That 1950s Instrumental Hit Known as “Sleep Walk”

If you watch a movie about the 1950s or early 1960s, it is likely that at some point you will hear a familiar instrumental song that you recognize but might not know its name. If you have wondered about the story behind the familiar song with the steel guitar, the name of the song is “Sleep Walk,” written and recorded by brothers Santo & Johnny Farina in 1959.

“Sleep Walk” was recorded at the end of the 1950s, so the song was probably still playing on the radio as the 1960s began. And in retrospect, it seems like it was a last gasp of capturing the perceived innocence of the 1950s before the start of the turbulent changes of the 1960s, as well as following the tradition of 1950s instrumental guitar songs. Perhaps those reasons are why “Sleep Walk” is so often used in movies to evoke the 1950s, such as when the song pops up at the end of La Bamba (1987) after Ritchie Valens’s family learns of his death in February 1959.

In this video, Santo and Johnny perform the song on the August 1, 1959 episode of the Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show. Dick Clark tells how the brothers wrote the song at 2:00 a.m. after one brother woke up the other because he had the idea for the song in his head (although another article just reports that the brothers stayed up late to write the song). The story explains the name of the song.

For more information about Santo & Johnny and “Sleep Walk,” Johnny Farina is interviewed by Tom Meros in this video. Johnny gives some background on how his father encouraged the brothers to learn the steel guitar.

Although it is the Santo & Johnny version that everyone knows, others have covered the song, including My Morning Jacket and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Blake Mills and Carlos Santana play that version you hear in La Bamba.

In this video, Garrison Keillor introduces Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke playing a sweet version of “Sleepwalk.” Check it out.

We love the song as an instrumental piece, but that has not stopped some folks from trying to add words. Modest Mouse turned the instrumental into “Sleeepwalkin'” on their 1999 album Building Nothing Out of Something when they added some lyrics.

About.com explains that a jazz standard “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise” inspired “Sleep Walk.” But Farina disputes the existence of any relationship between the two tunes: “It’s not even close to it, really, if you listen to the two. But it’s become part of the mystique of the song.” Listen to Michael Brecker’s take on “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise” and judge for yourself.

Farina, however, does note that “Sleep Walk” has inspired others. For example, the tune inspired John Lennon to write “Free as a Bird,” which was later made into a Beatles song by the other Beatles after Lennon’s death. You can definitely hear a little “Sleep Walk” in “Free as a Bird.”

In addition to La Bamba, “Sleep Walk” has appeared in other movies like Coupe de Ville (1990), Mermaids (1990), Jack (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997), Hearts in Atlantis (2001), and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). The tune also pops up in television shows like Mad Men, Heroes, Ken Burns’s Baseball series, and Quantum Leap.

Santo and Johnny, fortunately, are still with us. According to Wikipedia, Santo is semi-retired and Johnny still tours and records. I am not quite sure what it is about “Sleep Walk” that makes us automatically think of the certain time period of 1950s America. But Santo & Johnny certainly captured a certain time as well as a certain sleepy feeling.

What is your favorite use of “Sleep Walk”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Eddie Cochran’s Car Crash

    On April 17, 1960, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were taking a cab from a show in Bristol, England to the airport when the taxi, traveling at more than 60 mph through a dark and winding road, crashed into a light post. Cochran was thrown through a window and died at the hospital from a head injury. Vincent survived but sustained a broken leg and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Cochran — who had hits with songs like “C’mon Everybody”, “Somethin’ Else”, and “Summertime Blues” was only 21.

    Cochran’s girlfriend Sharon Sheeley, who was also in the car, survived, reportedly because Cochran had thrown himself on top of her to protect her. Sheeley was a songwriter and wrote songs such as Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” and she continued to write songs after the crash. She passed away in 2002.

    Despite his young death, the Minnesota-born Cochran and Vincent, who passed away in 1971, were a strong influence on the British rock scene. For example, John Lennon was playing Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula” at a 1957 garden party where he met Paul McCartney (whose first record purchase was of that Gene Vincent record). And later that afternoon when the two future Beatles met, McCartney taught Lennon to play Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.”

