Steel Guitarist, Johnny Farina, Talks About Sleep Walk, Les Paul, The Beatles, and Santo and Johnny (PART TWO)

By: Rick Landers

Johnny Farina Interview: PART ONE

In many respects, when The Beatles and the rest of the new groups that made up the British Invasion during the ’60s took over the air waves, the careers of the earlier top selling performers careened off the charts. Professional music aspirations were deflated or torn apart and it was necessary to adapt to new musical tastes to survive.

Santo and Johnny were fortunate to have had an instrumental hit with relentless durability, and one that would complement the emergence of the guitar as the lead instrument of choice for the new generation of rock stars.

Most, if not all of the top guitarists from the ’60s cut their teeth on “Sleep Walk”, as well as the string work performed by Link Wray, Dick Dale,  Nokie Edwards, Johnny Guitar Watson, T-Bone Walker, Hank Marvin, Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy, and others.

In Part Two of Johnny Farina’s interview, he talks about the influence The Beatles had on his and his brother’s careers, the power and magic of “Sleep Walk” and some of the circumstances that helped keep their careers intact and vibrant.

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Rick: What happened when The Beatles came out? Did that change the trajectory of your career in any way?

Johnny Farina: Yes, it did. It was great. It was a great thing that happened to us.

At the time we were signed to an Italian label. We used to fly back and forth to Italy maybe two or three times a month. We had our own TV show in Italy. We were so popular in Italy, they even had comic books, like Tom and Jerry, the little mice.

Rick: Really?

Johnny Farina: It was called in Italian, Il Topolino, and it would say in Italian, translated, “Two mice, Santo and Johnny.” So, we were like two little mice jumping around.

A lot of people don’t know that we had about 30 albums out. We did James Bond music. We had “, “Thunderball”, “You Only Live Twice”.

We had Sean Connery on the cover of our 45 jackets. The first one he’s walking out of the water with Ursula Andress. They have skin diving apparatus on. It was a famous scene from the movie and we had that on our cover.

Getting back to The Beatles, we recorded an album called Beatles Famous Tunes or something like that. The Beatles – Santo and Johnny. On that was a song we did, “And I Love Her”. In Spanish it’s called “El Amo”. The Italian company had good distribution in Mexico, it was Gamma Records. In 1965 we didn’t know “And I Love Her” was being played in Mexico.

The time I found out about it – have you heard of the world-famous music store, Manny’s? It used to be on 48th Street?

Rick: Yes, I’ve been there, a year or so before it closed.

Johnny Farina: It was family owned, family run. I was friends with the family. One day I walk in there in 1965. Henry, one of the sons, said, “Congratulations!” I said, “On what?” He said, “You have a number one record.” I’m wondering where. He says in Mexico.

He had a Cash Box and showed it to me. When he showed it to me, it was going into the second week of number one. I went right to my manager’s office and said, “Hey, Ed. We have to work Mexico. We have a number one record there.”

In a few weeks we were working in Mexico City. We didn’t realize when we landed – it was pouring rain – I’m looking out the window and see a lot of people out there with their umbrellas. I tell my brother, “Wow, The Beatles must be on this plane,” or somebody famous like them. Everybody’s off the plane and those people are still there.

As soon as we get off that plane, we’re coming down the stairs and they start playing “And I Love Her”. I said, “Wow! We’re famous here.” Needless to say, we had a two week engagement and they picked it up another two week option. We were there for three months because they would not let us go. We were doing Max Factor TV show and doing the Lyrica Theater. We’d do La Fuente nightclub. We were superstars there. It stayed on the charts. For 21 weeks it was number one.

Rick: What kind of surprises me is “Sleep Walk” is so well-known, but you’ve got other songs that I think are close to being just as good. Some of them may be better based on people’s perceptions. I think of “Teardrops”.

Johnny Farina: “Teardrops”.  I just want to jump back to that Mexico thing for a second. I went back about three years ago. Until today, they cannot believe that The Beatles did not copy Santo and Johnny. I tell them, “The Beatles did not copy Santo and Johnny.” The only reason we were there first is because we had distribution in Mexico and The Beatles, for some reason, weren’t able to get their record out in Mexico. We got our record out first. Until today, they believe that The Beatles copied us.

