Sleep Walk: Santo & Johnny; Jeff Beck; Les Paul

Hello there! This week’s entry is Sleep Walk, a lovely instrumental song from 1959, featuring steel guitar. It was written and performed by Santo and Johnny Farina. We will then review covers of that song by Jeff Beck and Les Paul.

Santo & Johnny and Sleep Walk:

Santo and Johnny Farina were brothers from Brooklyn. Santo was born in 1937 and Johnny in 1941. When they were children, their father Anthony Farina was drafted into the Army where he was stationed in Oklahoma.

It was there that Anthony Farina first heard the steel guitar on a radio program. He thought this would be a nice instrument for his boys to play.

When Anthony’s Army commitment was finished, he arranged for his boys to take steel guitar lessons. Santo initially modified an acoustic guitar so that he could play it horizontally like a steel guitar. Eventually he earned enough money from gigs that he could afford a real steel guitar, a Fender model that had three necks each containing eight strings

At that point Santo Farina formed a band featuring himself on steel guitar. His group played a combination of pop songs and traditional Hawaiian standards.

Once Johnny Farina reached 12 years of age, he began playing rhythm guitar with Santo. The two gained regional acclaim and approached several record companies in search of a record contract.

Here is a photo of Santo and Johnny from the late 50s. Santo Farina is at left with his electric steel guitar, while Johnny Farina is at right with a conventional electric guitar.

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Eventually the Farina brothers were signed by Canadian-American Records. Their first hit was Sleep Walk, a tune that was written in 1959 by Santo and Johnny after they had finished a gig and were unable to get to sleep. The instrumental song hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts in September 1959, and also reached #4 on the R&B playlists.

Here are Santo and Johnny performing Sleep Walk on the Dick Clark Beech-Nut Hour in 1959.

What a simple, yet beautiful and haunting melody! That’s Santo producing those ethereal sounds on the steel guitar, while Johnny is playing a Fender electric guitar that has been tuned so it also sounds like a steel guitar. Their uncle Mike Dee played drums on the record.

I can’t tell whether Santo and Johnny are actually playing here, or whether they are just faking to the record (Dick Clark was infamous for just having performers lip-synch to the record rather than playing live). However, it really doesn’t matter, as Santo & Johnny could easily reproduce their trademark sound in live performance.

Santo & Johnny were sort of “one-hit wonders;” although a couple of their follow-up songs made the charts, they never again achieved the success of Sleep Walk.

However, this tune made a big impression on both the public and on other rock performers. Sleep Walk continues to get play on oldies and classic-rock radio stations.  It is a big hit at high school reunions and has appeared in several movies and commercials.

Currently, Santo has retired from touring, while Johnny Farina is still on the road with his own band. Johnny is also president of a record company called Aniraf, Inc (yep, that’s “Farina” spelled backwards).

There are several covers of Sleep Walk by rock groups. In this post, we will include those by two of the greatest “guitar heros” of all time – Jeff Beck and Les Paul.

Jeff Beck and Sleep Walk:

In an earlier blog post, we reviewed the trio Beck, Bogert and Appice, for which Jeff Beck was the guitarist. So here we will provide a brief review of Jeff Beck’s life and career.

Jeff Beck is one of the most accomplished rock guitarists of all time. He was born in 1944, and as a youngster he was inspired by guitarists as diverse as Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins and Steve Cropper. Beck was even enthralled by the sitar music of Ravi Shankar.

After short gigs with a number of bands in the early 1960s, Beck first surfaced as the lead guitarist for the British Invasion blues group The Yardbirds.

The Yardbirds attracted arguably the greatest collection of guitarists ever to appear in a single group. Jeff Beck replaced Eric Clapton after the budding super-star left that band in March, 1965. In June of 1966, Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds as their bass player (!) There was a brief period in fall 1966 when Beck and Page shared lead guitar on various Yardbirds’ songs; then Page took over as lead guitarist when Beck and the Yardbirds parted company.

Think of it – between them, those three Yardbirds guitarists have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seven times. Each of the three was inducted for his work with the Yardbirds. Clapton was inducted a second time with Cream, and once more for his solo work; Page a second time with Led Zeppelin; and Beck was honored for his solo career. Wow!!

