Johnny Farina was 16, when he and his brother, Santo, released the all-time classic instrumental, “Sleep Walk.”
The two brothers wrote it one night, when they couldn’t sleep after playing a gig, and started jamming. Next thing you know, “Sleep Walk,” went to No. 1 in 1959 and remains one of the most iconic songs of all-time.
“I believed in that song,” Johnny, who will appear in The Villages on Thursday, said in a recent telephone interview. “I was 16, and I told my Dad I was quitting school. He said no. I told him, Dad, you don’t understand. There’s not much more for me to learn, I want to be a rock star.”
Tony Farina looked at his son and said: “Johnny, the only stars are in the sky.”
Johnny Farina left school, and has been making music ever since. He plays Savannah Center for two shows on Thursday at 5 and 8 p.m. He’s part of “Rocky’s Original Lead Singers of Pop ‘N Rock,” concert. It features Rocky and the Rollers along with: Joey Dee (“Peppermint Twist”); Ron Dante of the Archies (“Sugar Sugar”), John Claude Gummoe from The Cascades (“Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain”) and Henry Gross, an original member of Sha Na Na.
“I can’t wait to get back to Florida, I haven’t been there for 10 years,” Farina said. “It’s going to be a good show and Rocky has a great band.”
Here is how Santo and Johnny looked playing “Sleep Walk” on the Dick Clark nighttime show.
“Sleep Walk,” is one of those songs that will never die. It has been covered multiple times by such artists as Jeff Beck, Chet Atkins, Joe Satriani, Les Paul, the Ventures, Brian Setzer and Larry Carlton. Here is Carlton playing with Johnny on steel guitar:
“Sleep Walk” also keeps popping up in movies, and has been used in about 40 films, Farina said.
“My favorite was “La Bamba (The Ritchie Valens Story, 1987),” he added. The song is played at the start and also near the end of the film, during a funeral for Valens. He was 17 when killed in a 1959 airplane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.
“That scene always gets to me, because I loved Ritchie’s music,” Farina said. “It’s a very powerful scene. And it was an honor that they used our song.”
The Beatles, especially George Harrison, were big fans of “Sleep Walk.” Harrison once released a song called “Marwa Blues” which was influenced by “Sleep Walk.” A John Lennon song, “Free As A Bird,” also bears resemblance to the soft, slide steel guitar sound of Farina’s record.
It was Tony Farina who introduced the steel guitar to his sons, Santo and Johnny. Tony had been in the Army, and heard steel guitar music. So he bought one for his sons, along with a tape recorder. Until, “Sleep Walk,” the steel guitar was mostly used in country music, and some blues.
“My brother and I brought the steel guitar into rock and roll,” Johnny said. “Record companies didn’t know what to make of it. It took us over a year to get ‘Sleep Walk,’ recorded.”
The song took off, Johnny said, after famed DJ Alan Freed started playing it in New York City. “Alan loved the song,” Johnny said. “He told us: ‘that song will last forever.’”
It’s the steel guitar that gives the song a magical quality, Johnny believes.
“When I play the steel guitar, it becomes part of me, and I become part of the instrument,” Johnny said.
The song changed his life in many ways. When it became a monster smash, the family had to move out of Brooklyn.
“It was crazy,” Johnny said. “Teenage girls would come to our house and hang out outside. They looked for souvenirs, and stole the hubcaps off my father’s ’51 Buick.”
Santo and Johnny had a few more hits, such as “Tear Drop,” “Caravan,” and “All Night Diner.”
But nothing could match “Sleep Walk.”
“It was tough doing a follow-up to that kind of success,” Johnny said. Santo and Johnny split up the act during the mid-1970s.
But Johnny, 75, still tours the world and loves playing the steel guitar.
“Just before my father died, he told me: “Johnny, never stop playing that steel guitar.”
Johnny Farina took that advice to heart.
“I was 16 when ‘Sleep Walk’ hit No. 1,” he said. “Now I’m 75 and still playing it. For me, the most important thing is the music. And I’ll never stop playing it.”