In an era of instrumental hits, the other worldly sounds of Santo & Johnny’s 1959 debut hit “Sleep Walk” stood out from the crowd. It entered the Billboard charts today in 1959 and within weeks had dislodged “Three Bells” by anodyne country trio The Browns from the top spot. Far out, quite literally.
The genesis for Santo and Johnny Farina’s success lay with their father, who while on military service in the Southern states developed a liking for the steel guitars that were to the fore on country radio stations in that area. Urging his two sons to take up the instrument, elder brother Santo complied while younger sibling Johnny accompanied him on electric guitar.
Somewhat against the prevailing tide of Doo Wop in their native New York, the pair began performing locally and beyond. Writing their own material, the gift of a tape recorder from their father saw them record the original take of “Sleep Walk” in 1957. However, hawking of their demo round record companies failed to garner any interest.
Some eighteen months later the duo did succeed in agreeing a minor publishing deal for their material and recorded two tracks for Trinity Records in the Farina’s home borough of Brooklyn during March 1959. A single was released with “Sleep Walk” backed by “All Night Diner” and began to sell well locally.
That attracted the attention of New York-based label Canadian-American and they acquired the masters before releasing “Sleep Walk” in June. Quickly championed by influential DJ Alan Freed and a fixture on nascent youth TV shows, by September it topped the Billboard charts and had entered the top 30 in the UK.
The follow up release “Teardrops” also did reasonably well, but thereafter it proved to be a case of diminishing returns for the duo, who issued a string of albums for Canadian-American before moving on to Imperial, but never again troubled the charts in their homeland.
Elsewhere though they maintained popularity and enjoyed hits in both Mexico and Italy before going their separate ways in 1973 when Santo quit, leaving Johnny to soldier on as a solo act. “Sleep Walk” continues to have a life of its own, covered by numerous artists (some with lyrics) and a perennial favourite for movie soundtracks and adverts.
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And here’s some footage of Farina’s finest two minutes: