Larry Carlton and Johnny Farina on how Santo & Johnny changed instrumental guitar music forever
Guitar great Carlton on how a 60-year-old song, Sleep Walk changed his life twice, and why Johnny Farina is still playing this timeless classic that influenced everyone from Peter Green to John Lennon.
Santo & Johnny. Image: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
62 years ago, guitar players around the world were mesmerised by the new sound coming from a New York duo –Sleep Walk by Santo & Johnny. It remains one of the biggest hits from rock ‘n’ roll’s golden era, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it changed the perception of instrumental music. It’s also the song that inspired Peter Green to compose his masterwork, Albatross, and John Lennon to write Free As A Bird.
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“Sleep Walk has twice had an impact on my life,” says Larry Carlton – the session legend would go on to be heavily associated with the song, having recorded a hugely popular version of it himself in the 80s.
“The first time it impacted me was as a 12-year-old attending local dances like all kids did. It was one of those tunes you could dance to real slowly with your girlfriend,” he laughs. “By 1960 I’d been playing guitar for about four years, and I learned Sleep Walk by ear from listening to the radio – and I continued to perform it through my teenage years playing the club circuit.”
Sleep Walk has been a hugely enduring song, and over 100 artists have covered it over the years, including Chet Atkins, The Ventures, Les Paul, Danny Gatton, Hank Marvin, Brian Setzer and Jeff Beck. But Carlton’s 1982 version, Sleepwalk is one of the most beloved.
“I was producing an artist for Lorimar Records, and the vice president Jay Levy was hanging out at my studio,” Carlton continues. “It was he who suggested I recorded a cover of Sleep Walk. I’m proud to say my version was a top ten hit – and now my catalogue is forever identified with it – I’m honoured and congratulate Santo and Johnny for writing such a classic.”
Walk of fame
But despite the original topping the Billboard pop chart in 1959, and the song’s enduring legacy seeing it used in countless adverts and film soundtracks, Brooklyn brothers Santo and Johnny Farina don’t often get mentioned in the pantheon of influential guitarists from the era.
But despite this lack of wider acclaim, Johnny Farina is still going strong to this day, and despite his brother retiring nearly 50 years ago, the 80-year-old still travelling around the world wowing fans (pandemic permitting) with the chops he and his brother first learned at his father’s behest.
“Dad was in the army – and he heard what he thought was Hawaiian or steel guitars on the radio and loved that sound,” Johnny says, “So he wrote home to our mother saying he’d like the boys to learn to play. “This wasn’t easy growing up in an Italian/Irish neighbourhood… everyone was either playing an accordion or a mandolin!
“Father bought us a six-string Gibson lap steel along with a small Gibson amplifier… so we took a few lessons then started to learn and write our own songs too. Eventually, dad bought a tape recorder and encouraged us to record whenever we rehearsed or played”.
Santo would play steel guitar with Johnny accompanying him on traditional six-string, and that tape deck enabled the brothers to keep track of their compositions. In time they would pull together a piece called Sleep Walk – so named because when they couldn’t sleep they would stay up playing and recording.
It was their first proper recording, but full of youthful confidence, Johnny set off to New York’s famous Brill Building to hawk the tune to the composers and lyricists that made the building famous. Initially Sleep Walk was met with rejections as the hitmakers were only interested in doo-wop music at this point, but they eventually scored success with a publisher instead, Trinity Music. Sleep Walk was later leased to the Canadian-American label, and before they knew it, Santo & Johnny were on their way to the top of the charts and a gold disc for their first ever recording!
In no time, TV shows clamoured for their appearances as Santo and Johnny became stars on American Bandstand and The Perry Como Show. They even ended up with their own TV show in Italy – and went on to earn another gold record for their version of the theme from the movie The Godfather. It’s been documented that when American DJ Alan Freed heard Sleep Walk for the first time he supposedly said ‘this song is never going to die’, and he was right.
The popularity of the song and of these guitar-playing brothers soon caught the eye of Fender, who featured the Farina brothers on the front covers of their catalogues with Jazzmaster and Stringmaster steel guitars in their hands. Nowadays, Johnny flies solo, however, and it’s changed his approach.
“I’m playing a 1956 Fender double-neck eight-string through a Fender Twin Reverb,” he explains. But when it was the two of us, Santo played steel and I played a Gretsch or Fender six-string.”
More than six decades after its release, the enduring popularity of Sleep Walk is remarkable, especially given that it was the pair’s only top 10 hit, but Johnny’s take on their lightning in a bottle moment is typically humble. “God gave my brother and I a special gift,” he reflects. “I’m sure glad we used it”.
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