APRIL 2008 – NO. 23
The Untold Story of Ervin T. Rouse, Chubby Wise, Johnny Cash and the Orange Blossom Special
My name's Rouse, ma'am. I used to sing a little, and play the Special — Orange Blossom Special, that is. [the song] belongs to everybody now, I guess, but it used to be my best number.
— Ervin T. Rouse to Mother Maybelle Carter
That was just the melody I helped write, not the lyrics. I gave Ervin my half of the song. But it didn't hurt my stature any. I've made a lot of money, not directly but indirectly, on the Orange Blossom Special. It has got me a lot of jobs and, in sense, a lot of dollars.
— Chubby Wise to the Associated Press
At a godforsaken tavern made of plywood and pecky cypress, a wizened, toothless old man clutching a battered fiddle stands before a boisterous, beer-guzzling throng that includes day laborers, dope smugglers, and gator poachers. Despite the oppressive heat, he wears a multicolored Seminole Indian jacket over a stained white dress shirt; a fishing cap sits atop a tangle of wiry gray hair. His ruddy face is creased, his jowls are stubbly and his narrow, his wide-set eyes appear filmy and unfocused.
"Hello, folks," he rasps in a mush-mouthed, all but undistinguishable Deep South brogue. "The first number we'd like to do for you is one we wrote back in 1938 about a mighty fine train that used to run between New York and Miami — and we're so proud that people all over the world still love it and play it."
Then, as he holds the fiddle to his chin and slides the bow across the strings, the unmistakable blast of a train whistle pierces the noxious haze. Abruptly, conversations cease, fights are interrupted, and drinks are set aside. The old man is Ervin T. Rouse, author of Orange Blossom Special, and his presence commands respect — even here, even now.
At a bluegrass festival somewhere in the Midwest, a pudgy, white-bearded elf of a man stands beside a makeshift stage overlooking several thousand people — families, mostly-lounging on blankets and lawn chairs. Beyond the crowd are rows of campers and motor homes sporting license plates from Maine to Montana. The autumn evening is cool; in the distance, campfires flicker and string music wafts in the breeze.
The man, who looks for all the world like St. Nicholas himself, patiently demonstrates a few basic fiddle techniques to a group of admirers gathered around him. His manner is kindly, and his laugh — hearty and deep from the belly — is infectious.
Onstage, an emcee recites his lengthy professional resume. "He's the king of the bluegrass fiddlers and writer of Orange Blossom Special, the most played fiddle tune in the world," the announcer intones. "And what a treat for us to have him here, playing the song that made him famous. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the great Chubby Wise!"
Yet, it is not Chubby Wise but Ervin T. Rouse, a native of Craven County, North Carolina, who is the credited author of Orange Blossom Special. Rouse, who ranks as one of country music's most mysterious figures, began his professional career at the age of eight, fiddling popular songs on the nation's most prestigious vaudeville stages. But he spent his final years in southern Florida, sick in body and mind, plying his trade at remote roadhouses frequented by swamp denizens.
"Ervin just loved playing for those people down there," says Rouse's widow, Hattie Whitehurst Rouse Miscowich, known to friends and family as "Louallie." Now living quietly with her second husband in Bowie, Maryland, Louallie remains Ervin's most staunch defender — despite the fact that she left the unstable, frequently abrasive musician in 1954. "And the people loved him. He was the most talented person you can imagine, and he once played with the best. But if you met him, you never would have known it."
Robert Russell "Chubby" Wise, a product of Lake City by way of St. Augustine, Florida, has long been cited as the Special's uncredited co-author. Chubby himself always ruefully maintained that he had collaborated with Ervin during a boozy, late-night jam session in Jacksonville, after which he had impulsively — but voluntarily — given his friend and colleague all rights to what would become a substantial money-maker for decades to come. "That was my first mistake," he said in 1982. "About a hundred thousand dollar mistake."