Getting back to what you were saying. I believe a lot of songs that we had…I have to say the record company…sometimes people don’t realize where the success comes from. We put that label on the map just like Fender guitars. Fender guitars were great and they’re still great. The old ones, people hold onto them. For some reason, Fender does not produce any more guitars like I have.

I tried to contact them when “Sleep Walk” was 50 years old and I wanted to come out with the ‘Sleep Walker’, mentioning that “Sleep Walk” sold more Fender steels than anybody could advertise, to try to sell them.

A friend of mine was a rep. He said, “I can’t tell you how many Fender Stringmasters I sold when you guys hit in 1959.” I tried to get my steel guitar fixed from Fender actually, and nobody answered me [Laughing]. It’s just been recently. So, if they’re listening, I hope maybe next time I call them, they’ll understand who I am.

Rick: Let’s hope so. That’s pretty interesting. What steel guitar have you got?

Johnny Farina: I have my original ’56 Fender Stringmaster.

Rick: What kind of amplifier are you using?

Johnny Farina: A Fender Twin, Bassman.

Rick: That’s a pedal steel you’re using, right?

Johnny Farina: No, just a regular, I guess they call them lap steels. I have it on legs because I stand up when I play.

Rick: Okay, I couldn’t tell from the photos I saw. Over the years have you developed a good business sense that has helped you maintain your career? Have you been ripped off and had to figure that out like a lot of people did back in those days?

Johnny Farina: No, actually I had some good business sense. I hear 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. He was a friend of the family and he was actually a real estate man. But, he knew how to read and could tell us what it meant. When I got the contract, I had been shopping “Sleep Walk” around for about a year and a half. Finally I got the deal. I brought the contract to him so he could read it. I wanted him to explain in laymen’s terms what it meant. I knew that when I was talking to the people, I told them we were playing weddings at the time and they were laughing. I told them we played in local bars getting $10 or $15 each.

When I told them that, and they were laughing, I said, “You have to put that in the paper that we’re going to sign that you’ll never take any of that money that we’re making from those jobs.” They said, “We don’t want the money.” I said, “But, you have to write it down so this way I’ll see it that you don’t take the money from the weddings and the side jobs.” They just laughed and said, “Sure, we’ll put it down.”

Rick: You gave them publishing rights, but there was an end date for that.

Johnny Farina: Yes, in 28 years it reverted back.

Rick: A lot of people didn’t do that.

Johnny Farina: No, a lot of people when they signed, they also signed that into effect, that there’s no renewal that will apply to them. I don’t know how legal it was at the time or if it still holds up. People are more educated today. It’s not like it was at the time.

I’m talking about the 20th century now. Things were different. It was just different at that time. It was a new phase. There were a lot of clauses that were not injected into any of those agreements.

Through the years, I have helped various artists who have told me they got ripped off. Some of them I ask, “Listen, I really don’t want anything for it. If I can help you, I’ll be happy to do it. Let me see some of your papers.”

Most of them don’t have any papers. The ones that do, very few have anything in there that they have a leg to stand on. I did help one guy out and he got a lot of money. He was happy about that.

As far as the songs coming back, after a certain amount of time they did revert back. We were talking about some of the songs that we had. I don’t mean to change the subject; it was almost part B of that question. Sometimes songs touch people that I’m not aware of.

I always dug The Beatles. I always thought George Harrison lent himself to our sound, but I never really knew how important our sound was to him until one day a few years ago I saw a letter that a guy told me he got from George Harrison that “All Night Diner” was one of his favorites. He had it in his jukebox at his castle and used to always play it.

About a year ago or more, Sony came out with an album of George Harrison called Let It Roll. Somebody from Sony said, “In the liner notes, George Harrison pays homage to you and your brother for the song ‘Teardrop’.” I said, “Really?” So they sent it to me. I’m looking at it and reading what George Harrison wrote: Because of Santo and Johnny’s beautiful song “Teardrop”, I wrote “Marwa Blues”. Had I known we touched him so dearly, I would have loved to play for him. I didn’t know that. I was following him, if he was improving or not.

Anyway, after he passed, I told my wife. I saw the liner notes and said, “Gee, I’ll never get to say thank you to him.” In November of 2011, I got an email from George Harrison’s estate. His attorneys were saying they wanted to come out with a DVD of George Harrison’s famous guitars and that he had a Strat that he wants “Sleep Walk” played on and Tom Petty’s guitar player is gonna play it.

