The title may not ring a bell and the group might not seem familiar but almost everyone has heard the 1959 instrumental, “Sleep Walk,” which has been used in countless TV shows, commercials and movies. The No. 1 hit single by Santo & Johnny is currently celebrating its 60th anniversary and the song’s legacy continues to grow.
“It’s a song that won't die. ‘Sleep Walk’ never became an oldie,” says co-writer and one half of the duo Johnny Farina, 78, who lives in Suffolk Countyand grew up in Brooklyn. “The hook instantly grabs your attention because it’s got a haunting sound to it.”
The song features the sound of the steel guitar, which Farina and his brother Santo, now retired in Florida, both played, because their father insisted they take lessons on the instrument.
“Steel guitar was unheard of in Brooklyn at the time,” says Farina. “My father went to Eddie Bell Guitar Headquarters in Manhattan to buy one. Mr. Bell gave him the name of Fred Phillips, a Hawaiian man who my father invited to dinner. He was grooming him with ziti, meatballs and sausage to teach us how to play.”
After eight lessons, Phillips went back to Hawaii and the Farina brothers were on their own to conquer the instrument.
“It’s tricky. You have to put picks on your fingers and hold the steel bar down,” says Farina. “It requires real precision. If you are a hair off, you’ll be flat or sharp.”
The boys, switching off on steel and electric guitar, played instrumental covers of songs and even began writing originals.
“We started to get good,” says Farina. “But we didn’t read music. We did everything by ear.”
LATE NIGHT DELIVERY
One night after playing a gig, Santo & Johnny couldn’t sleep so they got up and turned on the tape recorder.
“We began jammin' a little,” says Farina. “Before you know it we hit on a harmonic hook which we recorded then went back to bed.”
Realizing they had something special, the duo continued building on the song.
“We started to develop a melody to go with the harmonic hook,” says Farina. “We went from C to A minor to F minor to G. Nobody did that. My dad fell in love with it.”
After recording a demo of the song, Farina knew he had a smash therefore he quit school and began shopping the song to music publishers. Searching through the trade papers, he came upon a company in New York City that struck a chord with him.
“I saw Trinity Music. I figured I’m Catholic - father, son, and the Holy Ghost - the Holy Trinity!” says Farina. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Jesus, must have sent me here.’ ”
When he arrived, Farina ran into music publisher Ed Burton who was about to eat his pastrami sandwich and side pickle. But, Farina convinced him to listen to his demo before he took a bite.
“I started to play the song. He was saying, ‘What kind of instrument is that? I’ve never heard anything like it. This actually is a hit record!’ ” recalls Farina. “Then he says, ‘Are you hungry? Do you want half a sandwich?’ I said, ‘Sure...Can I have the pickle too?’ I knew I had this guy.”
Santo & Johnny were signed to Canadian-American Records and legendary DJ Alan Freed broke the record on New York radio. The song hit the top of the Billboard charts for the last two weeks in September 1959 and remained in the Top 40 until November earning gold status.
“Mr. Freed said to us, ‘This record is going to live forever,’ ” says Farina. “After ‘Sleep Walk’ became a hit, we started traveling all over the planet touring with legends like Duane Eddy, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.”
The song has appeared in films including “La Bamba,” “Mermaids,” “Eddie & the Cruisers,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” Stephen King’s “Sleepwalkers,” “12 Monkeys” and “Hearts in Atlantis.”
“The movie that used it in a way that impressed me was the funeral scene in ‘La Bamba’ when Ritchie Valens’ brother yells out, ‘Ritchie!’,” says Farina. “I did a Latin show not long ago in Los Angeles and the end of the song everybody in the crowd yelled out, ‘Ritchie!’ They waited for that moment.”
Multiple artists have covered the song, including Jeff Beck, the Deftones, Larry Carlton and Massapequa’s own Brian Setzer, who won a Grammy for his rendition in 1998.
In 2016, Santo & Johnny were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame when guitarist Steve Vai, who grew up in Carle Place, accompanied Farina on stage as he played, “Sleep Walk.”
“That song will always be a part of my life,” says Farina. “All I can say is we were blessed.”
This month Farina released a new version of “Sleep Walk,” which takes the song in a different direction. (You can hear it on iTunes and Spotify.)
“I decided to not do a remake but rather take the song to another plane. I changed the whole chord structure and feel,” says Farina, who has continued to perform and record for more than 60 years. “I wanted it to be very sensuous and intimate. I call it a satin sound, it’s very lush. I think this thing could happen again, man.”
WHEN/WHERE 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 17, The Cutting Room, 44 East 32nd Street in Manhattan
INFO $35, 212-691-1900, thecuttingroomnyc.com
Santo & Johnny beat the Beatles...in Mexico! When the dynamic duo covered the Fab Four’s song, “And I Love Her,” re-titled, “Y Al Amo,” the instrumental version became a massive hit turning Santo & Johnny into superstars south of the border.
“Our single had distribution in Mexico and the Beatles didn’t so when their song finally got released there the people of Mexico thought they were copying us,” remembers Johnny Farina. “The song was number #1 in the country for 21 weeks. We spent three months playing shows in Mexico.”
However, that’s not the only Beatles connection Santo & Johnny have. When George Harrison released the instrumental track, “Marwa Blues,” off his last solo album, 2002’s “Brainwashed,” it was noted in the “Let It Roll” compilation liner notes that the quiet Beatle was inspired by Santo & Johnny’s song, “Tear Drop” when he wrote it. In fact, Harrison's song won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 2004.
“I was very touched by the fact that George was so close to our music,” says Farina. “It’s nice to know we had an impact on him.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