Taking their name from the traditional folk song of the same name, the roots of The Irish Rovers date back to 1963 in Toronto. George Millar (16 at the time) and Jim Ferguson (23), both immigrants from Northern Ireland, met at an Irish cultural party. They drank and sang ’til dawn, and the new found friendship blossomed into a duo act that won a local talent show, quickly becoming a hit around the GTA.
As the duo began capitalizing on the booming folk craze sweeping the continent at the time, they continued to weave the songs around traditional Irish songs over the next few months. Millar’s cousin Joe joined, and the band played every club and pub they could for the next few months, moving up the ladder to the Royal Alexandra Hotel and The Port o’ Call, a few college campus gigs, and made the bill on a few folk festivals.
George’s older brother Will meanwhile was causing a stir of his own in Calgary. After a few years on Yonge Street in a calypso band, he’d moved out west and formed his own folk trio. But after a year of spinning its wheels, then giving a solo show a try, he hosted a local children’s TV show called “Just 4 Fun” for a few months. He invited his Toronto clansmen to Calgary, much to Mom’s shagrin. But in the fall of 1965, on her conditions, young George was soon enrolled in high school in Calgary while they worked on their act. Before long though, music and the usual teenage antics were more important than school, and their part time evening gigs were pretty much all they had.
They became regulars at The Depression, a Calgary folk club that also planted the seed in Joni Mitchell‘s career, where Les Weinstein saw them playing. He agreed to manage the group, and helped pay for their trip to California, where they auditioned and played at The Ice House in Pasadena and San Fransisco’s The Purple Onion, a regular haunt for The Kingston Trio. More and bigger dates followed and Decca Records’ executive Charles “Bud” Dant signed them to a deal in 1966.
They released their first album later that year, appropriately titled THE FIRST OF THE IRISH ROVERS. Recorded live at The Ice House during a return trip to California, the record was predominantly traditional Irish songs, mixed in with a few folk covers, and featured their first single, “Orange and Green.” Although the record made little impact, it afforded them the opportunity to go back to California and do some recording a year later. 1987 also saw them represent Canada in Montreal at the first of what would become five World Expos.
On their return trip to California, they recorded a Shel Silverstein song that Will had occasionally sung on his TV show, resulting in their international breakout. “The Unicorn,” the title track to their sophomore album, became an instant hit first in North America, and then throughout Ireland, the UK, and Australia. The song about some humpty backed camels and some chim-pan-zees went on to sell over 3 million copies that practically made them overnight international hits. Along with the top 10 Canadian hit follow-up “Black Velvet Band,” they were named Folk Group of the Year at the RPM Awards (the precursor to the Junos) a year later, and then were nominated for a Grammy for Folk Performance of the Year.
They recorded their next album in Toronto with Dant, and trying to duplicate their cross-over pop success, 1968’s ALL HUNG UP saw a shift in their music. With “The Unicorn” being such a hit with people of just about every age, their drinking and partying tunes and the PG humour in between the songs live were being phased out. The album featured a cover of the novelty song “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight?” Although it cracked the top 40, it came nowhere near the success they’d received with “The Unicorn.”
With newest member Wilcil MacDowell added on accordian to help round out their repetoire, they finished out the ’60s with two more albums, sticking to the traditional Irish folk song formula, mixing in some time-tested tunes from Newfoundland, as well as the odd original song. “Whiskey on a Sunday (The Puppet Song),” “The Biplane Evermore,” “Lily The Pink,” “Peter Knight,” and “Did She Mention My Name” all made the charts during that time.
They appeared on several TV shows, including “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Pig & Whistle.” With their deal with Decca over, the label released ON THE SHORES OF AMERICAY (out-takes and throw-aways from their previous albums) and then re-released THE UNICORN right after the band was offered the Saturday evening time slot on CBC after “Hockey Night In Canada” in 1971. For four seasons, “The Irish Rovers” featured comedy sketches and musical guests like Johnny Cash, Bobby Darin, Glen Campbell, Anne Murray, The Clancy Brothers, and Carl Perkins to relatively strong viewership. The show was taped in Vancouver, although the later episodes featured them on location throughout Canada, as well as in Ireland. The series was an audience hit, and won the ACTRA award (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists – the precursor to the Genie and Canada’s equivelant to the Emmy, for Best Variety Performance. Following the show’s cancellation, it launched the band’s 16 one-hour TV specials throughout the rest of the decade.
Pre-occupied with their TV careers, recordings were scarce during this time, but now with more time freed up to return to the studios, CHILDREN OF THE UNICORN was in the stores in the spring of ’76. Geared towards kids but still with an audience appeal, it featured covers of “Puff The Magic Dragon,” “Snoopy And The Red Baron,” “Purple People Eater,” “Jack & The Beantstalk,” and a re-make of “The Unicorn.”
