Sleep Walk

The Farina brothers of Brooklyn, New York spent most of their formative years learning, and mastering, acoustic and electric guitar technique. Santo Farina (born in 1937) and Johnny (born in '41) weren't immediately aware of the musical movement prevalent in the Pacific Islands so far across the globe from their Italian neighborhood. But they gravitated to this style when their father, Tony Farina, enthusiastic about the talent his sons possessed, suggested they try the steel guitar. They began to study this unusual variant of the six-string standard while altering the sound a bit (a standard guitar had been modified to play like a steel guitar), graduating to the twelve-string steel guitar and even the somewhat expensive Stringmaster Triple Neck (it sold for more than four hundred dollars); marketed by Fender starting in 1953, it had been adopted by Hawaiian musicians as a signature instrument. Tony bought a tape recorder and, by listening back to the sounds and melodies they'd created, the sibling collaborators became quite proficient.

By the mid-1950s they were performing with a small band at parties, dances and weddings. Local demand grew and in the spring of 1959, inspired by the popular "Exotica" trend typified by hits like Martin Denny's "Quiet Village" and "Taboo" by Arthur Lyman, Santo and Johnny wrote and demoed "Sleep Walk," then boldly approached some of the record companies in Manhattan. They landed with Trinity publishers and were signed to Canadian American, a small label owned by Leonard Zimmer with offices in New York and Winnipeg, Manitoba. At their first big city recording session, the finished take of "Sleep Walk" came to life with Santo on standard steel guitar and Johnny playing the Triple Neck Fender. Just the third release on Canadian American, it entered the national charts in mid-July, then sauntered slowly but gracefully upwards (much like the tempo of the song) before making a commanding leap into the top ten in late August, holding at number two for a couple of weeks (behind "The Three Bells" by The Browns) and taking over the number one spot mid-August. In an era with loads of popular non-vocal recordings, the Farina brothers' melodic ode to the south sea sound was 1959's top-selling instrumental, beating the exotica trendsetters at their own game.

Songwriter Don Wolf (coming off his optimistically romantic late-'58 hit for Tommy Edwards, "Love is All We Need") created lyrics for "Sleep Walk" ('...'cause I lost you and now what am I to do'); this sixth release on Canadian American was by Richmond, Virginia-born Betsy Brye (real name Bette Anne Steele) but didn't resonate as a vocal work. Instrumental versions included two by British studio groups, The Sleepwalkers and Johnny's Boys, while a similar scenario played out in Australia with The Bermudans. In early 1960, multinational hitmaker Caterina Valente covered the song vocally in separate versions for two of her three native lands, France (as "Nuit Bleue") and Germany (as "Schade!"). But in many parts of the world, Santo and Johnny rightfully had the hit version; they were particularly well-received across Europe, Down Under, in Mexico and, not surprisingly, in a few oceanic locations.

"Tear Drop" made for a strong self-penned follow-up despite a similarity to its career-launching predecessor; it spent several weeks in the top 30 from the close of the decade into January 1960. The next two singles illustrated the brothers' fondness for classic compositions: a lively take on "Caravan," the much-recorded Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol standard from the '30s, reached the top 50 in April, followed by Ernesto Lecuona's great '20s tune "The Breeze and I." Johnny's wife, Ann Farina, had been credited as a songwriter on "Sleep Walk" and contributed to other original compositions: "Love Lost" rechanneled the spirit of "Sleep Walk," while "Twistin' Bells" got on board the Hank Ballard/Chubby Checker-fueled dance craze bandwagon faster than most, becoming the first-ever Christmas "twist" hit during the 1960 holiday season.

Johnny Farina, Santo Farina

"Hop Scotch," a bouncy, uptempo ditty with strings, made a Hot 100 showing in March 1961, preceding a long string of singles and albums that failed to hit the American charts. The duo's international popularity was enough to keep them going as they booked more and more engagements overseas. They returned to the charts in 1964 with an instrumental revival of The Five Satins' doo wop benchmark "I'll Remember (In The Still Of The Night)," similarly adapting another '50s goodie, The Heartbeats' "A Thousand Miles Away." Switching to something more timely, they issued an LP with the misleading title The Beatles Greatest Hits, giving the S&J treatment to ten of the superstar Brit group's early smashes in addition to two originals (the very un-Fab Four-like "The Beatle Blues" and "The Beatle Stomp"). Talk about riding the coattails of the year's (and decade's) biggest music act: the album's back cover featured photos of John, Ringo, Santo, Johnny, Paul and George!

The Farinas moved on to another mid-'60s sensation, the James Bond film series, with more-rocking-than-usual covers of "Goldfinger" (one of their last recordings for Canadian American) and "Thunderball" (first for United Artists). In 1967 they signed with Imperial and did what almost every artist eventually does: "Sleep Walk '68," a near-identical carbon of the original (but with a surreal organ backing), didn't sell as well as reissue 45s of their classic '59 version available around the same time. But you can't blame the consumers!

As steel guitar specialists, these guys were as good as it gets, and guitarists the world over have cited their influence. Stages were a comfort zone for them and for many years they performed regularly for audiences on five continents. After a tranquil rendition of Ted Grouya's "Flamingo" in 1976, the brothers amicably parted. Older brother Santo (as Santo "Sandy" Farina) composed "Kiss Me in the Rain" with Lisa Ratner, a hit for Barbra Streisand in 1980. Younger brother Johnny Farina has continued writing, recording and performing. They just do it separately.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Sleep Walk Twistin' Bells