It's a song that was born in a moment straight from a Hollywood movie. It was the spring of 1974. Johnny Townsend's songwriting partner, Ed Sanford was living in a Hollywood duplex on a nice advance and stipend from Chappell Music after signing a publishing deal. Sanford was sharing the space with guitar-playing friend, Steven Stewart. One morning, Townsend stopped by after Stewart had been up all night working on music.
"Ed was just waking up and Steven hadn't been to bed yet," Townsend remembered to Songfacts. "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, '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."
Sanford-Townsend Band released the group's self-titled debut in 1976, issuing "Smoke from a Distant Fire" as as single later in 1977. The song became a ubiquitous presence on radio throughout the summer of 1977, from beach parties to backyard barbecues across the country. It peaked at #9 on the Hot 100 for the week of September 17, 1977. The #1 song in America that week: Andy Gibb's "I Just Want to Be Your Everything." "Smoke from a Distant Fire" was the band's only top 10 hit in America.
"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," legendary engineer Jerry Masters told Songfacts. Strong words, considering Masters has worked on countless classic records from the likes of Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Bob Seger,Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack and Leon Russell.
"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," Masters added. "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."