Nonetheless, the portly, white-bearded fiddler spent his final years performing before large and enthusiastic audiences at bluegrass festivals, where he was adored by fans as a peerless entertainer and respected by fellow performers as a groundbreaking musical pioneer. "Chubby always got standing ovations wherever he played," says the musician's widow, Rossi Truell Case Wise. "People always crowded around him, and wanted to talk to him or to shake his hand. And I'll tell you this: He never forgot his fans, and he never refused to give an autograph or pose for a picture, no matter how long it took."
Still, Wise's contribution to Orange Blossom Special — or his lack thereof — has for years been a subject of discussion and debate among bluegrass scholars, and a source of hard feelings between family members, friends, and fans of both men. "Ervin wrote that song, and nobody else," says Louallie. "I once asked him, 'Ervin, did Chubby have anything to do with writing Orange Blossom Special?' And he said, 'Hell, no.'" But Rossi, now living near her children in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, contends that "everyone knows Chubby contributed to Orange Blossom Special; in fact, Chubby and Ervin used to get together and talk about how poor they were when they wrote that song."
Yet, beyond hardcore bluegrass fans, the song remains most strongly identified with the late Johnny Cash, an entertainment icon and arguably the biggest international star the country music industry has ever produced. Cash, the only person to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, adopted the Special and made it his own by eschewing fiddles and using a harmonica and a saxophone on his landmark 1965 recording.
Cash's release scaled the charts, thereby guaranteeing a measure of financial security for Rouse, who had by then virtually abandoned his suburban Miami home for Collier County's sprawling Big Cypress Swamp, where he shared a makeshift shelter with a succession of pet dogs and poignant mementos of a career gone awry. "I'd never leave now," Rouse said in 1976, seemingly unburdened by bitterness over his descent into obscurity. "Out here, you're in the wilds. When night falls, it's so dark. Oh, it's wild!"
Musicologist Charles K. Wolfe contributed a biographical sketch of the Rouse Brothers to the 1998 Encyclopedia of Country Music (Oxford University Press). "The Rouse Brothers are receding more and more into legend," said Wolfe, who died in 2006. "So it seemed an appropriate time to try and piece together their story." The brief entry marked the first, and thus far the only, significant acknowledgment of Rouse in any country music reference book. And sadly, even this well-meaning nod is marred by the usually reliable Wolfe's erroneous references to Rouse as "Erwin" instead of "Ervin." Inexplicably, the error has not been corrected in subsequent editions. Thus, nearly a quarter-century after his death, the luckless musician remains all but forgotten.
Still, if academicians have given up on the elusive Rouse, at least one fiction writer has not. The old fiddler appears as himself in Randy Wayne White's inventive 1993 mystery novel, The Man Who Invented Florida (St. Martin's Press). The well-reviewed volume, the third in a series featuring marine biologist Doc Ford, introduces Doc's conniving uncle, Tuck Gatrell, who discovers that spring water from his Big Cypress property causes testicles to regrow on his gelded horse, Roscoe, and rejuvenates the sexual prowess of his elderly Calusa Indian friend, Joseph Egret. The intricate plot encompasses kidnapping, shady development deals, and Tuck's outrageous schemes to market the miraculous elixir nationwide — assisted by his curmudgeonly neighbor, one Ervin T. Rouse.
White, who befriended the flesh-and-blood Rouse in the late 1970s, notes that the book is a work of fiction. However, he effectively laces the fast-paced narrative with amusing personal anecdotes that the loquacious but seemingly destitute swamp rat had related as being factual. "Ervin had such great vitality and humor," says White. "I may have paraphrased in places, but I tried to repeat his stories pretty much as they were told to me."
Yet, unfortunately for biographers, much of what Rouse told White and other journalists, while entertaining, was at best only partially true and at worst pure nonsense. Indeed, the fiddler appeared remarkably heedless of his legacy, and apparently took pleasure in exasperating those who sought to tell his story in a straightforward manner.