    In this video, Eddie Cochran performed on the Town Hall Party TV show on February 7, 1959. This performance took place not long after Cochran had lost two of his friends, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly in a tragic plane crash and a little more than a year before his own death. Check it out.

    What is your favorite Eddie Cochran song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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  • That 1950s Instrumental Hit Known as “Sleep Walk”
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    Who Flipped a Coin With Ritchie Valens?: The Day the Music Died and the Coin Toss Controversy

    February 3 marks the anniversary of the day Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens perished in a plane crash. You probably know the general outline of “the day the music died.” But you may not know the controversy surrounding the legendary coin flip connected to the tragedy.

    The Day the Music Died

    In early 1959, Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts toured through the Midwest in what was called “The Winter Dance Party.” Also on the tour was Holly’s new back-up band replacing the Crickets: Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass, and Carl Bunch on drums.

    Some of the performers were tired of traveling through the cold in an old bus that kept breaking down. The poor conditions led to drummer Bunch going to the hospital with frostbite. So Buddy Holly chartered a small plane for one of the upcoming trips on the tour.

    After their February 2, 1959 performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, three of the stars — Holly, Richardson, and Valens — boarded a three-passenger plane. The plane took off in the early morning hours of February 3 for Fargo, North Dakota but soon crashed in a snow storm.

    All three passengers were killed along with the pilot Roger Peterson. The young rock and roll music industry lost three of its brightest stars.

    The Competing Claims About a Coin Toss

    Although the story is familiar, there is still an ongoing question. Besides Holly, how did Richardson and Valens end up on the plane instead of the other headliner, Dion, or instead of other band members?

    Stories conflict about the events that night before the flight. Everyone agrees there was a coin toss. But survivors still debate who was the person who barely missed getting on a plane ride to their death, all due to the luck of a coin flip.

    Holly’s former band members tell one story. But Dion wrote in his book The Wanderer Talks Truth (2011) that the events “have been completely eclipsed by urban legends, cinematic retellings, gossip, and outright grandstanding.” (p. 41).

    Who is telling the truth? Let’s consider the different versions of the story.

    On a Behind the Music episode, “The Day the Music Died,” the producers presented the story that Buddy Holly planned for the airplane to the next stop on the tour for him and his two musicians, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. In the video, Waylon Jennings explains how he gave up his seat on the plane to the ailing Big Bopper (around 9:50). Jennings recounts that Holly had ribbed him about taking the bus. Jennings responded, jokingly, “I hope your ole plane crashes,” a retort that haunted him for years.

    In the same episode, guitarist Tommy Allsup recounts how when he went inside to make sure they did not leave anything behind, he ran into Ritchie Valens.  Then, Valens asked Allsup if he could take Allsup’s seat on the plane. Allsup then claims he flipped a coin, and Valens won the seat on the ill-fated plane.

    In other venues, Tommy Allsup repeated his version of the story of the coin toss that he lost to Ritchie Valens.

    Bob Hale, the emcee at the Surf Ballroom in Iowa for the last Winter Dance Party show before the plane crash, has a similar recollection. Hale remembers that Allsup suggested the coin flip. But Hale recalls that he was the one who flipped the coin for Allsup and Valens.  Hale remembers that Valens won by calling “heads.”

    Allsup, however, argues that Hale was not present at the coin flip. [February 2013 Update: See the comments section below for Mr. Hale’s comment on this post.][January 2017 Update: Tommy Allsup passed away on January 11, 2017.]

    Dion has yet another version of the events leading to the plane ride. According to Dion’s website:

    “Dion was, in fact, scheduled to fly in the fateful plane that went down. The headliners flipped a coin to see who was going to fly. The Big Bopper and Dion won the toss. Then he discovered that the flight would cost $36 — the exact amount of rent his parents paid monthly. He said, ‘I couldn’t bring myself to pay a full month’s rent on a short flight. So I said, ‘Ritchie, you go.’ He accepted and took my seat. Only the four of us knew who was getting on that plane when we left the dressing room that night. Of those four, I was the only one who survived beyond February 3, 1959.'”

    In his book The Wanderer Talks Truth, Dion explains that through the years he watched others (presumably Allsup who he never names) exaggerate their role.  Dion asserts that he only came forward to correct history when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame contacted him about the conflicting stories.