I told my wife that this could be a wonderful opportunity for me to say thank you to George. So I called up the attorneys and said, “I think it’s a great idea. I would love to be on that DVD and play ‘Sleep Walk’ like he heard it done on the steel guitar. I don’t want anything for this. I want to do this because George Harrison’s ‘Marwa Blues’ – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it but it’s so spiritual – I would never even try to play that song. It’s such a work of art to me that he really touched me.” I tried to convince them.

They said they were going to shoot it in California. I said, “I’ll fly out to the coast at my own expense, stay in a hotel at my own expense. I don’t want anything for it except I want to be on it and donate anything that I generate to his foundation.”

Politics got in the way and that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, I don’t know if they ever told his son or his wife, Olivia, or Donnie, that I wanted to do it. Sometimes things like that happen that you don’t know how you touch people. John Lennon, I didn’t realize that we touched him, that he wrote “Free As a Bird” because of “Sleep Walk”.

I have an underground album that I got in Mexico, of all places, of Paul McCartney when he had gone to see John Lennon when he had his place in California. He was there and Stevie Wonder was there. They started to jam and all of a sudden John Lennon starts to strum the chords to “Sleep Walk” and sings the melody of “Sleep Walk” but he called it “Nightmare”. In the middle of it he said, “No, this is Santo and Johnny’s ‘Sleep Walk’”.

I don’t really know how many people we touched. There was a movie called Play It Loud where I think Jimmy Page holds an album to the edge and you see him holding Santo and Johnny’s album. We touched a lot of people. If there’s any of you guys out there, I’m out here. I’m alive and well and ready to travel. Have steel, will travel. I want people to know that. Hopefully you’re going to help me do that.

Rick: I certainly hope so. That’s part of the deal here. I love promoting good music. “Sleep Walk” is a classic and I learned it when I was 14 years old and hundreds of thousands of other young guitarists back then and through the years have learned guitar through “Sleep Walk”. Not only the notes, but the feel for the guitar and the music. I’m honored to be talking to you.

Johnny Farina: I want to tell you something and when I hear those words that you’re honored, as far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor for me that you’re interested in talking to me. A lot of times people don’t realize that people that did paint these pictures are still around. For some reason they don’t contact them. Thank god I have everything I need. I am traveling. After the U.K., my next gig will be in December, December 8 in Westbury, NY. It’s a beautiful theater.

In between there’s a little void there. I don’t want to gig every week. Twice a month is good for me. Nice places. We love to travel because when you go to the U.K., or France, my wife and I were in France on April 30 which is my birthday. About 2000 people were singing “Happy Birthday” in English and French to me. They brought me a bottle of wine onstage. That was so sweet.

For our anniversary, 50 years married to the same woman, we’re gonna be in the UK. I’ll be performing. Life has really been good to me. “Sleep Walk” has been so good that there’s not a day in this house that it’s not mentioned. It’s just part of our life.

“Sleep Walk” is more than a song. It is our life. When I played with Larry Carlton, he’s so respectful and such a nice guy. I enjoyed that performance.

Rick: I understand you got a call from Carlos Santana and you almost didn’t take it. What happened there?

Johnny Farina: That was funny. Sometimes I’ll go out to dinner with some friends and for some reason I tell them what I’m doing. They want to know. Sometimes I really shouldn’t tell them anything because they sometimes make jokes out of certain things I do. I cut “Europa”. It’s on my Pure Steel album. Are you familiar with that song?

Rick: Yeah, the Santana song.

Johnny Farina: I cut it. I told my friends about it. It’s very soulful. I said, “As a matter of fact, I’m gonna send it to Carlos Santana. I’ll bet he calls me, and when he calls me, I’ll probably tell him I’m busy,” but I was only fooling around.

So my wife is listening to this because we’re out to dinner. I send it out to Carlos’ people. A couple of weeks later, I’m in my studio doing a mix and I see the lights blinking and I know my wife wants to talk to me. Finally, I stop what I’m doing. She says, “Carlos Santana’s on the phone.” I said, “Yeah, okay. Sure. Tell him to hold on.” I’m thinking it’s one of my friends, so I don’t take the call.