Beck has always been a real perfectionist, and that is accompanied by a volatile personality. For obvious reasons, this combination has created friction in several of his groups. For example, at the end of 1966 The Yardbirds fired Beck because he was so hard to get along with (in addition, he occasionally failed to show up for Yardbird performances).

At this point he formed the Jeff Beck Group, shown in the photo below from 1968. From L: lead vocalist Rod Stewart; lead guitar Jeff Beck; rhythm guitar (and later bass) Ronnie Wood.

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The Jeff Beck Group produced two albums; however the commercial success of the second album did not match that of their first album, and that band dissolved in 1969. By this time, Beck’s technical reputation was exceptionally high. Several of the best British Invasion bands contacted him about the possibility of his joining them, including Pink Floyd following Syd Barrett’s departure, and the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones’ death.

A few years later, Beck joined up with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice to form the group Beck, Bogert and Appice. This was a blues-based power trio reminiscent of Cream.

The most notable song from Beck, Bogert and Appice was Superstition, which had initially resulted from a collaboration between Beck and Stevie Wonder (although only Stevie received songwriting credit for that tune). They reached an agreement that Beck, Bogert and Appice would release the song, followed by Stevie’s version.

However, the Beck/Bogert/Appice version of Superstition was delayed so that Stevie’s was the first version released. Beck, Bogert and Appice eventually issued only two albums, and the second album was released after the group had disbanded.

Here is Jeff Beck performing the Santo & Johnny 50s instrumental classic Sleep Walk.

Well, this is pretty spectacular, absolutely beautiful guitar work from Beck. One of the most amazing things is that Jeff manages to coax these sounds out of a Fender Stratocaster guitar, and not a steel guitar!

I actually can’t tell the difference between Jeff Beck on his Strat and Johnny Farina on steel guitar. But that’s not unusual for Beck; on several occasions I have heard him produce unique and seemingly impossible sounds from his guitar – sometimes beautiful, and occasionally just plain weird.

Jeff Beck has become a legend on the electric guitar; he has also pioneered a number of technical innovations, such as wah-wah pedals, echo units, and distortion and feedback techniques.

His work continues to be on the cutting edge of guitar technique. In fact, he is often called a “guitarist’s guitarist,” as other guitarists flock to his shows to see what he is currently doing.

After breaking up with Bogert and Appice, Beck has toured with a variety of different bands. He has been a headliner at several all-star venues and major charity performances, including jams with guitar heroes such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

Beck’s acidic personality has not mellowed with age. In 1992 he gave the induction speech for his old band mate Rod Stewart at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Beck described their interactions,
“We have a love-hate relationship – he loves me and I hate him.

And at his own induction with The Yardbirds in that same year, Beck remarked
“Someone told me I should be proud tonight … But I’m not, because they kicked me out. … They did … Fuck them!”

Well, regardless of his personality, it is undeniably true that Jeff Beck is one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” has Beck at #5.

Many of the techniques later utilized in heavy-metal music were introduced by Jeff Beck. Even today, he is still living out on the edge, experimenting with his instrument, and stretching the boundaries of the field. Ola, Beck!

Les Paul and Sleep Walk:

Lester Polsfuss was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915. His mother was related to the family that created the Stutz automobile.

Les began his career in music at a very early age; by 13 he was already performing professionally on the guitar. He started out in country music, playing guitar and harmonica under the name Rhubarb Red.

Lester became a great admirer of the brilliant French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. His jazz repertoire was largely inspired by Reinhardt’s work. In the 30s, he started performing under the name Les Paul.

Les Paul was constantly tinkering with his guitars, amplifiers and electronic systems. He was dissatisfied with the electric guitars on the market in the 30s, so he created his own solid electric guitar which he called “The Log.”

It consisted of a piece of 4×4 lumber, to which Paul attached a bridge, neck, strings and pickup. Paul then sawed an Epiphone hollow-body guitar in half and glued The Log in the middle of that guitar. However, the Epiphone guitar was mostly for looks.

Paul’s “Log” was one of the first solid-body electric guitars ever produced. In fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to call Les Paul “the father of the electric guitar.” There were others whose technical contributions rivaled Paul’s, but to my knowledge no one combined both his technical abilities and his guitar-playing expertise.

