Sammy Johns’ song about a chance encounter with a girl sat on the shelves of a record company for nearly two years before it was released in 1975.
That song, “Chevy Van,” went on to sell 3 million copies and was called “The Song of the Seventies” by Rolling Stone magazine. It reached No. 5 on the charts in the United States and Canada.
Johns, who was born in Charlotte but spent most of his life in Gaston County, died Friday at Gaston Memorial Hospital. He was 66.
“Chevy Van” was Johns’ only hit record. But he wrote gold-record songs for other artists, including “America,” which was one of Waylon Jennings’ hits.
Johns graduated from Belmont High School in 1962 and formed a rock band, the Devilles. That group performed across the region, but Johns’ career took off after he wrote “Chevy Van” in 1973.
At first, the song remained unreleased, something Johns later said “was just part of the business.”
The song finally was released about 18 months later, and Johns became a national music figure.
To many, “Chevy Van” symbolized the free-love era of the early 1970s, with its story of a man on a cross-country journey and his meeting with a young woman.
“That was the era of hippies, with free love and all that,” Johns told WBT radio personality Keith Larson in an interview last May. “I was sort of a hippie – a conservative hippie.” He said the song wasn’t about a specific woman he met – but a compilation of events.
He recorded several other songs, but none ever came close to equaling “Chevy Van.” But he enjoyed success as a writer, penning Jennings’ “America,” along with “Common Man” for John Conlee.
Johns dealt with problems in his life, including publicized battles with alcohol and drugs. He was married and divorced several times.
In a 2000 interview with The Observer, he said the music business “was painful at times, but never boring.”
He remained active in the music business, releasing a CD in the early 2000s and appearing at the Grand Ol’ Opry a few years ago.
Visitation is scheduled 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at McLean Funeral Directors, 515 North Central Avenue, in Belmont. The funeral will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Bumgardner Chapel at McLean Funeral Directors. The Observer’s Joe DePriest and WBT contributed