Toward the end of his days, Miami newspapers would, on occasion, send young reporters out to what Rouse deemed "God's country" to extract a few colorful bromides from this irascible, hard-drinking hillbilly who claimed to have composed a famous song. And, while the ailing iconoclast always obliged by providing pithy copy, he avoided revealing anything substantive about his life or about his career. For example, after "interviewing" Rouse in 1977, a Miami News correspondent wrote that "the toothless, craggy-faced man ... is vague about dates and places, about when [Johnny] Cash first recorded his song, about what he did to make a living in the lean years besides play small clubs. At one time, he apparently pumped gas in a Hialeah station, but he does not talk about that, saying: 'You hear all kinds of things, you know; people say all kinds of things.'"
So, the question lingers: Why did Rouse consciously portray himself as nothing more than a dissipated ne'er do well; a tragic figure who debased his magnificent gift? Granted, this disheartening depiction is not altogether inaccurate; but it is incomplete.
Had he chosen to do so, Rouse could just as easily have expounded upon ornate vaudeville theaters in New York and Boston, posh nightclubs in Miami Beach, the outlandish Village Barn in Greenwich Village, the venerable Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, RCA Victor recording sessions, and network radio broadcasts. He could have dropped names such as Roy Acuff, Moon Mullican, Grandpa Jones, Mother Maybelle Carter, and even his buddy the Man in Black. He accentuated the negative, say his friends and family, because Ervin was Ervin; a lifelong nonconformist, always uncomfortable with self-promotion, who had simply ceased giving a damn.
Further complicating matters is the fact that many of the people who knew Rouse best — including all of his siblings — have died. Likewise, Rouse's travels were poorly documented and, apart from his music, he left behind little of a tangible nature from which a personal history might be readily reconstructed; just a tattered scrapbook containing a few publicity photographs, a handful of performance contracts, a smattering of yellowed newspaper clippings, and a simple business card which reads:
ERVIN T. ROUSE
THE ORANGE BLOSSOM SPECIAL
SWEETER THEN THE FLOWERS
(Song written about his own mother)
Conversely, Wise's legendary career, although not his turbulent personal life, has been fairly well documented. He was, after all, an entertainer for more than sixty years, and remained notoriously garrulous — if not always factually precise — with writers, fans, and friends. His abiding musical contributions are respectfully reviewed in encyclopedias of country and bluegrass music, where he is often granted such lofty titles as "Dean of the Bluegrass Fiddlers."
Unlike Rouse, Wise generally enjoyed a sweet and active old age, booking 75 to 80 performances per year — a workload that undoubtedly became excessive as his health began to decline — and, after embracing religion, mesmerizing star-struck parishioners at the Macclenny (Florida) Christian Fellowship Church with spine-tingling fiddle renditions of How Great Thou Art and other spirituals. Although the facts do not bear him out, Wise's version of the story behind Orange Blossom Special has become generally accepted as gospel.
In truth, like many stories behind early folk, country, and bluegrass songs, the saga of the Special is at times a convoluted one, involving the principles, Rouse and Wise, as well as an eclectic cast of peripheral players-singers and songwriters; pickers and publishers — who run the gamut from the famed to the forgotten; from the scrupulous to the scurrilous. And, across the length and breadth of the tale rolls the ghost of a plush, diesel-powered streamliner on which, ironically, neither Rouse nor Wise ever rode — except in their imaginations.
"I never rode [the train], and I'm so sorry to say that I didn't," said Rouse to writer Dorothy Horstman for her 1978 book, Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy (Country Music Foundation Press), which contains two brief, first-person statements provided by Rouse to introduce lyrics from Orange Blossom Special and Sweeter Than the Flowers, his only other commercially successful song. "Because our train from Miami to New York, I've been told by engineers, was without a doubt the most powerful train in the entire world."
So it was. But interstate highways and airplanes ultimately rendered the Special obsolete — and only the most fervent railroad nostalgia buffs seemed to care when it pulled into Miami for the last time on April 12, 1953.
Variations on a Theme
You know, that's going to be a famous train like the Old '97; that is, if somebody does something about it.
