Sanford & Townsend: Smoke from a Distant Fire / Nail Me to the Wall

First and third albums from soulful mid-70s one-hit wonders

Ed Sanford and John Townsend first worked together in their native South, but it wasn’t until they moved toLos Angelesthat their music garnered any commercial impact. The duo initially signed on as staff writers, but their aspirations to perform was achieved via songwriting demos and a contract with Warner Brothers. Their self-titled 1976 debut was produced by Jerry Wexler at Muscle Shoals, but even with all that going for it, it didn’t make a commercial impression at first. It wasn’t until the single “Smoke from a Distant Fire” climbed the chart and the album was reissued under the single’s title that the duo gained traction, including opening slots for major ‘70s hit makers. But as hot as the single became, climbing to #9, the duo was never able to chart again, and was dropped by their label after their third album.

Like many one-hit wonders, Sanford & Townsend made good music both before and after their brush with fame, and their albums have something to offer beyond the single. Johnny Townshend sings in an arresting tenor reminiscent of Daryl Hall, and the Muscle Shoals sound, supervised by keyboardist Barry Beckett, is solid and soulful. The duo’s songwriting is full of hooks that should have grabbed more radio time alongside Boz Scaggs, Steely Dan, Orleansand Hall & Oates. Recorded in their home state of Alabama, the duo’s lyrical milieu was often cautionary tales of Southern Caifornia, to which they added carefully crafted moments of country, blues and Doobie Brothers-styled funk. The group’s third album, 1979’s Nail Me to the Wall, doesn’t fully measure up to the debut with which it’s paired, but both provide worthwhile listening beyond the well-known single. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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