    Filmmakers created a documentary about the tour that includes Dion’s memories. 2015 Update: The Winter Dance Party video interview with Dion has been completed and is posted below. Dion’s explanation of the coin toss involving Holly, Vallens, the Big Bopper, and him begins at around 42:20, although the entire video is worth watching for his memories of the tour.

    Allsup has threatened to “whip [Dion’s] ass for claiming he participated in the coin toss with Valens.  Sometimes Allsup’s anger about the dispute unnecessarily digresses to attacking Dion’s musical talents.

    Readers of this blog know I am a Dion fan, so I hate to believe that he is lying. And to a large extent, it has been curious that as the fourth headliner he is often excluded in discussions of the fated tour.

    Then again, one may give some weight to Ritchie Valens’s sister, Connie Valens Lemos. She sides with Tommy Allsup on the issue.

    The Movie Versions of the Coin Flip

    The two major films about two of the stars on the tour do not add any insight. The Buddy Holly Story (1978) avoided the issue altogether. That movie ends with Buddy Holly on stage in Clear Lake, Iowa on the fateful night, playing his hits and having fun on stage.

    At the end of The Buddy Holly Story, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper join Holly on stage for the final song, leaving us with a happy moment. As in many retellings of the story, the film does not mention the fourth headliner, Dion.

    The film about Ritchie Valens, La Bamba (1987), also excludes all mention of Dion. A scene of a marquee on the final tour does not even show Dion’s name.

    La Bamba takes some additional literary license with the events leading up to the flight. Regarding the coin toss, in the first mention of the planned flight, the Big Bopper tells Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) that Holly reserved the plane for the headliners. This conversation in the film is consistent with Dion’s story.

    But later in the movie La Bamba, it shows the group standing next to the plane. There, Holly explains he is flipping a coin to decide whether Ritchie or “Tommy” gets to go. “Tommy” is also called “Allsup” in the scene, so the movie follows the Allsup-Valens coin toss story.  But La Bamba moves the private toss between the two men to one conducted by Holly on the airfield. Allsup has criticized the movie’s fictionalized version of the coin flip.

    What Really Happened?

    Is Allsup telling the truth? And did Dion’s imagination insert the singer deeper into the story of “the day the music died”? It is easy to imagine a toll on Dion from decades of hearing about the music dying when he survived.  For decades that tour headliner has been completely excluded from the legendary tale in many retellings.

    Or is Dion telling the truth, which would mean that Allsup and Waylon Jennings are wrong? And what about Hale’s version that he flipped the coin?

         Arguments Supporting Allsup’s Version

    Between Allsup and Dion, there is no way to way to be sure who is telling the truth. But some factors weigh in favor of Allsup. Since Holly arranged for the flight, it seems like he might first ask his friends and band-mates Allsup and Jennings.  This conclusion makes sense considering the band had lost drummer Carl Bunch for awhile due to to frostbite.

    Also, Allsup’s wallet was found among the wreckage.  Allsup explains that  before the coin toss, he had planned to go on the flight. So he gave Holly his identification so Holly could pick up his mail waiting in Fargo. Still, even if Allsup had not planned to fly at some point, he could have given his wallet to Holly for the same reason.

    One strong argument for Allsup is that he consistently has told the same story since the crash. And most stories by other people are largely consistent with Allsup’s version of the coin flip. Bob Hale confirms that the coin flip involved Allsup and Valens, even though Allsup and Hale disagree about who actually flipped the coin. Jennings’ story also is more consistent with Allsup’s.

    Jennings’s story about Allsup seems truthful because he would have no motivation to make up a story that makes him look bad with his joking taunt about the plane crashing. Still, under Dion’s version, Jennings and Holly still could have had the exchange even if Jennings had not been one of the original passengers.

         Arguments Supporting Dion’s Version

    On the other hand, some reasons support Dion’s version of events. Holly might have asked the headliners first, expecting they most likely would be willing to have the money for the expensive flight.

    Also, according to Larrry Lehmer’s book, The Day the Music Died, Holly had asked Jennings to open for him in England but told Jennings that he was not going to tour in England with Allsup because he was going to get back together with his original Crickets. So maybe Allsup would not be the first person Holly would ask on the flight.

