Santo & Johnny – Slave Girl (EP)
Slave Girl (Side 2 Track 2)
While this is a far lesser known track from the Farina brothers, this exotic sultry instro has to be my fav from this talented duo! And to find it on a 45, means I can now take it with me everywhere I go.
Farina brothers, Santo Anthony & John Steven, were born in Brooklyn, New York, just 4 years apart. Santo, the elder, was born October 24, 1937 and then Johnny followed, April 30, 1941. The boys were young when their Dad was drafted into the army and stationed in Oklahoma. One evening on the radio, he heard this beautiful accent while listening to country and western…it was the sound of the steel guitar. He wrote home to his wife and said “I’d like the boys to learn to play this instrument”. When he returned from the war they searched out for a man who could get them started with the steel. The boys, I imagine, probably jumped for the opportunity. What kid doesn’t want to play a guitar of sorts?
But although their dad was super keen to have the boys learn that very particular style that carried those unyielding memories, and although he was successful in finding a lap steel guitar somewhere in a music store in Brooklyn, there was no certainty that the right teacher who had the specific skills would materialize. After a few failed attempts from baffled music school tutors, who just lacked the know-how to master the “sound”, their frustrated dad searched himself and eventually found an authentic Hawaiian musician with the skills. The brothers finally had a teacher with the expertise, and thanks to some Italian food coaxing, he would tutor the boys at their own home. After about 5 months, the teacher headed back to Hawaii, and the brothers never saw him again, but he had left behind enough of his teachings for Santo and Johnny to now take flight…and spread their wings they did.
When Johnny reached the age of twelve, he began to play accompaniment to Santo on a standard electric guitar (his big brother helped him learn to play). Their supportive father had bought them a Webcor tape recorder, and encourage them to write their own material and record everything. The brothers eventually formed a duo and became rather popular in school, soon started performing at church dances, weddings, clubs and other events in the New York boroughs. The Farina brothers began to gather fans from Brooklyn to Long Island.
In 1958, Mike Dee & The Mello Tones (Santo Farina on steel guitar; Johnny Farina on electric guitar and with their uncle Mike Dee on drums) recorded a self-penned instrumental which they called Deep Sleep. Loosely inspired by the song Softly, As In The Morning Sunrise (Sigmund Romberg, 1929), it had the same chord progression but a simpler melody line. Deep Sleep would in time become Sleep Walk.
The determined younger brother, Johnny, made the rounds of the New York record companies searching for a publishing deal, with a couple of their recorded demos in hand. His persistence and determination paid off and they got lucky with Canadian American Records, who signed them to a song writer’s contract. Although grateful I’m sure, it was a recording deal which is what they were really chasing, and soon enough the opportunity was granted to them. Their first release in 1959 was consummated, and it was called Sleep Walk. And did it do well? Umm…yes it did! It was recorded at Trinity Records in Manhattan and entered Billboard’s ‘Top 40’ on August 17, 1959. The moody eerie composition rose to the No.1 position on the American charts, for two weeks in September, and remained in the ‘Top 40’ list until November 9. There’s a great live version from ’59 on the Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show, on youtube I recommend you looking for.
Santo and Johnny actually wrote lyrics to Sleepwalk, and after the instrumental was a hit song, Betsy Brye (real name is Bette Anne Steele) released a beautiful “lynchesque” vocal version as a single in 1959 (Canadian American Records 106), which did not chart on the Hot 100, but damn I like it! At first it was believed that the composition was written at 2.am early one morning, when one brother woke the other with an idea. But a recent interview with Johnny reveals that it was a long and constant progression of revisited ideas that finally got them the hit.
The follow-up song “Tear Drop” was also a hit, though their self titled LP released that same year, was less successful in the United States. But that takes nothing away from the lp, which was arranged and conducted by Bob Davie, who had been the guiding hand to all of Santo and Johnny’s musical activities. It included some fabulous interpretations of well known ditties such as Caravan, Raunchy, Dream, and there’s even a take on Chuck Berry’s School Days. And you have to hear the wildly hypnotic version of Summertime. But the standout for me at least, has to be the self penned Slave Girl, and it wasn’t that long ago that I made the discovery of it in the form of a mono UK 7″ EP. There’s just something so exciting about this wonderful piece of exotica. It’s slinky (yeah I know I like using that term), sensual, so rhythmic, and it’s quite transporting, but unfortunately it’s also just too short! It’s a fine early night spinner, to get the right kinda’ cool in the air. This ep also includes a gorgeous version of Blue Moon which makes it even more desirable. Also funnily enough, I recently found an Aussie copy with an alternate picture sleeve, in a local record shop bargain bin.
With their unmistakable sound, they appeared on all the top music shows, “The Alan Freed Show”, “Dick Clarks’ American Bandstand”, “The Perry Como Show” etc. etc. Their fame spread to other countries and they got booked on tours in Australia, Mexico and Europe. After the less successful debut album, they issued five more albums for Canadian-American, before the company dissolved in 1965. But Santo & Johnny continued to record and release a great amount of Lp’s and 45’s with other various labels including Imperial, Ricordi and Produttori Associati, the Italian label founded in 1969 by Antonio Casetta. The albums were ethereal, relaxed, sometimes swinging, and variously themed (James Bond, Hawaiian songs, country music, rock and roll hits, etc.), but were more popular internationally than at home.
In 1964, they released an album of Beatles covers including And I Love Her, which hit #1 in Mexico and held the spot for 21 weeks (they received The Golden Kangaroo Award for it). In 1973, Santo & Johnny recorded Nino Rota’s The Godfather theme which went to #1 in Italy and stayed at that spot for 26 weeks which broke all records in Italy (there certainly feels like some Jean-Jacques Perrey channeling going on in that one). They received a “Gold Record” in Italy and were inducted into the Italian Music Hall of Fame.
Santo and Johnny’s distinctive sound influenced a generation of not just guitarists, but all kinds of musicians. “Sleep Walk’s in everybody’s DNA,” says Farina. “John Lennon said he was inspired by Sleep Walk, and that’s why he wrote Free As A Bird. George Harrison released a song called Marwa Blues inspired by Santo and Johnny”.
1999 was a great year for Sleep Walk, it earned BMI’s Millionaires Award symbolizing 2 million airplays on the radio. Also that year, Brian Setzer’s version earned him a Grammy Award for best instrumental of 1999. Because of constant radio airplay and numerous TV show and commercial plays, Sleep Walk continues to be one of the most popular and quickly recognized instrumentals of the 20th century. It was also used throughout the 1992 Stephen King movie, Sleepwalkers.
In 2002 Santo & Johnny were inducted into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Hanging proudly on his wall, Johnny has 2 Gold Records, one for Sleep Walk and on for The Godfather.
Santo retired from music in the early 70s, but Johnny continues to perform, now taking on the lap-steel role, and still finds time to record new material with his own band. He is also the president of Aniraf, Inc., an international record company based in New York, and currently operates the official Santo And Johnny website.