Santo & Johnny, Forever Mine

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

"Sleep Walk" is surely the most popular steel guitar instrumental of all time, a beautiful slow dance standard whose minor IV chord gives it an eternally wistful and dreamy air. It was the creation of the brothers Farina, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; in 1959, they recorded their self-penned number at arranger Bob Davie's home studio, placing it with Canadian-American Records. Older sibling Santo had heard of the "lap" steel from his father, then stationed in Texas after being drafted into the army, and was taught Hawaiian-style by a man named Fred Phillips.

Steel away — the ghostly sound of waking dreams.

Even though pedals were infiltrating country music in the '50s, Santo stayed on fixed-strings, eventually going to a triple-neck Fender to get all the harmonies he needed. Johnny accompanied him almost subliminally on rhythm guitar, and once told me, an eager fan, in the early '80s, "I liked the sound of the oddball chords." Given Santo's trebly note-by-note renditions of the melody and Johnny's dark, thickly textured voicings, it was probably a wise interpretive choice, and the simplicity — along with the fact that instrumentals are not language-dependent — took their distinctive sound around the world. In 1962, they traveled to Italy to do a television special with European vocal star Caterina Valente, and stayed until 1976, hosting their own television show, starring at the San Remo Festival, and recording forty-eight albums.

This makes for a lot of material, spread over several collections in the eMusic record bins, not to mention this grab-bag of mid-'60s pop song, Santo and Johnny taking on the hits of the day and great classics. Speed was not Santo's forte, but on a languid number like "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" or "The Isle of Dreams," he soars, knowing just when to shimmy the bar. "Reflections" is ghostly, stark, minimalist floating melody, en duo at midnight. On "Red Sails in the Sunset" and "Our Day Will Come," chords fit teasingly between steel phrases, the brothers 'symmetry expressed. There are hints of surf music, the Ventures, and even garage psychedelia in "Stay a Little Bit Longer," covers of Beatles and Monkees ("Daydream Believer" is particularly uplifting); and "Born Free," which begs the question: are brothers ever?