She comes down five minutes later and says, “No, he’s still holding.” I said, “Find out who it is.” She said, “I told you. It’s Carlos Santana.” We’re going back and forth. She goes up and comes back down again and says, “The guy’s getting angry. He’s really Carlos Santana.”

So let me go see who it is, and I’m trying to think who I told the story to about him maybe calling me and who could maybe do a good impression of him. I pick up the phone, “Hello. Who’s this?” He says, “Hey man, what’s wrong with you?” I said, “Nothing. Who is this?” “This is Carlos.” “All right, Carlos. This isn’t Carlos. Is this Jimmy?” I’m going on calling some names out and he says, “Is there something wrong with you, man?” and he’s got that accent. Finally he says, “You know, you guys inspired me.” I said, “Yeah, sure. How?” “Well, I had two albums when I was a kid. One was Dizzy Gillespie and one was Santo and Johnny, called Mona Lisa.”

I knew I didn’t tell my friends that because we recorded that in Italy. So I said, “Whoa, Carlos,” [Both Laughing] “Sorry for acting that way, but I have some friends that like to fool around.” We finally got to do a couple of shows together. I thought that was a funny story because the first thing he said was, “You are so soulful. You’re a soulful cat and you inspired me,” that’s when I said, “Yeah, yeah.” I thought it was one of my friends. Sometimes people don’t understand how serious things are.

Rick: Did you ever meet Robert Randolph or hear his music?

Johnny Farina: No. I’ve heard of him. He’s good. He’s a good player.

Rick:  He’s on the same venue as Clapton sometimes.

Johnny Farina: Yeah. That’s amazing. That’s what I was driving at before. There are people out there that were inspired by a lot of our playing. They’re in that sort of loop. The people like the Claptons out there know I’m around. You know what I’m saying?

Rick: How has your career changed over the years? Now that you’ve influenced so many musicians over time, and all the changes with the Internet, have things changed for you personally as far as how you handle your career?

Johnny Farina: I sort of go with the flow, where it takes me. If it takes me to England…I’m sort of like a compass. If it points north, I’ll go north.

Rick: Music can inspire people, but it can also heal people who are depressed or have lost a loved one in some capacity, whether through death or just a breakup. What has it meant to you personally through the good times and the bad times?

Johnny Farina: The first part of what you say is that, yeah, I get emails from people and they tell me what “Sleep Walk” meant to them, what it meant to the ones they lost. Some people play it at funeral services because that was a favorite song of theirs.

A girl from Australia sent me a note. She’s a blind girl and loves “Sleep Walk”. It touches her. So I sent her some CDs. Some people chose it, and still do, as their wedding song. It means a lot to certain individuals, some happy, some sad.

To me, it is a magical song. I think it’s magical, because when you hear it, it does take you back to any time. It’s not a specific time. It’s not ‘50s. It’s not ‘60s. It’s not ‘70s. It’s everything in general. Somebody said, and it’s true, it’s in everybody’s DNA.

More people know the song than they realize that they know it. You can ask them, “Do you know ‘Sleep Walk’?” and they’ll say no. Somebody will hum a couple of bars, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I know that song.”

I think that “Sleep Walk” is bigger than the artist. That’s what I think. That’s just the way it is. People know Santo and Johnny. People introduce me as Johnny Farina. Yes, I am Johnny Farina, but they have to remember when they introduce me, I’m Johnny Farina of Santo and Johnny. It’s not just Johnny or Johnny Farina.

A lot of people don’t understand that that’s my roots. Johnny Farina of Santo and Johnny, and “Sleep Walk”. Then you can put that into perspective and people, “Oh, yeah! Johnny Farina, he was with Santo and Johnny. They’re the two guys that did ‘Sleep Walk’.” There’s a whole story there. It’s right out there, right in front of them.

Getting back to “Sleep Walk”, yeah, it’s a healing song. I’ve played it for people, for my friend’s mom who was passing.

Seymour Duncan made a pickup for my steel about eight years ago, or maybe more. I wanted to pay him. He said, “Listen, the only payment you can do is that when I pass, you play at my funeral.” I said, “I don’t know if I’m guaranteeing you that. If I’m around, okay, I’ll do it.”

