By Michael Buffalo Smith
This issue, we have located one of the true great voices of rock and roll, John Townsend, who struck gold during the 1970s with the hit “Smoke from a Distant Fire.” The Alabama native speaks candidly about The Rubber Band, The Sanford Townsend Band and all points in between.
Who were your earliest musical influences?
One of my earliest childhood memories was around the age of two. I had been squirming and falling in and out of sleep on those old hard wooden church pews at the Circlewood Baptist Church in my home town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I can still see my dad towering above me, Broadman Hymnal in hand and singing gloriously in his tenor voice. I remember thinking my dad is the world’s best singer. Like any kid, my dad was the strongest and best at whatever. So, I suppose I owe it all to him. All my early attempts at singing were imitations of my father. Later on in life, it was imitations of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown and just about any male R&B artist of the '60s.
Tell us about your first band?
My pal Jimmy Wilson commented on my voice and said he had been playing some guitar and that he had been wanting to start a band with some other friends, but couldn’t find anybody that could sing worth a damn. Then he said, “you’re it”. Well that pretty much started it all off. We played our first gig some months later at a local Jr. High School prom and the principal came up after we had finished playing and said “how much do we owe you.” One of the guys spoke up and said “is 50 bucks OK with you?” We were all thinking that if they paid money for us doing something for fun, something that we all enjoyed, that it was time to get serious. In the next few years that followed I was in several blues/copy bands with some of those same friends and little by little we found ourselves slowly moving up the musical food chain.
How did you meet Johnny Wyker?
I entered the University of Alabama at age18 fully intending to get through pre-med and go on to become a doctor. About the end of my sophomore year I was losing my mind studying for a chemistry final one night when I got a call from a guy named Johnny Wyker. He was putting together a band and already had some things booked and convinced me that it would be the perfect way to finance my college education. I said I would do it on one condition. That condition was that my friend Tippy Armstrong, with whom I had played in my first bands, could be the guitar player. We formed a seven piece band with some horn players and called ourselves The Magnificent Seven. We had to change the name of the band because The Magnificent Seven was a copyrighted movie title. Overnight we became The Rubber Band.
Our first record made with Calello came out on Columbia records and was a big turn table hit in pretty much every city in the U.S. We didn’t sell a lot of records because we were novices at big time show biz but we had the taste of success and wanted more. That record, by the way was titled “Let Love Come Between Us.” It was later recorded by James and Bobby Purify and went near the top of the charts as I remember.
As time went on, and as happens with all bands, we eventually broke up. By that time medical school was only a memory. Tippy became a Muscle Shoals session guitarist some years later. Johnny Wyker is an entrepreneur of sorts in the music industry in the Muscle Shoals area.
Tell us about the Allman Brothers and Paul Hornsby connection?
I get this phone call one day in 1967 from an old friend and musician Paul Hornsby who was playing with a band called The Hour Glass. Paul had just come back from Los Angeles where they had just landed a recording contract with a big label. The Hour Glass was comprised of a couple of guys I had met during our beach club days,Gregg and Duane Allman along with Johnny Sandlin, Paul and a bass player named Bob Keller. (Later, Pete Carr) Sandlin and Hornsby became music producers later on and produced a lot of the successful Southern Rock acts. Gregg and Duane.... well you know the story. I declined the offer to go to L.A. with Paul but decided to put a band of my own together and hit the road west some months later.
What happened next?
I had enlisted the help of some friends from Montgomery, Alabama who had been part of a group called The Rockin’ Gibraltars and were also old beach club acquaintances. We gave ourselves the name Heart. (This band, of course, predated the group Heart from the '70s and '80s).
When I arrived in Hollywood, I knew that this was for me. And true to form for those days, we got a record deal in no time. We had several single releases without much success. I guess the highlight of that band was touring as an opening act for Jimi Hendrix. I’ll never forget that tour. Jimi was a class guy and never had the slightest attitude about his stardom. After the band Heart faded into the rock ‘n roll abyss, I ran into some guys that were later to become successful as part of the back up band for Loggins and Messina. We played around and wrote some songs and made some demos and went out to do a club gig for a couple of weeks in nearby San Bernadino. As we were driving back into L.A. one night we turned on the radio to the #1 Top 40 station in Southern California and possibly the Western U.S. After a commercial break, we damn nearly ran off the freeway when we heard one of our demos playing out over the airwaves.
That band was called Feather. The Top 20 hit we had was called “Friends.” Feather had a nice run and made us a little money but I never was really happy with the overall musical style of the band. So after another nice run of things, I found myself bandless in Los Angeles.
I spent about a year doing odd jobs and whatever and just when I’m thinking I’d run my course, I ran into my old friend from Montgomery, Ed Sanford who I played with in the group Heart. We spent about a year writing songs whenever we could and after a while decided it was time to hit the streets and see if we could land us a songwriter deal somewhere. Our friend and drummer Merel Bregante who I had played with in the group Feather was now with Loggins and Messina and making a big splash with their music. Merel hooked me and Sanford up with this great recording engineer named Alex Kazanegras. Alex had a mobile recording truck with which he had recorded all the Loggins and Messina records. He took a liking to us and let us do demos for free in his studio.
These demos eventually landed us a songwriter deal with Chappell Music and from there we were able to saturate all the record companies with our songs until somebody started to pay attention. Those somebodys were Warner Brothers Records and Jerry Wexler. Sanford and I went to Muscle Shoals with our band and Jerry Wexler as our producer. Working with Jerry was a rare privilege that I will always remember as great learning experience. Jerry brought Barry Beckett on board as a combination seventh band member and musical director.
