Although singer-songwriter Sammy Johns penned hit songs for other artists, he is best known for his own record “Chevy Van.” The North Carolina native pursued music when he was young, and soon he started to play in local clubs with a group that he formed, The Devilles. In 1973, he was a solo artist who cut his first record, “Early Morning Love” He has written songs that were popularized by other musicians, including Waylon Jennings (who sang one of John’s songs, “America” on national TV), and John Conlee, who did “Common Man.” Sammy Kershaw and Conway Twitty also benefitted some of John’s written works for their own musical success.
Early life and career
Sammy Johns was born Sammy Reginald Johns in Charlotte, North Carolina on February 7, 1946. Like many musicians, Sammy Johns started young. When he was nine years old his father gave him a guitar which would seal his fate and future career.
Johns founded and led his first band called the Devilles when he was in his teens. The Devilles gigged in local clubs around Charlotte, and released a handful of recordings on Dixie label. Johns relocated to Atlanta, Georgia where he continued to make a name for himself. Eventually in 1973 he got his first solo recording contract with General Recording, where issued his first solo single “Early Morning Love.”
“Early Morning Love” also became his first charting single. It reached #68 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #19 on the adult contemporary singles chart. It also peaked at #79 on the country chart in 1974.
“Chevy Van” – Sammy John’s most successful hit single
“Early Morning Love” was Sammy John’s first single off his eponymous debut album, released on General Recording in 1973. The album also issued its second single, the easy and mellow tune titled “Chevy Van.”
“Chevy Van” climbed on the charts, finally peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and #80 country) in 1975. It lifted more than five million copies and was given a gold disc. No sooner after the single hit the charts, van sales skyrocketed.
The success of “Chevy Van” led him to sign a contract with Warner Curb Records which requested him to do a soundtrack for the low-budget film The Van (which featured Danny DeVito in his first starring role).
John’s material covered by other artists
In the early 1980s Johns then moved to Elektra label (who fell for his earlier single “Falling for You”, released on Real World imprint) where he released singles such as the self-penned “Common Man.” That song was eventually covered by John Conlee who turned it into a #1 country hit in 1983. Because of this, “Common Man” had become Conlee’s signature song.
John’s compositions have also been recorded or covered by other artists such as Waylon Jennings, Sammy Kershaw, Conway Twitty. Jennings sang John’s composition “America” on a nationally broadcast ceremony to mark the restoration done on the Statue of Liberty. This led to the success of the single which went gold and was even nominated country song of the year.
Johns, aside from getting recognition via “Cherry Van,” was earning some renown as a songwriter. In fact, he ended up penning songs for other artists although he never really began his career by such move. But he became successful at that, anyway.
Johns passed away in California, on January 4, 2013, aged 66.