I have a list of people who say, “I want you to play at the church for me.” It’s a hard shot to say I’m gonna do this. What guarantee do you have that I’m gonna be there? For some reason people look at me sometimes like I looked at Les Paul. He’ll always be there. Like Tony Bennett. I look at Tony Bennett. He’s always gonna be there.

Rick: Yeah, I saw Tony Bennett on Capitol Hill here in the DC area.

Johnny Farina: Really?

Rick: Yeah. He’s timeless. Just like “Sleep Walk” and Santo and Johnny. I think it’s good to honor people who have offered us these foundational songs and music. Plus “Sleep Walk” is still a great song almost 50 years later.

Johnny Farina: It’s more than 50. That’s why I tried to contact Fender when it was in its 50th anniversary, to tell them to come out with a Fender Stringmaster. It’s like talking to the wall sometimes when you’re trying to reach people. It’s very difficult. Leo Fender must be floating around in heaven saying, “What’s going on?” He knew about the steel. That was one of his projects.

Rick: Did you ever meet him?

Johnny Farina: No, I didn’t, but ironically I have some of the copper that Leo Fender had in his workshop in my pickup on my first neck.

It’s pretty cool. And you know what? You can hear the difference in that pickup. Like Seymour was saying, “It’s gonna be hotter than the original,” because of the copper content. And it is. You can tell it’s hotter than the original pickup. Sometimes when people say that old guitars were wired a certain way. Yeah, they were wired a certain way because the elements they put in were more pure. That’s what makes them sound so rich.

Rick: The same with wood on guitars.

Johnny Farina: Absolutely. When they used the wood, they aged the wood. They didn’t just cut the tree down and cut out a guitar. My friend, John Monteleone, you go to his workshop and he picks the wood that he’s going to use for his guitars. He just touches it.

As he’s carving it, he keeps tapping it to hear the resonance, the sound it’s gonna make. It’s amazing. He knows the grain. A certain grain is gonna sound a certain way. It’s just amazing. When people made Fenders years ago, it wasn’t just stamped out.

Rick: Most of them were hand-built, back in the ’52 to ’54 years, with the Telecasters and the Strats. All built by hand.

Johnny Farina: On the cover of the latest Fender book is one of those gold Fenders. I got a chance to buy one years ago. The guy just wanted to get rid of it. It was brand new with the case, just sell it at cost. By the time I got back, it was gone.

Fender came out with a book about a year ago called Fender: The Golden Age: 1946-1970. At the beginning of the book on page 29 there’s the first album that my brother and I did. It’s called Santo and Johnny. On page 30, there’s a pedal steel, but they have a story and it says, “Perhaps the most memorable recording to feature Fender steel was Santo and Johnny’s 1959 chart-topping instrumental, ‘Sleep Walk’ recorded on triple-neck Stringmaster. It conjured up the romantic visions of paradise islands, moonlit beaches and twinkling stars above, vivid images created in the sound of the Fender steel guitar.”

I don’t know about that. [Laughing] We lived in Brooklyn, so we didn’t know about paradise islands. They took the time to write such a beautiful article. People would buy that guitar. That would be great. Come out with that guitar. Call it the Sleepwalker and I go around and do some of these shows like NAMM to show that this guitar is a smokin’ instrument. Maybe by us doing this story, somebody at Fender might happen to read it and say, “Wow, what a great idea,” and they present it to somebody and the guy says, “Man, what a genius idea!” [Laughing]

Rick: It’s just serendipity. That’s just how things happen in the industry sometimes.

Johnny Farina: Absolutely.

Rick:  You’ve got a new Christmas album out, right?

Johnny Farina: It’s called “Christmas Mine” and it’s available on Amazon and iTunes. I did some classic Christmas song, but did them in different style than the usual way people do them. A lot of people that do Christmas CDs, especially an artist that’s hot, they call in musicians and lay the tracks down. After they lay the tracks down, they just sing over them and cover them like cover tunes.

I took each song and put my own feeling and style to it. I think when you hear it, you’re gonna be surprised at how they came out. Especially with the “Sleep Walk” version. Totally different take on “Sleep Walk”.  It’s on my website with sample recordings.

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One Comment

  1. JOHN BOYER (2 years ago)