heard him backstage at the Apollo Theater and flew him to Atlanta and recorded him in a radio station there. He took Aretha from a so-so history at Columbia Records, signed her to Atlantic and helped create some of the greatest popular music ever recorded. He worked with what I will declare as my two favorite recording artists of all time. When the opportunity to work with him came up we didn't bat an eye. He was a god to us. He also had insights into the kind of music we all admired because he was there for most of it.

    I remember being at MSS in front of the vocal mic, with him and Barry in the control room with Jerry Masters turning the knobs during the Sanford-Townsend Band sessions. My throat was a little weary and Jerry stopped everything for a minute to come out and talk with me. I got this image of myself as a struggling rookie pitcher for the New York Yankees being on the mound with Casey Stengel walking towards him. It was that intense. But Jerry's experience and insight said all the perfect things and helped me right my ship and finally get the best of what was in me for that particular song.

    Jerry was not a musician. He couldn't read or play a note. I don't think he could even carry a tune. But he had those ears and he trusted them implicitly. More than anything else, that was his biggest strength. He just knew when it was right, and he knew the difference between something that was good and something that was great, and he could point the way to greatness.

    On the business side, once a record was made, it could be in no better hands than his. His connections over the years and his business acumen, were second to none. He could put the record in the right hands that would see to it that it got it's shot. He did that with 'Smoke From A Distant Fire' and we just sat back and watched with amazement. I mentioned earlier about my Muscle Shoals experience being an educational one. When we were working with Wexler, it was graduate school."
Please sign in or register to post comments.

