Sunday, March 1, 2015

One Song

The first sentence of my first post here was:  "Clyph put me up to this."  Filling Blogspot with drivel, that is.  Well, he did it again:  sent me a link to a YouTube video of Jeff Beck playing an old instrumental hit, "Sleep Walk," which piqued my curiosity.

Not too many people fail to be amazed by anything Mr. Beck has done, but I couldn't believe he could make his Stratocaster sound just like a steel guitar, which was the instrument used in the song,  a number one hit for two weeks in September 1959 by Santo and Johnny.  It sounded familiar, but I had not known its title.  Never having heard of those two, I thought it was a one-hit wonder, but there's a lot more to the story.

Would two Italian boys from Brooklyn, Santo and Johnny Farina, have ever thought they'd someday be inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame?  The road to there began much earlier during World War II when their father was stationed in Oklahoma and heard steel guitar on the radio.  He thought his boys back home should learn to play that when he returned.  And so it was.  He found them a teacher who knew Hawaiian music, and they started playing local gigs first with a modified guitar, then a real Gibson 6-string lap steel.  Making $15 a show, Santo eventually could afford a stunning 1956 Fender Stringmaster steel guitar mounted on legs.  It had three necks, with eight strings each.  Leo Fender was a big country music fan, and made his instruments for those artists in the early days.

They came up with an early version of "Sleep Walk," originally titled "Deep Sleep"; it was inspired by the 1928 tune "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise," and the chord changes are similar.  The brothers shopped it around New York for a year and a half before getting it recorded at Trinity Records.  Another label heard it and bought the rights; Canadian-American released it in June 1959 and after their appearance on Dick Clark's "Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show," it became a hit.  They appeared on all the television and radio shows and toured worldwide afterward.  A second song charted, but further Top 40 success at home eluded them, as is often the case.

And is also often the case, they found, like Jimmy Hendrix, James Taylor and David Hasselhoff, a great reception overseas.  They did the James Bond cover albums, and their "Godfather" movie theme was number one in Italy, for their second gold record.  The Farinas' 1964 Beatles cover, "And I Love Her," was number one in Mexico for 21 weeks.  The Beatles hadn't been released there yet, and the locals thought that the Beatles had covered them

And "Sleep Walk" never fell into obscurity.  In 1999, it received a BMI award for 2 million radio airplays.  The list of those who have covered it would go on for a page.  Brian Seltzer's won a Grammy 40 years after the original came out.  Many people remember how it played at the sad end of the movie "La Bamba," and it was used in five other movies.

The first cover was, oddly, issued by their own label right after the Dick Clark show.  Canadian-American recruited Richmond, Virginia big-band singer Bette Anne Steele (ironic, no?) to sing lyrics to go with "Sleep Walk" written by one Don Wolf, renaming her Betsy Brye.  Unfortunately, it didn't chart, although Bette/Betsy, now in her eighties, still performs with jazz groups back in her hometown occasionally.  It is known for its use in the move "The Conjuring," which finally brought her some fame.

The story of this song goes deeper.  Inspired by that 1928 song, it in turn inspired Peter Green's "Albatross," one of the most-loved instrumentals of the rock era.  That, in turn, inspired John Lennon's "Sun King" on the "Abbey Road" album.  He and George Harrison were big fans of Santo and Johnny's tune, and they returned the love.  That two and half minutes of steel-guitar bliss was no one-hit wonder -- just a wonder, period.



  1. What a sleuth. You take a steel-guitar instrumental and find a road back to Richmond.

  2. And Bette played the Tantilla on Broad Street, like some people closely related to you.