Santo & Johnny
Off Shore






Off Shore is the dedicated oceanscape of guitarists – and brothers! – Santo & Johnny Farina, released in 1963 on Canadian-American Records. As is common on the duo’s first six albums or so, conductor Mort Garson and his choir join the slick fellows to severely widen or improve the textural base of Santo’s already colorful Fender steel guitar and Johnny’s acoustic guitar. The album comprises the usual 12 tracks and showcases the commonplace mixture of a few unique compositions from the brothers’ feather and a majority of renditions. Or so it seems.


But believe me, Off Shore is something special. Rarely has there been an Exotica LP with such a devoted and carefully crafted concept! All songs are about coastlines, sea shores and the ocean. Even thematically similar Exotica classics such as Martin Denny‘s The Enchanted Sea (1959) or Gene RainsFar Across The Sea (1961) do not maintain the same amount of care, for they venture into themes and topics that are few and far between, having next to nothing to do with the auspicious album titles. But not here on Santo & Johnny’s work where every track is related to the sea side of life, so to speak – promise! Arrangement-wise, the album is a big success…


… or is it? This depends strongly on the listener, even more so than usual. The Exotica genre is almost exclusively about the embellishment of either piano arrangements – as seen on Ferrante & Teicher‘s Pianos In Paradise (1962) to name just one exemplary artifact – or, as is the case with Santo & Johnny, the ornamental improvement of potential Hapa Haole material with not much else than one steel guitar and one ukulele or an acoustic lute. It is exactly in this very moment where conductors and their orchestras come into play, and it so happens that it is Mort Garson who helps out the Farina brothers with mallet instruments, symphonic strings, brass layers, classic drums, wind chimes, you name it. The soundscapes are so warm that Santo’s steel guitar feels oftentimes too acidic, energetic and punchy; probably on purpose, it often clashes with the symphonic backdrops of reveries. Fans who want to feast on the brothers’ skills on the guitars might be disappointed, while fans of symphonic Exotica works are in for a rarely considered treat. Sail ho!


Considering the smooth brass infusions that appear throughout the album, the Farina brother’s rendition of Lee Diamond’s and Michael H. Goldsen’s Off Shore is decidedly exotic. Launching with a flock of seagulls, underlined by a Hammond organ washes supercharged with thermal heat and ameliorated by a doo-dooing mixed choir in tandem with glockenspiel glints, Santo’s steel guitar twangs provide the contrapuntal energy. The mood is dreamy, the horns used in a mellow way, and the soft percussion on a classic drum kit is preventing the danger from drifting away into languorous lands in an uncontrolled manner. A great opener! The brothers reach the shore almost immediately, for Acker Bilk’s and Robert Mellin’s Stranger On The Shore is next, a wondrously uplifting and fully fleshed out ditty with lots of vibraphones, flutes from paradise, silkened trumpets, their muted counterparts and Johnny’s fine guitar intersections. Even sprinkling guitars made it onto the arrangement. Only the steel guitars, the brass instruments and the rather disciplined structure give away the fact that this is not a rendition by Martin Denny.


Keeping the aqueous spirit alive, Carl Sigman’s and Robert Maxwell’s Ebb Tide is interpreted here in a particularly sumptuous way. Almost going fully orchestral, the brothers are surrounded by the usual ingredients such as enormously genteel flutes and careful Hammond organ accents, but this time, harp spirals and shedloads of symphonic strings twirl their ways to the well-known climax. Only the choir is amiss, but its inclusion would have ruined the already pompous presentation anyway. Santo’s steel guitar is again very pristine, albeit not fully compatible to the dreamscape. The Farina brother’s own Lido Beach, however, is a revelation. A midtempo Samba of a strikingly insouciant kind multiplexes marimba droplets, brass bursts and softened accentuations, all-male la la hummings and, of course, Santo’s steel guitar which finds a fitting foil in the shape of a muted trumpet. This is hands down a gorgeous piece of carefree Exotica!


While Frank Metis’ and Randy Starr‘s aka The IslandersThe Enchanted Sea is transformed into a seemingly desperado-like sunset steppe with glittering wind chimes, dark trombones, Latin tone sequences on the trumpet, Johnny’s pointillistic backing and a superb dichotomy of yearning and grandiloquence, Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is The Ocean finishes side A in a lyrical fashion, with the mixed choir plus a poor Yma Sumac falsetto impression singing along to Santo’s incisive strumming, the vibraphone aortas and sizzling organ flumes. The timing of the textures and the vocals of the choir are more important than the melodies themselves, making this rendition a standout one.