Comments: 44

  • Jen from FlSaw them at Great SE Music Hall and Johnny was so sweet...HOT! I was invited to go to LA but refused thinking he was looking for groupie. I think that was September & lo and behold I received a CHRISTMAS CARD from him in December! I was blown away. Cherished it for years. I have absolutely worn out my album so my 30 year old son found it on Amazon
    Must say I love THE WHOLE ALBUM IN ITS ENTIRETY. I think it is one of most underrated of my time. I listen to it over and over when I get nostalgic. Xo
  • Bara from Jackson, MiI’m going to be 76 in April, I’m here to tell you this song is forever! You can ask my kids, grands and greatgrands. They know excellent music because of their Granny!
  • Steve Smith from NavarreOmg. "That mist in your eyes feels like rain on the fire of my soul." They don't writem like that anymore. (not many ever did)
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn August 13th 1977, the Sanford-Townsend Band performed "Smoke from A Distant Fire" on the ABC-TV program 'American Bandstand'...
    Two months earlier on June 12th, 1977 it entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #82; on September 11th, 1977 it peaked at #9 {for 1 week} and spent 18 weeks on the Top 100...
    It reached #44 on the Australian Kent Music chart...
    The song was the band's only Top 100 record.
  • Don from B G, KyI think this could be considered a follow-up song to the great 1950's song titled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Kinda like the relationship has run its course and the former lovers are parting ways. Great song. Great band. Great times. I lived those years.
  • Sandy from Enterprise, FlThis is a terrific song, catchy, clever and hot.
  • Mooseboy from Lincoln, NeGreat song! The vocal arrangements are quite tough to figure out, but it was a pleasure doing so. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKgsL12VlQA
  • Mike from Unicoi, TnOne of the best rock-and-roll songs ever written.
    Mike, Unicoi, Tn.
  • Pamela from Bloomington, IlI've always remembered the line: "don't let the screen door hit you, on your way out", and it was the icing on the cake of this song--besides the jazzy music. I had forgotten the band's name (when you're in your 50's the memory can fail you sometimes), so recently remembering that line, I contacted my lil' sister who I knew had loved the song as much as I did. She had the band's name and appreciated my recalling the song for her as well. We've been listening to it on-line in the last few days to our memories' delight. Funny, that line is sung only once in the song, but it's the best (both to the ear, and to the imagination)!
  • Mike from Freeport, FlGreat song! I don't know much about the band but Steve Stewart has been a family friend for longer then I have been alive. He was lead guitarist in a band with my dad way back in the day. Steve has written some incredible music that just sits on paper or in his head that the world is missing out on. He still can pick up his guitar and come up with something off the top of his head that will blow your mind!! Great story!!
  • Wayne from Melbourne, AustraliaThis song will STILL be great in another 30 years - fantastic. I'm about to introduce this song to a whole new generation with the staff band playing it at our school - as well as playing it with my blues band around Melbourne. This number makes an old Hammond player feel young again.... Warm regards to 'the guys'.
  • Kimberly from Gastonia, NcI have loved this song since my childhood! I never knew who sang it, no one knew. It just so happened I was in the dentist chair and it came on the easy listening station! While still numb, I'm trying to ask as many people as I see who sings it. One person knew, so I now listen to it 2 or 3 times in a row from my ipod when it comes on! As a funk lover, this song keeps me more pumped than any funk legend! Thanks for such a well written and performed piece of art. You guys have NEVER received enough credit for your work!Thank you, thank you, thank you!
  • Patricia from Niagara Falls, NyJohn Townsend has one of the finest voices ever heard in the last 50 years. The original Sanford Townsend Band was excellent. Tight performances and the guys were obviously pros. "Smoke From a Distant Fire" will always be one of my favorite songs. I just wish I could have a picture of John Townsend when he recorded this song.
  • Pat from Millbrook, AlGreat song and equally a great band. In response to Carolyn from Montgomery, it just so happens that I played music with Steven Stewart just last night at The Keys on Dalradia Road in Montgomery so he's back from California and Montgomery is loving it!
  • Mark from Michigan, MiI fell in love with this song in 1977 - it's still on my Top 5 List. I'm lucky enough to have the vinyl from back in the day. My daughters grew up with this song -- we've danced to it in the living room from the time they were toddlers up until just last week! The rhythm section in this tune is amazing -- literally, they just don't make 'em like this anymore. I'm a midwester who grew up with Motown, but wound up loving Muscle Shoals rock. If you don't simply adore this song, you don't have an ear.
  • Johnny Townsend from Tuscaloosa, AlMan what a kick. What a great feeling to read all these wonderful comments. I love Jerry Masters' words. Jerry is a first class guy and a great engineer. I got a little misty eyed there for a minute. Nothing like Tebow after the SEC Championship Game, but taken none the less.
    Thank you all so much for your comments. It warms my heart on this cold rainy evening.
    Peace and Love,
    Johnny Townsend
  • Pete from Nowra, Australialove this song , they wrote a great song called Starbrite , recorded by Australian Jeff St John , sadly didn't do that well
  • Bill from Glasgow, KyI love this song,the lyrics are amazing.A tremendous way of telling a short story.
  • Carolyn from Montgomery, AlI knew Ed Sanford and Steven Stewart when they lived in Montgomery in the sixties. They were talented musicians then and I always wondered what happened to them. I am so glad to see they were successful. I wish someone knew where they were now.
  • Brian from Wilkes-barre, PaCouldn't agree more with all the comments on this song. One of the truly under-rated and unheralded songs of the 70's. It had everything, strong start, strong finish, fantastic melody, realatable story line, great vocals and scorching solos (sax and guitar). I never get sick of this one. Can't understand how an act like Madonna remains viable for decades and groups like this fade away. Shame, really.
  • Noni from Lancaster, ScSo, why was it not available on CD?
  • Jim from Leesport, PaIn my All-time Top 20. Still sounds great every time I hear it played...has held well over the past 30+ years
  • David from Great Falls, VaI use this song to describe "Beach Music" to people not familiar with the genre.
    They usually know this song.
  • William from Lanett, Al., AlJust simply a well written song & the arrangement kicks butt.
  • Linny from Harrisburg, PaAnd the harmonies on this song are perfect! This is defintely in my top 5 faves of all time and I never get tired of listening to it.
  • Diane from Orlando, FlI love the way this song paints such a vivid picture in your mind. Best, I think is "don't let the screen door hit you on the way out". Always love to hear this song!
  • Cathy from Buffalo, NyThis song is on my list of the all time best songs ever. It has a prominent spot in my playlist and I still marvel at the clean bell tone of John Townsend's voice. I have been a singer for nearly 50 years and I have always tried to have that same clear tone. Kudos to the singers, songwriters and musicians on this song.
  • Sara from Silver Spring, MdThe song's guest singer is Kenny Loggins. He had written "Peacemaker" with Sanford and Townshead
    for Loggins and Messina. They would also write a song for his debut album after he left Messina.
    Sanford also co-wrote Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin (Every Time You're Near)" and "No Lookin' Back" with Loggins and McDonald.
  • Jack from Huntington, WvGreat vocals and great band! Growing up with Motown music of the sixties, when this blue-eyed soul sound was released in the late 1970's, it renewed the youth of my teenage years. I get pumped every time I hear the tune on an oldies station, even today at age 59!.....Jack(Huntington, WV)
  • Dj Rock from Charleston, ScThis song lives in my Top 10 List - which now consists of more than 10 songs. LOL.

