The sound of a phone ringing at all hours of the day or night is something I am accustomed to. Since musicians keep non-standard hours, frequently the best time to catch up with a fellow troubadour is after a gig or studio session. That’s when hearing a friendly voice offers the most comfort. Some of the most productive conversations and brain storming sessions I’ve experienced have been after most others are deep in dream land.
The phone call I received just before midnight on January 4th of this year, however, brought sad news. The caller informed me our friend and musical colleague, Sammy Johns, had passed on earlier that evening. Just a few hours prior, the caller and I were discussing song ideas, and the conversation had turned to Sammy. We discussed the possibility of including him in on a writing session as we had done previously.
For those unfamiliar, the talented Sammy Johns called Gaston County his home. As most budding musicians do, Sammy received a guitar as a young boy here in North Carolina. That single event set the path for the remainder of his life. Enraptured with the sound he was able to coax from the strings, he developed a talent for putting words to the music he created.
Sammy was best known for his 70’s hit ‘Chevy Van’, which raced up the Billboard charts and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. Over the years, it has been covered by a multitude of artists and was even used in the soundtrack in several movies: ‘The Van’ (1977) and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ (2004). Sammy went on to pen and record other tunes, but his knack seemed to be in writing for fellow musicians; most notably John Conlee, Waylon Jennings and Conway Twitty.
John Conlee recorded the number one release ‘Common Man’ in 1983 which went on to become his signature song. Conlee honored Sammy and his work in 2008 by inviting him to perform on The Grand Ole Opry to a packed audience. Playing at the most famous stage in American country music was an exciting prospect for Sammy and one of the highlights of his career.
Waylon Jennings released the song ‘America’ in 1984 as the first new single from the album ‘Waylon’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2’. The song ultimately reached number six on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart and gained national attention as Jennings performed it at the unveiling of the recently restored Statue of Liberty. Sammy was particularly proud of this song and the fact that Waylon called to personally thank him for the powerful lyrics that he had written.
Conway Twitty recorded the number one country song, ‘Desparado Love’, in June of 1986 which Sammy co-wrote with songwriter/producer Michael Garvin. The song spent thirteen weeks on the country charts and featured none other than a young Vince Gill on backing harmony vocals. This was Twitty’s thirty-fifth country chart topper and both his and Sammy’s final Billboard number one hit.
Sammy John’s legacy is a wonderful body of work that would make any artist proud. To spend your life pursuing what you love most is a blessing that any would strive for. He will best be remembered by his friends, colleagues and fans for his timeless songs, a love of music and his warm-hearted kindness to those around him. Rest In Peace Sammy.