— Lloyd Smith, manager, to Ervin and Gordon Rouse
There are basically two stories purporting to explain how-and where-Orange Blossom Special was composed. Both hold that the song was written in a burst of creative energy and inspiration after Seaboard Air Line's diesel exhibition tour visited one of two Florida cities: Jacksonville (Chubby's version) or Miami (Ervin's version). Ervin's story, for the most part, is true; Chubby's story, for the most part, is not.
After he gained a measure of fame, Chubby discussed the song more frequently — and commanded a wider audience — than did the reclusive, little-known Ervin, who was collecting royalty checks regardless, and was apparently uninterested in having a debate over authorship claims. Therefore, it is Chubby's account that has been cited in several authoritative source books as the quasi-official, final word on the matter.
Yet, the writing of the Special — the melody, if not the lyrics — appears to have been an evolutionary process, which began in the early 1930s with a now-lost Rouse tune called South Florida Blues, and ended on October 20, 1938 — three days before the exhibition tour got under way — when Gordon Rouse, traveling with his wife Carrie and brother Ervin on a busking excursion up the east coast, delivered the lead sheet for a "fiddle tune" called Orange Blossom Special to the Library of Congress copyright offices in Washington, D.C.
Does Chubby's story contain any factual elements? Was Ervin even in Jacksonville during the train's high-profile stop at Union Station?
No advertisements specifically touting a Rouse Brothers nightclub appearance could be found in a search of The Times-Union archives. In fact, several of their favorite haunts, most notably the Temple Theater and the Mayflower Tavern, were specifically promoting other entertainers. However, the Roosevelt Patio ("Where Novelties Are Originated!") was heralding a new "all-star revue," which was to feature seven unnamed attractions. Since the brothers had played the downtown hotel's showroom before — once accepting second billing to a trained-dog act — they could well have been included in the Roosevelt's package.
In fact, the Rouses never specifically denied Chubby's claim that they were in Jacksonville — although they usually ignored it, perhaps viewing it as irrelevant — and Geneva Kirby, Chubby's first wife and the only living person in a position to know, specifically recalls the visit. "Yes, I remember when Chubby brought that boy [Ervin] home," she says. "It was way early in the morning. They woke me up when they came in. So I made them some coffee, and that boy just kept pouring sugar into the cup. We had sugar-rationing back then, you know, and I thought, 'I won't have a bit left when he leaves.'"
According to Chubby — who told essentially the same Orange Blossom Special story for five decades — on the night the song was written, Ervin and Gordon had strolled into a bar where he and his trio were performing. "At intermission, Ervin wanted to know if he could play the fiddle and pass the hat," Chubby said. "So, he played for about 15 minutes, he and his brother, just a fiddle and guitar. He was a great fiddle player — a trick fiddler — one of the finest. He'd just tear an audience all to pieces. If there was three dollars [in the audience], he'd come out with a dollar fifty of it."
This statement, too, is credible; the brothers — especially Ervin — enjoyed nothing more than busking, even after completing a paid engagement, and regardless of the hour. "He [Ervin] called everybody 'Doc,'" Chubby said. "He'd look at me and say, 'Hey, Doc, I tell you what. I'll rub my bow and you flog your box and we'll pick 'em a tune.' He was a real country boy, Ervin was. He had facial ticks. He'd brink his eyes when talked."
Following the barroom revelry, the most commonly accepted Special story places Ervin and Chubby — both well lubricated from a busy evening of fiddling and imbibing-wandering in the wee hours around Union Station, where the Orange Blossom Special was still parked, although no longer open for tours. Gordon had, apparently, declined further bar-hopping, retiring instead to whatever modest accommodations the brothers had secured.
"We were at Union Station, and we were down there drinking beer," said Chubby, who, like Ervin, knew how to spice up a yarn. "We had done closed up all the beer joints, and we were sittin' there drinkin' and got to talkin' about that cotton-pickin' Orange Blossom Special train. On the way home, I said, 'Ervin, go home and eat breakfast with me.' So, we went home at about three in the mornin', and he said, 'Chubby, let's write a fiddle tune and call it Orange Blossom Special.' I said, 'Alright, we'll do it.' We got our fiddles out, and wrote that melody in about 45 minutes while my wife was cookin' breakfast.'"