In 1944, the Les Paul Trio performed on Bing Crosby’s radio show, and Crosby became an admirer of Paul. In 1945, Bing Crosby helped Les Paul build his own recording studio in Paul’s garage. There, Les introduced a number of new recording techniques. He was one of the first to utilize multi-tracking and overdubbing on his records, and he introduced the first 8-track recording deck in his garage studio.

Les Paul had tried to interest the Gibson Guitar company in his electric guitar, but they showed little interest in the concept. However, in 1948 Leo Fender independently produced a solid-body guitar that he called the “Esquire.”

Fender’s Esquire would later morph into the Broadcaster, then the Telecaster and finally the Fender Stratocaster. In any case, the Esquire began selling well, and so suddenly the Gibson Company renewed its interest in Les Paul’s solid electric guitar.

Gibson subsequently released its “Gibson SG” guitar (the “SG” stood for “solid guitar”). Later Gibson released the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. This became a legendary guitar style and was used by many of the most famous guitar players. Here is a photo of Les Paul from the 50s; I believe he is playing a Gibson Les Paul model electric guitar.

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Despite having his own ‘Gibson’ model, Les Paul was constantly tinkering with his own electric guitar. Paul introduced innovations in pickups, amplifiers and other guitar hardware. In addition, he pioneered a number of advances in audio recording.

Probably the zenith of Les Paul’s career occurred between 1945 and 1964. In 1945, Les met country singer Iris Colleen Summers, and they began to perform together. Ms. Summers changed her professional name to Mary Ford, and she married Les Paul in 1949. Below is a studio portrait of Les Paul with Mary Ford, the love of his life; the photo was taken in 1951.

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As a duo, Les Paul and Mary Ford became world-famous. They produced a number of pop hits that highlighted Mary Ford’s singing and Les Paul’s guitar work. Using Paul’s technical expertise, many of these songs were overdubbed so that Mary Ford was providing her own backing vocals, while Les Paul could be multi-tracked as many as eight times on a given song.

Starting in 1950, Les Paul had a weekly radio show. He soon introduced Mary Ford onto that show. The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show then aired on NBC-TV from 1954-1955, and that show appeared in syndication until 1960.

The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show was highly unusual: it aired five times a day, five days a week. But each episode was only about 5 minutes long, and featured two songs from Paul and Ford. So NBC used the show as “filler” between their other regularly-scheduled shows.

Les Paul was in charge of both the audio and video production of the show; so he worked night and day on this programming, and used the program to show off several of his technical innovations.

After 1955, the Les Paul and Mary Ford hits became few and far between, as the duo began to be squeezed out by the burgeoning popularity of rock ‘n roll. At that time, after his NBC show ended, Les and Mary took to the road, performing a great many shows.

Eventually Mary Ford tired of the constant traveling, and she and Les Paul divorced in 1964. A brief bit of trivia: when Les and Mary were married, the best man and maid of honor were the parents of future guitar hero Steve Miller. Les Paul was Steve Miller’s godfather and his first guitar teacher.

Here is Les Paul performing Sleep Walk live on the David Letterman show.

This is pretty remarkable, as Les Paul was in his 80s when this performance took place. At the time he suffered from a number of physical ailments.  First, his arthritis was so severe that he was only able to use two fingers on his right hand.

Second, Paul’s hearing had deteriorated significantly. He was dissatisfied with commercial hearing aids, and worked on developing his own hearing aids for many years until his death.

Anyway, this is a really simple and beautiful piece. Seeing Les Paul playing guitar is sort of like observing Isaac Newton work out physics problems – you are watching the guy who essentially invented the electric guitar.

Even at age 90, Les Paul and a group were still performing weekly at clubs in downtown Manhattan. And in 2006 when Paul turned 90, he won two Grammy Awards for an album that he had recently released!

Les Paul died in 2009 at the age of 94. He is the only person to have been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Inventors’ Hall of Fame. He was deeply deserving of both honors. What a guy.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Sleep Walk
Wikipedia, Santo & Johnny
Wikipedia, Jeff Beck
Wikipedia, Les Paul

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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