Playing a string of gigs at Charlotte clubs, singer Sammy Johns had never made more than $175 a week when he tried his hand at songwriting in the early 1970s.
For years, he’d admired a friend’s Chevrolet van and imagined a man riding around in it, picking up beautiful women and making love in the back.
Johns, who died Jan. 4 at age 66, used that theme in his first song, “Chevy Van.” When the record was finally released in January 1975, it sold 3.5 million copies and made him an instant celebrity.
Although Johns never wrote another blockbuster for himself, he penned No. 1 hits for such country stars as Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty and John Conlee.
Family and friends will remember Johns’ remarkable career Wednesday at a funeral service.
“He always planned to make music his life,” said Ray Finchum, who will officiate at his uncle’s funeral. “Music was his life. Everything revolved around it.”
Finchum said that on Jan. 3, family members found Johns lying on the floor of his Gastonia home, and that he may have suffered a stroke or been electrocuted while working on an old lamp.
Johns died the following day at Gaston Memorial Hospital.
Finchum said that in recent years Johns, an avid golfer, had continued writing songs while playing with local bands.
Johns also performed at the Grand Ole Opry with singer John Conlee, who had a number No. 1 hit with Johns’ composition “Common Man.”
“Sammy considered himself a common man,” Finchum said. “He didn’t feel like he was special.”
‘A pretty good run’
Around the age of 8, Johns began doing Elvis imitations at clubhouses and schools all over Gaston County.
While he was a student at Belmont High School, he joined a rock band called the Devilles, named after the Cadillac model.
After graduating in 1962, he made music full time, playing with the band at Charlotte clubs and lounges like the Bamboo Lounge and Pecan Grove – a venue that featured gyrating go-go girls.
A friend suggested Johns start writing songs. “Chevy Van” took shape while he sat on the bed of his northwest Charlotte apartment:
Johns recorded the song in 1973 for an Atlanta company, but it sat on the shelf until 1975 when it climbed to No. 5 on the Billboard chart. “Rolling Stone” magazine dubbed it “The Song of the Seventies.”
In a 1991 Observer interview, Johns said that while the first record made him rich and famous, he blew the money on alcohol, drugs, houses and cars. His four marriages failed.
In 1977, he spent two weeks in an Atlanta rehab center and then moved to Nashville, Tenn., where he wrote and recorded songs. His composition “Desperado Love” was a No. 1 hit for Conway Twitty and “America” went gold for Waylon Jennings.
Hitting high notes
Bo Baity, who collaborated with Johns in 2000 on a CD “Honky Tonk Moon,” called him “a gentle soul.”
Johns never stopped songwriting, performed whenever he got the chance and never lost his voice.
Baity was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry while Johns sang “Chevy Van” and when he hit the high note “the place came unglued.”
“I saw Vince Gill raise an eyelid and say ‘He can still do it,’ ” Baity said.
A service for Johns will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Bumgardner Chapel of McLean Funeral Directors of Belmont. Burial will follow in Greenwood Cemetery.