As Chubby told it, Ervin suggested that the pair have their musical creation copyrighted as soon as possible. Chubby, however, demurred: "I said, 'Ervin, I haven't got time to fool with a fiddle tune. I've got to check on my cab in a few minutes, and try to go make some beans to feed my young'un. If you can do anything with that fiddle tune, buddy, then it's all yours.' I remember them exact words as if it was yesterday."
If Ervin was in Jacksonville at the time — and, again, there is no reason to believe otherwise — it is then safe to assume that the pair did, at some point, go to Union Station and view the train. How could they have resisted? It also follows that eventually they would have returned to Chubby's apartment to swap fiddle tunes while enjoying a hearty breakfast and gradually sobering up.
Geneva, who had been rousted out of bed and given kitchen duty, does recall some mention of the train, and the playing of a fiddle tune that sounded very much like the melody now known worldwide as Orange Blossom Special. However, when gently pressed for more detail, she essentially repeats Chubby's well-worn account of the conversation. In fairness, however, she is being asked to reach back seven decades, and to recall what must have seemed, at the time at least, to be unimportant banter between her night-owl husband and his sugar-guzzling buddy.
Indeed, it is the widely accepted contention that the Special was written during this visit that is demonstrably untrue. The tune had been copyrighted the previous month-the date is clearly stamped on the original submission-and could not, therefore, have been conceived and completed while the long-suffering Geneva prepared a hot meal.
Was the Special discussed and played? Naturally, it would have been. But playing a song together is not the same as writing a song together. The simple fact is, by the time Ervin and Chubby were conducting their impromptu jam session on West Union Street, the history making tune was a fait accompli.
Nonetheless, this scenario quickly became accepted as gospel — much to the annoyance of Ervin's family, if not Ervin himself. Louallie recalls an incident in the late 1940s, when she and Ervin attended one of Chubby's performances near Washington, D.C. She says that an announcer, having been told that Ervin was in the audience, introduced him from the stage as "the man who helped Chubby Wise write Orange Blossom Special." Says Louallie: "That just made me so angry. I think Chubby was embarrassed, because he just hung his head. But Ervin didn't say much about it. He just said, 'What difference does it make?'"
Typical of subsequent published accounts is this passage from a meticulously researched book, Bluegrass: A History (University of Illinois Press), by Neil V. Rosenberg: "Orange Blossom Special was composed in Jacksonville, Florida by two young fiddlers, Robert "Chubby" Wise and Ervin Rouse ... in a practice typical of the time, Wise gave his interest in the song to the Rouses [Ervin and Gordon], who copyrighted it."
Or, this passage from the scholarly liner notes of a Rounder Records Corporation train song compilation, which features a Johnson Mountain Boys rendition of the Special: "Wise, to his enduring regret, relinquished all claims to the tune, and it generally appeared over Rouse's name alone."
The erroneous assumption, of course, is that any rights to Orange Blossom Special were never Chubby's to give.
Ervin and Gordon told an entirely different story on the relatively rare occasions when they were asked by interviewers to expound upon the tune's origin. Conveniently ignoring their Jacksonville excursion, which they probably viewed as unnecessarily cluttering the narrative, the brothers insisted that they had first viewed the dazzling diesel in Miami, and had added lyrics to their previously copyrighted tune during a subsequent automobile trip between southern Florida and Kissimmee.
In fact, the Orange Blossom Special did arrive in the Magic City on Wednesday, November 16, 1938, for the southernmost stop on its exhibition tour. That same day, the brothers said, manager Lloyd Smith had planned to drive them to Kissimmee, near Orlando, where they would visit the Smith family — including Ervin's soon-to-be-ex-sweetheart, Elon — and perhaps arrange some bookings. "Our manager took us downtown to watch the christening of the Orange Blossom Special," Gordon said in 1992. "We saw the ceremony, and our manager said to Ervin, 'You know, that's going to be another famous train like the Old '97; that is, if somebody does something about it.' That very afternoon, we decided to give it a try."