A major deal with Attic was signed in ’77, resulting in a pair of live albums and EMIGRATE EMIGRATE, featuring the cover of Gordon Lightfoot‘s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and reverting the band back to a strictly Irish traditional/folk blend repetoire. TALL SHIPS & SALTY DOGS followed in ’79, with standards like “Blow The Man Down” and “Dublin O’Shea,” and the originals “Bluenose” and “I’m Alone At Nuneburg, NS.”
As the ’80s took hold, they formed their own Potato Records and dropped “Irish” from their name, marking a new beginning in the pop realm. In the fall of 1980 they starred in their second television special called “Party With The Rovers,” which led to teaming up with CBC producer Ken Gibson again for the variety show “The Rovers Comedy House,” lasting seven episodes, and featuring guests like Jim Stafford and Bruno Gerussi, among others. And because of the NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians) strike in 1981, all seven episodes ended up running at least twice.
Meanwhile back in the recording studio, famed producer Jack Richardson was on hand for the next three albums, and ROVERS, NO MORE BREAD & BUTTER churned out a more mainstream accessible sound with singles like “Mexican Girl” and “Chatanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.” IT WAS A NIGHT LIKE THIS marked their first Yuletide album. In between, they also released PAIN IN MY PAST – a collection of out-takes. In the Tom Paxton penned “Wasn’t That A Party,” they enjoyed their first international #1 hit since “The Unicorn.” “Mexican Girl,” “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy,” “People Who Read People Magazine,” “No More Bread and Butter,” and their classic holiday rendition of Randy Brooks’ “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” which took the band to the top 20 within a week of its release, all kept the band back in the public eye and on the road for the next half a decade.
1985 saw PARTY WITH THE ROVERS hit the stands, again featuring out-takes that didn’t make the last few records, as well as re-releases of “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight?” and “Wasn’t That A Party.” After taking a break from recording for a couple of years, they put the Irish back in their name, represented Canada for the fifth time at the World Expo Fair in Brisbane, Australia in 1988, then ended the decade with HARD STUFF, produced by Chilliwack‘s Bill Henderson, and featuring a cover of The Who’s “Squeeze Box.”
Later that year, they were honoured with PROCAN’s (Performing Rights Organization of Canada) prestigious Harold Moon Award, in recognition of the band’s contributions to the International music world. They also celebrated 25 years in the business with SILVER ANNIVERSARY, mostly a collection of the band’s arrangements on their traditional standards, “Wasn’t That A Party,” “The Unicorn,” and the new tracks “Sweet Jazz Babies,” “The Flower of Sweet Strabane,” “Summertime is Coming,” and “McDonald’s Raiders.”
WHEN THE BOYS COME ROLLIN’ HOME was next up in 1992, but as the members grew older and got sidetracked with other projects, including Will Millar guesting on “The Red Green Show” now and again, the rest of the decade was filled with re-releases and compilations. Ferguson also suffered a heart attack while on the road that year, the complications of which plagued him for the rest of his life. Still, the band continued to tour sporadically around the globe for the next few years.
Will Millar left the band in 1995 under less than amicable circumstances. He sued his former bandmates for allegedly conspiring to get rid of him and misappropriating royalties he was owed. After leaving, he formed Some Mad Irishmen, releasing two albums. They toured relentlessly after creating the stage production of “Ireland..where the song and dance began”. He also recorded a children’s album, became a producer, released four Celtic instrumental albums in the ’00s, and published a pair of books – “Children of the Unicorn” and “Messing About in Boats.” He’s also gained notoriety as an oil painter, with his works in galleries in BC and in Ireland.
The Good Ship Rover was drydocked when Jimmy Ferguson passed away in his sleep in 1997 while on tour in Worcester, Mass. A regrouped version saw percussionist Kevin McKeown, guitarist John Reynolds (who’d been an on again-off again touring member since the late ’80s), multi-instrumentalist Wallace Hood, and banjo player Sean O’Driscoll were added, and the trips around the world waving the Irish flag continued. They returned in 2000 with UPON A SHAMROCK SHORE – SONGS OF IRELAND AND THE IRISH, the bulk of which was actually recorded while Ferguson was still with them, and then the live DOWN BY THE LAGAN SIDE and their second holiday album, SONGS OF CHRISTMAS before the year’s end.
As the decade continued, so did the world tours. After Joe Millar retired from the business in 2005, his nephew (Will’s son) Ian came on board, and the tours and compilations continued. In 2010, they marked their 45th anniversary with the new album GRACEHILL FAIR, whose title track took home the SOCAN sponsored Song of the Year honours. They followed it up a year later with HOME IN IRELAND, which coincided with a live DVD and TV special, shot on location in Ireland.