He was instrumental in bringing down two powerful opponents: Senator Joe McCarthy at the very beginning of his career and President Richard Nixon at the very end. In 1954 Nixon, then vice-President, appointed Ervin to a committee formed to investigate whether McCarthy should be censured by the Senate. It was Ervin's investigation of the Watergate scandal in 1972/73 that lead to the resignation of his former mentor.
However, although there is little evidence to show that the man was involved in any lynchings himself, in 1956 he helped draft The Southern Manifesto, which encouraged defiance of desegregation and was signed by most the Southern members of Congress. His apologists argue that his opposition to most civil rights legislation was based on his commitment to the preservation of the Constitution, and that he also supported civil liberties by opposing "no knock" search laws, the growing intrusions of data banks and lie-detectors (a machine he branded '20th century witchcraft'), the use of illegally-seized evidence in criminal trials, and he played a major role in the defeat of a Constitutional amendment to make prayer in public schools compulsory. So he wasn't all bad, then, or all good. Like most of us.
A native of Morganton, North Carolina, he thought of himself as a "country lawyer", and was well-known for telling humorous stories in his Southern drawl. It was this particular party piece that led Columbia Records to sign him up. His one album - Senator Sam at Home - featured Sam speaking his mind, telling a few anecdotes and occasionally bursting into song: evidence of which managed to cross the pond when CBS in the UK issued Bridge Over Troubled Water as a single in 1973. The track was later re-issued on the Rhino compilation Golden Throats 2. Senator Sam at Home was, apparently, recorded in the library of his Morganton home.
I fail to understand what was going on in the mind of the CBS executive who thought that this drivel stood a chance of being a hit in Britain. The man was famous in the States, of course he’ll sell a few copies, but here he was an unknown septuagenarian doing little more than reading a poem – badly. When performed with emotion, Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water is a great song: recited in stumbling fashion over a hokey backing just doesn’t cut it. Scheduled for release in the UK in November 1973, all of the UK copies I have seen have been promos: it’s possible that the disc was so poorly received that stock copies were never issued here. In America the album was supported by full-page ads in the trade papers which waxed lyrically about Sam’s ‘insights into Shakespeare, the Constitution and the Bible’. William S Burroughs even wrote about the album in Esquire.
Sam Ervin retired from Congress in December 1974. he continued to practice law, and his son and two of his grandsons followed him into the legal profession. He died from emphysema on April 23, 1985, aged 88.
Here’s Senator Sam ghastly version of Bridge Over Troubled Water. I’ve also included the 45’s B-side, Zeke and the Snake.