Certainly, the ceremonies would not have been out of the way; the Seaboard Air Line passenger station, then located at Northwest 7th Avenue near 20th Street, was perhaps a five-minute drive from Little Trailers, where Gordon and Carrie had set up housekeeping. (The train station has long since been demolished, although a massive, Mediterranean-style stucco archway was spared the wrecking ball, and has been preserved at the entrance to what is now a modern office park.)
On the previous evening, hundreds of people had assembled to watch as the Special stopped just north of Miami, in Hialeah, where a gated canopy of palms had been constructed across the tracks, marking a symbolic entrance into the metro area.
Colonel Henry Anderson, co-receiver of the railroad, had then accepted several bouquets of flowers from civic organizations-one, from the president of the Hialeah Parent-Teacher Association, had been purchased with contributions from local schoolchildren-before receiving the keys to the city from Hialeah Mayor Carl Ault.
Following the presentations, Mary Tigertail, a Seminole Indian, had solemnly swung open the gates, ushering the Special along its way to Miami proper. The train, hauling its customary gaggle of junketeering elected officials, and local dignitaries, had finally arrived downtown around 10:40 p.m., much to the delight of several hundred additional spectators assembled to catch a glimpse.
Official welcoming ceremonies the following day were comparable to those held in Jacksonville — large crowds, soaring speeches, considerable pomp — and the festivities clearly dazzled the Rouses. Enroute to Kissimmee, Gordon recalled, Lloyd stopped at a drug store, where he bought a pencil and a legal pad. Then, he offered to sit in the back seat and transcribe lyrics if Gordon would take the wheel. "My brother and I, we were up in the front of the car just driving along," Gordon said in 1985. "Lloyd would keep tearing the sheets of paper off and throwing them out the window. No telling how many sheets of paper we threw out." However, Gordon claimed, by the time the exhausted trio arrived at the Smith home, Orange Blossom Special was essentially complete.
Musician Claude Casey, in his 1982 oral history interview with the Country Music Foundation, confirmed the fact that the Rouses had for several years been playing a tune similar to the Special called South Florida Blues. "I know there's a lot of people who say they helped Ervin do this and they helped Ervin do that, you know," Casey said. "But I know that Ervin — we were playing a song that we called South Florida Blues. Finally, they had a dedication of the [train] in Miami, and that's where Ervin got the idea to call the South Florida Blues tune Orange Blossom Special."
Of course, there is a slight inconsistency in Casey's recollection as well. Orange Blossom Special had been copyrighted, using that name, before the Miami dedication ceremonies took place. But the point is, the tune, or something close to it, had been in the Rouse Brothers' repertoire for some time. The dedication ceremony, apparently, inspired them to add words and perhaps pick up the tempo a bit. "South Florida Blues was basically the same as Orange Blossom Special," recalls Carrie. "It was a little bit slower, and had more of a blues-type sound to it. But it was really the same song."
So what was Chubby thinking when he tried to take credit for helping to write the tune? It is possible that he did contribute something, but not in the way or at the time he claimed. "Ervin told me he taught Chubby South Florida Blues in the early '30s," contends Louallie. "Ervin was always teaching Chubby things on the fiddle." Therefore, it is possible — although not provable — that Chubby suggested some up-tempo variations to South Florida Blues and, over the years, concocted a simplified, semi-factual story that linked him more directly to its musical successor, Orange Blossom Special.
Musician Gene Christian is one of the few people — perhaps the only person — who ever specifically quizzed both Chubby and Ervin about the Special while the two fiddlers stood literally face to face. Chubby, having temporarily left Hank Snow's Rainbow Ranch Boys in the early 1960s, was a guest at Gene's Miami home when Ervin also came to call. "I asked them, point blank, who wrote the song," says Gene. "Hell, I'd been hearing these different stories for years, and I wanted to know what they'd say."