Side B opens with Charles Trénet’s and Jack Lawrence‘s Beyond The Sea (La Mer) and unleashes a truly good-spirited, joyful piece of glee. Santo’s guitar chords inherit that warped magic, the rhythmic pattern is superb, as are the piano sprinkles. The best ambience of the whole album – not counting the seagull-augmented opener – is established in Hugh WilliamsRed Sails In The Sunset. Whatever it may be in this composition that makes arrangers go super-dreamy (for Korla Pandit achieved the same thing in his rendition as found on 1961’s Hypnotique), it is always delightfully splendid. Here, Santo & Johnny drop a Chinese timbre in the prelude, their band plays soothing harp twangs of the Far Eastern kind, before Santo interweaves his less scintillating steel guitar goodness in adjacency to bass flutes and susurrant tremolo string washes.


The last four tunes of the album close off the aquatic moisture with a fifty-fifty mix of renditions and the Farina brothers’ own material, of which Midnight Beach Party is the starting point. This is a sun-soaked (in lieu of its title!) and harmless Space-Age Rock song which has a slightly harder edge, but does not hurt anyone. It might well be the catchiest tune of the whole album, with brass-heavy underbrushes, a gorgeous rotor-like diorama of heftily bubbling organ vesicles and Santo’s corsucating guitar globs. This piece negates the dreaminess and is featured in the wrong place of the album after the soothing Red Sails In The Sunset, but is enormously melodious. Exotic, however, it is not.


The next song isn’t either: Charles F. Kenny’s, J. Fred Coots’ and Nick A. Kenny’s Love Letters In The Sand focuses much more on both Farinas' guitars and ennobles them with maracas, a Hawaiian aura, a female hula girl choir and a breakneck swinging tempo. The brothers’ own The Wandering Sea then is a Surf hymn par excellence with totally warped and cosmic Space-Age strings which resemble a storm, but soon lead to an aura of independence and designedly wonky guitar chords, whereas the mighty closer Beyond The Reef by Jack Pitman lets the album come full circle with the resurrection of the seagulls plus ocean waves, glitzy glockenspiels and vibes, an oooh-ooohing choir with a lead enchantress who start to sing the lyrics later on, and a clear-cut focus on the steel guitar. I for one am glad that this last tune is not completely overblown and harks back to Santo & Johnny’s rather humble origins.


Off Shore is definitely not the best Exotica album out there, nor is it the best work of Santo & Johnny in general, but shiver me timbers, is it a devoted and dedicated LP! I would not go so far as to call it a concept album – as is the case with Arthur Lyman‘s The Legend Of Pele or Dominic Frontiere‘s Pagan Festival (both 1959) –, but the Farina brothers’ gallimaufry of beach-related titles beats the crap out of Hawaiian albums, including their own simple-titled album Hawaii (1961). It is one thing to release a bog-standard 12-track album with exclusively Hawaiian titles, but another feat to gather the same amount of water-, ocean- or shore-related titles, notwithstanding their omnipresence in Exotica lands.


Off Shore does another thing particularly right or horribly wrong, depending on the aesthetic approach of the listener, and that is the neglect of Santo and especially so Johnny. The boys are luminaries on their guitars, but are not allowed to deliver the prestidigitation they are known for, let alone further convoluted riffs. Whatever they play, they are always subsidiaries of Mort Garson. This gentleman might have produced the Farinas’ first albums, but rarely did his orchestra and choir take over the arrangements in such a blatantly obvious way. Steel guitar fans will bemoan this fact, as will followers of the symphonic Exotica kind since the guitar often clashes with the murmuring tranquility of the violins, harps and horns.


The winners of this procedure are listeners who enjoy the occasional entropy or the textural tohubohu, so to speak. The strings are enchanting, the instrumental variety is huge, and there is only one thing amiss, namely truly exotic percussion in the shapes of bongos, congas, guiros, gourds and the likes. As with all symphonic forms of bolstering or wadding a specific sound, one either longs for the past where the signature instruments were in the foreground – as is the case with Ferrante & Teicher’s purely piano-based Space-Age odyssee Soundproof (1955), to name yet another example of these pianists – or simply shrugs his or her shoulders and enjoys the richer surfaces and soothing patterns. Off Shore is clearly based on the latter. Available on LP and remastered download versions on Amazon MP3, iTunes and cohorts. 


Exotica Review 376: Santo & Johnny – Off Shore (1963). Originally published on Sep. 20, 2014 at