    It sounded great on the radio too, coming off a jingle (roll it on the 2nd call letter). The cold ending was fantatic.

    This piece was a gift from the Music Gods - Thanks to the Townsend's for making history!

    Awesome!



  • Linda from Aurora, IlI loved this song for listening, dancing...the themesong of my life at that time. The lyrics were great and I loved John Townsends' delivery....one of the very best songs of the 70's
  • Pete from St. Paul, MnIt's the finish that really makes this song special (equaled perhaps only by "Afternoon Delight", an otherwise *horrible* song), building up with those soaring vocals and then the abrupt cut. I can't help singing along whenever I hear it. Wonderful!!
  • Terry from Adelaide , AustraliaOne of the best songs of the 70's - still have it on vinyl - love to get it on CD. I'm sure Hall and Oates would have liked to got their hands on this one.
    Terry, Adelaide, Australia
  • Jim from Central, NyI also really like this tune. Dose anyone know if any bass tabs are available for it?
  • Tony from Syosset, Ny(Smoke From A Distant Fire) I'm a classic rock singer in a band called PowerPlay. John Townsend lead vocalist inspired me. With a clean precise voice that you just can't forget. This tune still rocks me today and always will. I do this tune at every gig.. *God Bless Jerry Rightner* and eveyone else who created this masterpiece.
    This song rocks and will live on forever.
    Tony Z. Syosset, NY
  • Mary from Bethpage, NyLoved this soulful tune. One of my all-time favorites and still love it.
  • Bryant Urban from Seattle/born Trenton,n.j., Wacool story, cool tune, another underated, soulful song, with a really hip bridge. another great example of american creativity in popular music.
  • B.l. from Barry, TxThis is one of my all time favorite songs, and what a story behind it! I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe I'll just play the song...
  • Mark from Austin, TxGreat song with a GREAT hook!
  • David from Auburn, AlMy friend and former bandmate, Jerry Rightmer from Texas played on this and other STB songs. He passed away on March 4, 2007. He will be missed by a large family and a ton of friends. We love you, Jerry.
  • Hilliard from Kingston, Ny"Smoke From A Distant Fire" is an infusion of something potent. If you're not moving, you're not breathing. The earthy, smooth wide-open pipes of John Townsend are why the no-wear CD was invented.

    Hilliard, Kingston, NY
  • James from Lowell, MaThis is one of the hottest songs I have ever heard. I would love to know who played on it in the studio. Guitar,Sax, Drums, Keyboard, arranger
  • John from New York, NyA great song that went against the 1970s market--disco just catching fire. Also a pretty unlikely story. Why no follow up, I wonder...

    John, Brooklyn, New York
  • Steve from Salt Lake City, UtWOW! What a great story of this song!
    In 1977, I was 16 & totally into music of the 50's & 60's.

    This was one of the rare new songs of the year that grabbed my attention!
see more comments

Jello BiafraSongwriter Interviews

The former Dead Kennedys frontman on the past, present and future of the band, what music makes us "pliant and stupid," and what he learned from Alice Cooper.

Gary LewisSongwriter Interviews

Gary Lewis and the Playboys had seven Top 10 hits despite competition from The Beatles. Gary talks about the hits, his famous father, and getting drafted.

Frankie ValliSong Writing

An interview with Frankie Valli, who talks about why his songs - both solo and with The Four Seasons - have endured, and reflects on his time as Rusty Millio on The Sopranos.

British InvasionFact or Fiction

Go beyond The Beatles to see what you know about the British Invasion.

Mick Jones of ForeignerSongwriter Interviews

Foreigner's songwriter/guitarist tells the stories behind the songs "Juke Box Hero," "I Want To Know What Love Is," and many more.

American Hits With Foreign TitlesSong Writing

What are the biggest US hits with French, Spanish (not "Rico Suave"), Italian, Scottish, Greek, and Japanese titles?