I don’t try to eulogize every prominent musician who passes away. This is mostly because other people generally do it better. Every now and then, however, I feel uniquely qualified to say something about somebody.
Sammy Johns is dead. His funeral is today.
If we had some kind of tournament for the most quintessentially 70s songs—those that most effectively capture the essence of the times in the way they sound and the things they say—wouldn’t Johns’ lone big hit, “Chevy Van” have to be in the semifinals?
The song is sung by a guy driving one of those vans, and if you remember the 70s, you know the kind I mean: elaborately painted on the outside and big enough to live in on the inside, or at least big enough to sleep in, or not sleep in, when necessary.
I gave a girl a ride in my wagon / She crawled in and took control / She was tired cuz her mind was a-draggin’ / I said “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll”
What a perfectly 70s line: “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll.” It’s quite lovely, actually—dream of something utterly out of this world and time, something simple and unthreatening, purely pleasurable and fun. It’s obvious he’s not suggesting she dream of Black Sabbath or Emerson Lake & Palmer, but rather of something that rocks easy, like “Chevy Van” itself.
While the girl is sleeping, Sammy is checking her out, the moonlight on her hair, her angel’s face, her long and tanned legs. Because this is the 1970s, however, she’s not entirely down with being objectified: “Better keep your eyes on the road, son / Better slow this vehicle down.” Yet at the same time, she needs a lift to the next town, and she’s willing to use what she’s got to get what she wants: She’s gonna love me in my Chevy van and that’s all right with me
And because this is the 70s, we turn discreetly away from the scene and listen to a gentle wah-wah guitar against a wall of acoustic guitars before Sammy fast-forwards to the end of the story. I put her out in a town that was so small / You could roll a rock from end to end / A dirt road main street / She walked off in bare feet / It’s a shame I won’t be passing through again
Then Sammy sings the refrain one last time, slightly altered, in which we learn that what was going to happen has just happened: We made love in my Chevy van / And that’s all right with me
An easy-rockin’ song of the road about a casual sexual encounter in the back of a van with a beautiful, nameless, barefoot hitchhiker. It doesn’t get more 70s than that.
“Chevy Van” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 the week of January 25, 1975, and hit the big chart the next week. It peaked at #5 in Billboard and Cash Box during the week of May 3 but plunged swiftly off both charts, gone by June. Its chart run roughly coincides with the time when I was involved with my first serious girlfriend. We could imagine what Sammy and the stranger were doing in there, but what it had to do with us—how we might contrive to get to that point—wasn’t entirely clear. I had no van—no driver’s license yet—and certainly no line as smooth as “get some sleep and dream of rock and roll.”
Sammy Johns had charted one single before “Chevy Van” and would chart one more afterward. In their wake, he lived a rock star’s life—broke and in rehab by the end of the 70s. By the 80s, he was back writing songs, however, many of which were country hits, including the #1 single “Common Man,” recorded by John Conlee in 1983. The refrain of “Common Man” includes the lines I’m a common man / Drive a common van
“I’ve had it since the 70s. You shoulda seen it then.”