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Music Review: Sanford & Townsend – Smoke From a Distant Fire and Nail Me to the Wall

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“Smoke From a Distant Fire” was a fairly popular tune back in 1977 from a duo who called themselves Sanford & Townsend. I liked it so much I even bought the 45 rpm single. Fast forward 36 years, and I discovered a copy of the Smoke From a Distant Fire LP at the local Goodwill, and promptly laid out a cool 99 cents for it. I had never heard the whole thing, and was very surprised at how good it was.

Then a couple of weeks later came the announcement that the Real Gone label was issuing Smoke, along with the duo’s third release Nail Me to the Wall (1979), on a single CD. Well, color me happy as I now have them both. Listening to this music today, I just have to wonder what went wrong. Both of these records should have been hits. In the era of Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, and Tower of Power, Sanford & Townsend fit right in. Unfortunately though, besides the hit single, most of us never heard them again.

So, here is your chance. For anyone who enjoyed the song “Smoke From a Distant Fire,” it is (obviously) here. But Sanford & Townsend’s music was not generally as hook-filled and upbeat as that track. Truth be told, the title tune of that first album is something of an anomaly. Ed Sanford and John Townsend started out as a songwriting team in Florida. They moved to Los Angeles, and made some demo tapes, hoping to sell some songs. When the A&R people heard it though, something of a bidding war for their talents as recording artists ensued. They wound up signing with Warner Bros.

To add to this streak of good fortune, the previously unknown duo managed to snag the legendary Jerry Wexler to produce their debut. As a founder of Atlantic Records, Wexler had an excellent ear for Sanford & Townsend’s music. Although there are a number of different elements in their music, the overriding one is “blue-eyed soul.” For this listener, the undisputed champs of that genre would have to be Hall & Oates. There are a quite a few songs on the debut that fit that description, but “Sunshine In My Heart Again” is the finest.

The blue-eyed soul aspect is just one of many however. In fact, the radio-friendly jazz of Steely Dan and Tower of Power is very prevalent. This may have been what really drew Wexler to them, as he had produced a number of albums in that vein over the years. In any case, the remaining nine tracks that make up this first album should have had a bigger impact than they did. But I guess the fates were not really with the duo in that respect.

The follow-up single to “Smoke” was “In For The Night,” a song I never heard on the radio, and it is a real departure. The guys had a good relationship with Kenny Loggins, who co-wrote and appeared on “Oriental Gate,“ which to these ears is the “blackest” song on the album. Unfortunately, I think that nobody really knew how or where to place it, so it just kind of fell through the cracks.

For my money, there are a quite a few superior tunes on this album. One is the darkly mysterious “Squire James,” another is the tongue-twistingly titled “Moolah Moo Mazuma (Sin City Wahh-oo).” “Moolah” takes me back to Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill era. The album closes with something of a roadhouse ballad, “Rainbows Colored in Blue.” In 1977, an album purchase was a big deal for me, I didn’t have the money to take many chances. But I wish I had taken the plunge with Smoke From a Distant Fire, because it was (and remains) a winner through and through.

The success of the single put the group out on the road for most of the year, and their sophomore effort Duo-Glide (1977) suffered because of this. Real Gone chose to pair their third and final Warner effort, Nail Me to the Wall (1979) with Smoke for this release. This marks the first-ever appearance of Nail on CD. It is another album which was unfairly ignored in its day.

The title track opens the album, and it is almost a dead-ringer for “Smoke,” at least in the opening. John Townsend’s vocals then come in, and he sounds so much like Daryl Hall it is uncanny. I really enjoy the way they use the horns, one fine example is “Every Day.” Another very likable tune is “Shady Grove.” Besides Kenny Loggins, Sanford and Townsend were both pretty tight with Michael McDonald, who was leading the Doobie Brothers at the time. As a matter of fact, Sanford would co-write McDonald’s big solo hit “I Keep Forgettin” a few years later. I bring this up because “Shady Grove” has a bit of a Doobies feel to it.

“Jubilee” closed out side one of the original LP, and is one of the best tracks on the album. That mix of late-’70s jazz and pop is a unique sound, and these guys really got it down, especially on this song. “Just a Fool” is about as close as these guys got to the blues, but it works well. The closing tune is “Tell Me How Love Survives.” Kenny Loggins receives a writing credit on this one as well, and his influence is definitely noticeable.

If there is one complaint I have about Nail Me to the Wall, it would be that it sounds almost too late-’70s, L.A.-studio slick. After the gargantuan success of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, it is not surprising that record companies were looking to repeat the formula. But the music business is a fickle beast, and in the case of Sanford-Townsend, I think they just kind of got overlooked in the piles of product that were released that year.

According to Gene Sculatti’s liner notes, the two have remained friends since their Warner Bros. days. Both have kept at it, in various capacities over the years, playing and writing music. There is also a collection of their early, unreleased work being compiled for the fans. This should prove quite interesting, as they had a great musical chemistry all down the line. For now though, this twofer will do nicely, and I am very happy to have finally gotten the opportunity to really hear what they were all about.

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