In Ervin's presence, Gene recalls, Chubby claimed only that "I was there" when the tune was composed. Laconic Ervin, apparently finding nothing worth tussling about in Chubby's non-answer, passively nodded, and diplomatically volunteered nothing about South Florida Blues, or about the Miami to Kissimmee automobile trip with Gordon and Lloyd Smith.
However, Gene and others say that Chubby was not always so willing to downplay his involvement. "Another time [when Ervin was not present] Chubby told me he gave Ervin Orange Blossom Special in exchange for a quart of whiskey," Gene adds, chuckling. "You can take that for what it's worth. I know I did."
And in a 1986 interview with the Associated Press, Chubby did not back down even when asked about a "controversy" involving his claim to authorship. "That was just the melody I helped write, not the lyrics," he said. "I gave Ervin my half of the song. But it didn't hurt my stature any. I've made a lot of money, not directly but indirectly, on the Orange Blossom Special. It has got me a lot of jobs and, in sense, a lot of dollars."
In 1993, Gordon addressed the contentious subject more directly than usual during a poignant, videotaped interview conducted by his cousin, Preston Rouse, at Preston's home near Kinston. At age 77, Gordon appears frail; his face marked by tumors and his breathing labored. But his raspy voice rises and he accentuates his words with hand gestures when asked by Preston to address Chubby's claims.
"Chubby Wise had never heard Orange Blossom Special until we played it for him," says Gordon, who forcefully reiterates the standard Rouse version of events, varying from published accounts only by adding that their father, Ernest, was also a passenger in Lloyd's vehicle when the lyrics were written. Although he doesn't specifically mention South Florida Blues, he seems to allude to it when he says, "We decided to write a tune — well, we had a tune already."
As for Chubby, Gordon says, "It's very easy to say that you done somethin' when you didn't do it. You keep on sayin' it, and folks don't know whether it's true or not. Chubby made out like just because he met us in Jacksonville, that he had somethin' to do with the tune. That's all wrong; all untrue."
Seemingly without basis is a tale related in the book The Stories Behind Country Music's 100 All-Time Greatest Songs (Boulevard Books) by Ace Collins. Without citing sources, Collins repeats the Rouse account, adding that Lloyd had previously persuaded Seaboard Air Line executives to allow the brothers to debut Orange Blossom Special at the train's Miami christening. While the idea might have had considerable promotional merit, there is no evidence that Lloyd arranged anything of the sort; neither Ervin nor Gordon ever mentioned having performed at the ceremony, and there is no mention of the Rouse Brothers on a schedule of events published in the Miami Herald.
Collins also writes that Lloyd clandestinely copyrighted the tune under his own name, sparking a year-long legal struggle with Ervin and Gordon. This is untrue; the registration form clearly states that Orange Blossom Special, Copyright Number E 179156, is owned by "Ervin Thomas Rouse, c/o J.H. Smith [James Smith, Lloyd's father], Kissimmee, Florida." The Smith name indicates only that the brothers' business matters were being handled by their Kissimmee-based manager, and does not by any stretch of the imagination indicate duplicity on Lloyd's part.
Equally spurious is a contention by Texas fiddler Leon "Pappy" Selph that he, not Ervin or Chubby, was the author of Orange Blossom Special, and that he debuted it onstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1931. Selph is best-known for leading the Blue Ridge Playboys, a 1940s western swing combo consisting of pianist Moon Mullican (with whom we shall become better acquainted), singer Floyd Tillman (Slippin' Around), and songwriter Ted Daffan (Born to Lose).
In February 1997, the ailing but still feisty old codger related this story, versions of which he had told for decades, to a reporter from Houston radio station KTRU: "I was with the [Opry] backup band. Well, things rocked on and one night they said, 'Leon, could you play about three or four minutes onstage? One of the entertainers has come up sick; won't show or ain't gonna show.' I said, 'Okay, I'll do my Orange Blossom Special.' When I got through playin' it, I had a standing ovation, and Bill Monroe said, 'Man, I've gotta have that song.' So, I learned it to him, and he made it for Columbia in 1934."