All the guys in the band had a great respect for Barry and I consider him to be a close friend to this day. Anyway, what came out of those sessions was the record that was the most successful of any that I’ve been associated with to date. Smoke From A Distant Fire is still paying the bills, some of them anyway, 25 years later. The Sanford/Townsend Band toured successfully for about 8 years. We went all over the world and shared the stage with a lot of premier acts of that time.
What was life on the road like?
We did about a year and a half opening for Fleetwood Mac. But our favorite traveling partners were people like the Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels as well as other Southern Rock mainstays of that era. We all spoke the same language and had a gentlemanly respect for each other. After another nice long run with my friend Sanford, I took some time off to collect myself after the grueling schedule that we had maintained for so long. I started getting into co-writing with other people like Kenny Loggins, Larry Carlton and eventually Gregg Allman. During that time I also did a number of commercials as a vocalist and had quite a few songs placed in motion pictures. But even though the money was good I still longed for the creative challenge of the music I was closest to. A friend of mine had this great musician/songwriter hang that was actually his own recording studio in a large commercial space in Hollywood. I started coming over a few nights a week and playing and writing songs with some of the other people that came through.
I got to meet and play with a lot of great musicians like Ivan Neville and Hutch Hutchinson and great songwriters like Michael Smotherman. Don Henley heard a few of the things and called me up one day and asked me what I was doing with this stuff. I said, not a lot. Got any ideas? And of course he did have good idea. He took me over and introduced me to Irving Azoff and Irving gave me some dough to put together a band and a showcase
It was great, here was one of the best opportunities for me in a while and so we put together John Townsend and Friends and did this spectacular showcase for several hundred folks at S.I.R. in Hollywood and no one that heard it could understand why I didn’t get signed to MCA until several days after the showcase. I read in one of the trades where Irving had just left MCA to start his own label, Giant Records. End of story. The one great thing that happened is that I got to meet Henley. He’s a straight shooter in my book. He gave me a real shot and he is a prince among men.
How did you come to join the Gregg Allman Band?
One autumn evening in 1991, I picked up a local paper and noticed that The Gregg Allman Band was playing just a few miles from where I was living at the time. So I got dressed and drove over to the Country Club in Reseda and arrived just in time to see the band getting out of a limo going into the club.
It was great seeing Gregg and hearing all that incredible music after being held captive by alien jingle writer bondage for so long. After the show, Gregg invited me up to his home above San Francisco to do some writing. I only realized when I arrived at his house that the whole band was staying there and rehearsing for a tour. We got in a little writing, I got to know the guys in the band better and after a couple of days Gregg came to me and said, “oh by the way, you’re in the band.” It was the greatest shot in the arm I’d had in a long time. So I stayed up one night and learned a lot of great Allman Brothers songs and for the next year and a half, got to play them with the real guys. What a total blast that was. I owe Gregg a lot for lighting a fire under me and for making me get off my butt and get back in it all the way. And after another nice run, The Allman Brothers got back together and the band went home
That’s when you hooked up with Dan Toler, right?
Then I got a call from my friend Danny Toler who, along with his brother Frankie, were the guitar player and drummer in Gregg’s solo band. Danny wanted me to come down to Sarasota and see if we could put together a band. So, with no hesitation I set out for Florida. The Townsend/Toler Band did some recording right off the bat to see if we could find something that worked for us. The recording turned out great but we had a hard time selling it. So we hit the road and played pretty much every decent club up and down the length of the east coast, and some that were not so decent. We were able to make a little dough but with no visible avenue of advancement, another winged idea slowly fluttered back to earth. I really enjoyed that band. Great players and great music. Danny and I wrote a few things that will surface in the near future.
When I landed back in Los Angeles, one of the first things I did was to visit a friend of mine that was a manager at Guitar Center. I hung around for hours playing all the keyboards they had until I found one that sounded right for me. I took it home and started cracking the whip on my songwriter persona until I had put together a string of songs that I felt would carry me to the next level. I started playing anywhere and everywhere I could. Coffee houses mostly. No pay, just great audiences and all the java I could drink. My plan was to woodshed the songs in those small low profile venues until I got them to the point that I thought they were ready to record. And right about that time I get this call from my friend of about 25 years now, Alex Kazanegras. You remember, the guy who engineered the Loggins and Messina records
Well, Alex had been working doing jingles for a number of years and making some pretty good money but losing his skull in the process. He told me that he had just put his studio back together and said that he’d always liked me and my songs and he wanted me to, as he said, “come on over and let’s start recording until somebody starts paying us to do it.” Well that phone call started a chain of events that brings us up the present. We did start recording. We did make what we both think is a great record. My dad used to say, “Son, the two most important things to learn in life are.....number one, patience, and number two, patience.”
That advice has served me well over the years and has paid off most recently with the best record I’ve ever done. It’s titled The Road Leads Home. I worked on it with my old friend Alex Kazanegras. He has worked with everyone from Sly and The Family Stone to Janis Joplin. One of my favorite cuts is “Die Trying” that I wrote with Dan Toler.
What’s next for John T?
Well, I’ve already started working on my next CD. That always gets me pumped. I am also planning a little tour that will start in Nashville on April 15 and end in Birmingham on May 1. I’m always writing and playing wherever I am, so “What’s Next” is always the next song.
Be sure to visit www.JohnTown.com