    There are other reasons why Holly might have first invited the headliners. For example, Valens and Richardson were both sick, so Holly might have asked them first, then included the other headliner, Dion.

    Waylon Jennings does remember that Dion was especially angry about the poor conditions of the bus that kept breaking down (Lehmer, p. 67). Thus, Holly might have thought that Dion would be the first to jump at the chance to fly. And Holly played drums for Dion for their last show, so they might have talked about the flight.

    Finally, there are questionable reports that Holly, Valens, and Richardson flew in a plane on some legs of the tour before the fateful trip. (Lehmer, p. 224) If true, it seems Holly was flying with the headliners, not his band members. If true, that practice would support the conclusion that Dion was invited on the final flight. On the other hand, many dispute the stories about other flights and even Dion does not remember any other flights.

    Trying to Put It All Together

    Larry Lehmer’s well-researched book is in the Allsup camp, recounting the version from Jennings and Allsup without mentioning the Dion controversy. Lehmer also quotes Carroll Anderson, the manager of the Surf lounge and the person who first contacted the pilot Roger Peterson, as saying that Holly said he wanted to get a flight for him and his band. (p. 95.)

    Maybe some combination of the stories is true. Maybe there was a coin toss among all of the men and Allsup and Dion both “lost” out on seats of the plane.

    Or maybe there were two coin tosses. Under both Allsup’s and Dion’s stories their coin tosses happened in different places at different times. Under this scenario, maybe Dion had a seat that he declined because of the cost.  Then later there could have been a coin flip between Valens and Allsup.

    Buddy Holly’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, similarly has suggested some merging of the two stories.  But it is reported that Allsup also has attacked the character of Ms. Holly too.

    If that is not enough controversy for the day, some people claim that the plane crash itself should be re-investigated. Some go as far to say that foul play was involved in the crash. But we will leave those “mysteries” for another day.

    Of course, the only people who know how these passengers were selected are Tommy Allsup, Dion, and Ritchie Valens. Whatever happened, the survivors’ trauma of hearing the news of the crash probably affected memories. Thus, it is likely both Allsup and Dion actually remember the story in different ways.  Neither of the men is probably intentionally lying.

    So that leaves Ritchie Valens. But unfortunately he is no longer with us and buried in California. Richardson was buried in Beaumont, Texas, although his body was exhumed in 2007, underwent an autopsy, and reburied. Holly is buried in Lubbock, and the pilot Peterson is buried in Iowa.

    Ultimately, to paraphrase Don McLean’s “American Pie,” all of this arguing about the coin toss just may be keeping Satan laughing with delight. It may not matter who lost the coin toss that night, as those who won the toss and those who were on the plane constituted our great national loss.

    What do you think happened with the coin toss? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Day the Music Died & American Pie

    On this date of February 3 in 1959, a small plane crashed in a cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing the pilot Roger Peterson along with his famous passengers: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. The three were on “The Winter Dance Party” tour throughout the Midwest, a tour that also included Dion and a young bass player named Waylon Jennings. The tour traveled by bus, but for the trip to Moorhead, Minnesota, the three performers chartered a plane.

    In the future, Chimesfreedom plans to revisit more of the story, but for today check out this cool video that someone put together for Don McLean‘s song, “American Pie.” The song is celebrating its fortieth anniversary, as around this time in 1972 following the song’s release a few months earlier on Nov. 27, 1971, the song had climbed the charts so you could not turn on the radio without hearing “American Pie.”

    Through the years, McLean has been notoriously vague about specific meanings of the imagery in the song, but it is widely accepted that the opening and refrain of the song centers on his memories of hearing about the death of the three singers in the plane crash. In his memory, he wondered what would happen to rock and roll after such a great loss, which led to an era of Pat Boone and Fabian songs. Of course, now we know, unfortunately, that rock an roll has survived many such losses since then, but these were the early days. Anyway, the video does a good job of explaining some of the imagery, and even if it is not 100% correct about the images, it provides an interesting interpretation to much of the song. Check it out.

    What do you think “American Pie” means? What is your favorite song by Buddy Holly or the others? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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