Selph further claimed that Chubby magnanimously offered to record the Special in 1952, saying, "Pappy, you're a good friend and I enjoy playing with you, so I'm gonna make your song. My records are sellin' like hotcakes, and I'll make you some money."
There are several glaring inconsistencies in this story, not the least which is the fact that there was no Opry backup band in 1931. (Possibly, Selph was referring to the WSM staff orchestra, which provided pop-oriented musical programming for a network of stations but had no direct affiliation with the Opry). Further, an unknown Bill Monroe was toiling in an oil refinery that year, made no recordings at all until 1936, and did not appear on the Opry until 1939. Finally, Selph did not explain — nor was he asked to explain — how a man named Ervin T. Rouse came to own the tune's copyright.
Yet, the widely respected Western Swing Hall of Famer repeated this implausible yarn so often that, when he died in 1998, several published obituaries propagated the myth that he had "introduced" Orange Blossom Special.
How, then, does the often-overlooked Gordon fit into this jumbled mosaic of claims and counter-claims? Carrie insists that her well-meaning husband should have registered the Special as a collaboration between himself and his brother, but failed to do so "only because he didn't have any education; he thought you had to copyright a song under just one name."
Of course, the Special is first and foremost a fiddle tune, and it is doubtful that Gordon contributed much — if anything — to the melody. Still, because Gordon apparently did help to write the lyrics, Ervin might well have acknowledged at least a moral obligation to share the royalties.
Yet, according to Carrie, her brother-in-law felt no such responsibility; other family members and fair-weather cronies apparently benefited far more from the fiddler's largess than did his life-long protector and steadfast performing partner. "Ervin was very free-hearted with his money," says Carrie. "But with Gordon, it might be 50 dollars here and 20 dollars there. Never much."
Therefore, based upon the available evidence, it is safe to state that the Special's melody is, in fact, the same or nearly the same as an earlier Ervin T. Rouse tune called South Florida Blues-to which Chubby may or may not have contributed — and that the lyrics are the result of a collaboration between Ervin and Gordon, with a possible assist from Lloyd Smith. Precisely when-and why-Ervin changed the name of South Florida Blues to Orange Blossom Special is unknown; but as the copyright date conclusively demonstrates, it occurred sometime prior to the much-discussed exhibition tour.
So, while it is impossible to conclude that the Special is totally devoid of Chubby's influence-indeed, few popular songs could be described as being entirely original — there is no reason to believe that his role was significant enough to earn the designation "uncredited co-author."
In fact, Chubby's official International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) performer profile, written when he was posthumously inducted into the organization's Hall of Honor in 1998, appropriately contains carefully worded hedges and caveats when discussing the Special.
The brief tribute, written by bluegrass historian Lance LeRoy, mistakenly states that both Chubby and Ervin were Jacksonville cab drivers — an error that has found its way into print before. But LeRoy then carefully avoids presenting anecdote as fact when he writes: "Chubby Wise often asserted that he 'had a hand' in creating the classic Orange Blossom Special ... He also said he refused a co-writer share, which he alleges was offered by Rouse." The remainder of the profile, as it should, focuses on the many other accomplishments that have ensured Chubby Wise's place in musical history as perhaps the greatest and most influential bluegrass fiddler of all time.
Dubious authorship claims aside, there is no disputing the fact that Chubby was, at the very least, a great popularizer of Orange Blossom Special. With Bill Monroe, then with Hank Snow, and finally as a solo star on the bluegrass festival circuit, "Fiddlin' Chubby" took the Special around the world.
For Ervin, as well, the tune should have been a career-maker. Instead, despite several priceless opportunities to capitalize on its success, his life and career began a slow, downhill spiral that has remained one of country music's most heartbreaking untold stories.
Excerpted from Fiddler's Curse by Randy Noles, by permission of the author and courtesy Centerstream. Copyright © 2007 by Anthony M. Tung. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Photo is courtesy of Hattie Miscowich.
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