The (Hit) Ballad of Santo and Johnny

When some brothers enter the field of music, they start by having each other’s back only for each of them wishing he can kick his sibling a little further down (see: Ray and Dave Davies).  On a Knott’s Berry Farm stage in 1973, Phil Everly exhibited his displeasure at drunk brother Don by smashing his guitar on the floor then exiting as Don slurred to the crowd, “I’m through with being an Everly Brother.”  The Oasis brothers, Liam and Noel Gallagher, have reportedly mostly talked to each other only through the internet ever since a 2009 fight involving Liam swinging a guitar at his brother before a Paris concert, causing the show to be canceled and Noel announcing: “It’s with some sadness and great relief to tell you that I quit Oasis tonight.”

These brotherly feuds pale in comparison to Santo and Johnny Farina, creators of the immortal “Sleepwalk.”  The brothers, who stopped playing together in 1976, haven’t spoken to each other in 49 years. Santo is content to never play in public. In 2018, guitarist/writer Deke Dickerson found Santo living in Long Island: “I get to the end of the street and there’s this gate, and a lot of overgrown grass and a ‘Keep Out’ sign. I thought, ‘This has to be his place, but it says, ‘Keep Out.’ I really shouldn’t trespass.’ But I noticed somebody about fifty feet away, working on a truck. I yelled out, ‘Santo!’ And this head popped out from underneath the hood and he starts walking toward me. A small, really tough-looking guy. ‘What the hell do you want?’ And I said, ‘My name’s Deke Dickerson and I came from California to try to track you down. I write for guitar magazines and I’d like to interview you.’ Santo just didn’t want to be found and the fact that I got thirty minutes out of him was incredible. He was a really intense guy.”

But long before that, Santo was a 22-year-old steel guitarist extraordinaire who played on a #1 hit record in 1959 with his 18-year-old brother on rhythm guitar. Johnny noted in a 2012 interview with Guitar International magazine how “Sleepwalk” became the gift that keeps giving through residuals and royalties.

“I heard a lot of war stories. Sometimes if you look into some of the stories that you hear, how people got ripped off, maybe they signed a document because they got a 1957 or ’58 Cadillac in return. They signed their rights away. My brother and I signed when we did our publishing deal, but we had a nice lawyer. I brought the contract to him so he could read it. I wanted him to explain in laymen’s terms what it meant.  We gave them publishing rights, but there was an end date for that. In 28 years, it reverted back to us.”

The song’s life is consistently introduced to a younger generation.  The Brian Setzer Orchestra won a Grammy in 1998 for its version while 194 other artists had a go at it including Modest Mouse, Santana, Jeff Beck, and Chet Atkins. Currently, Mattress Firm imaginatively uses it to sell beds and it could be heard in films like La Bamba (1987), Sleepwalkers (1992), and The Conjuring (2013).

“Sleepwalk” can be heard in the Beatles’ “Free as Bird.”  Johnny was flattered by his chords striking a chord with John Lennon; stating: “I didn’t realize that we touched him, that he wrote ‘Free As a Bird’ because of ‘Sleepwalk.’ I have an underground album of Paul McCartney when he had gone to see Lennon when he had his place in California. They started to jam and Lennon starts to strum the chords to ‘Sleepwalk’ and sings the melody of ‘Sleepwalk’ but he called it ‘Nightmare.’ In the middle of it he said, ‘No, this is Santo and Johnny’s ‘Sleepwalk.’”

George Harrison was well aware of the duo.  In the liner notes of Let it Roll, a compilation album, Harrison noted: “Because of Santo and Johnny’s beautiful song ‘Teardrop,’ I wrote ‘Marwa Blues.’”

And because of “Sleepwalk,” Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac wrote the instrumental, “Albatross” which inspired the Beatle’s “Sun King” song.  Harrison admitted in 1987, “At the time, ‘Albatross’ was out. So we said, ‘Let’s be Fleetwood Mac doing ‘Albatross’ just to get going.’”

Perhaps the reason why the Farinas never sued the Beatles for liberally borrowing “Sleepwalk” for “Free as a Bird” was because the brothers covered the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” in 1965. Santo and Johnny Mania had gripped Mexico; Johnny recalled being on a plane as it landed in Mexico City: “I’m looking out the window and see a lot of people out there. I tell my brother, ‘The Beatles must be on this plane.’ As soon as we get off that plane, we’re coming down the stairs and they start playing ‘And I Love Her.’  For 21 weeks it was number one. I said, ‘Wow! We’re famous here.’ We were there for three months because they would not let us go. We were superstars there.”

And, in 1973, Italy loved them, too.  Johnny remembered: “We had our own TV show in Italy. We were so popular there, they even had comic books, like ‘Tom and Jerry.’ It was called in Italian, Il Topolino, and it would say in Italian, translated: ‘Two mice, Santo and Johnny.’”

But it appears today, rifts between the brothers are ongoing.  Maybe they can relate to Phil Everly when he noted of his brother in 1970: “We only ever had one argument. It’s been lasting for 25 years.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Santo and Johnny, 1972 (public domain)

Other Posts You Might Like

Mark Daponte is a copy/blog writer for an advertising company and has published/sold four short stories, three full length screenplays, nine short screenplays (including two animation scripts) and punches up screenplays—because they don’t punch back. He has had six short comedic plays performed by various theater companies, including one in Los Angeles, (Sacred Fools) and Sacramento, CA (Sacramento Actors Theater Company). When he isn’t sinking down to a thirteen-year-old’s level to make his teenaged sons laugh, he can be found seeking signs of intelligent life in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY.

1 comment on “The (Hit) Ballad of Santo and Johnny

  1. Eoghan Lyng

    I like their version of And I Love Her more than The Beatles.

Leave a Reply (and please be kind!)

Love the Beatles? Get this eBook FREE when you subscribe.

It turns out there's a lot to say. Just say "yes" to get yours.