The Irish Rovers is a group of Irish musicians, half of whom now live in Canada. The Canadian Irish folk group created in 1963 and named after the traditional song „The Irish Rover“ is best known for their international television series, contributing to the popularization of Irish Music in North America, and for the songs „The Unicorn“, „Wasn’t That A Party“, „The Orange and the Green“, „Whiskey on a Sunday“
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, „Lily The Pink“ and „The Black Velvet Band“.
The primary voices heard in the group’s early songs were Will Millar (tenor), Jimmy Ferguson (baritone), George Millar and Joe Millar, and in the last twenty years, also John Reynolds and Ian Millar. Wilcil McDowell’s accordion has been a signature sound of the band throughout their more than fifty years.
All but one of the band members are from Ireland. Founding member George Millar and his cousin Ian are both from Ballymena, original member Wilcil McDowell is from Larne, Sean O’Driscoll from Cork, Gerry O’Connor from Dundalk, with Morris Crum from Carnlough and percussionist Fred Graham from Belfast. Flute/whistle player Geoffrey Kelly was born in Dumfries, Scotland.
In the 1980s, the group briefly renamed itself The Rovers. During this period, their „Wasn’t That a Party“ led to crossover success in the country rock genre.
The Irish Rovers have represented Canada at five World Expos.
The brothers George Millar and Will Millar were both born in Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The children grew up in a musical household as their father Bob played button-key accordion for several bands throughout the years. Their cousin Joe Millar, who also sang, took part in the family kitchen parties playing button-key accordion and harmonica. As children, George and Will performed with their sister, Sandra Beech as „The Millar Kids“ in Ireland, before the family emigrated to Canada.
In 1963, two émigrés from Northern Ireland
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, 16-year-old George Millar and 23-year-old Jimmy Ferguson, met at an Irish function in Toronto. They sang together until dawn, and the Irish Rovers were launched. According to a Calgary Herald article in 1971, „George and Jimmy formed the first Irish Rovers for an amateur variety show in Toronto and won.“
George’s cousin, Joe also soon emigrated to Canada and was recruited as he stepped off the plane.
The name „The Irish Rovers“ was suggested by George’s mother. The traditional Irish song about a sailing ship had been a favorite from their kitchen parties in Ballymena. For a short time, George Millar, Jimmy Ferguson and Joe Millar were joined by Vic Marcus and Doug Henderson. George’s father, Bob, became The Irish Rovers’s first manager booking the new band at folk song festivals, clubs, hootenanys, The Port o‘ Call, and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Hotel. According to a 1964 newspaper in the Millars‘ home town in Ireland, „The folk singing ‚boom‘ in the United States and Canada proved profitable for three young Ballymena men who form the nucleus of a popular, Toronto-based group who call themselves ‚The Irish Rovers.’”
In the early 60’s, Will Millar and friend Brian Evans, performed in a Toronto Calypso group, The Kalypso Kews. After moving to Calgary Will formed a folk trio in Calgary along with another Ulster man, Derek Swinson. He also developed quite a following singing at Phil’s Pancake House, and then landing a job singing on Calgary’s „Just 4 Fun,“ a local TV show for children.
In 1964, after more than 6 months performing in the Toronto area, George and Jimmy left to visit Will in Calgary. In 1979, Jim Ferguson told Canadian Music Magazine, „We actually formed the group in Toronto
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. I sang, George played guitar and at that time Joe was playing a little button key accordion. We were ambitious in those days, we’d played the clubs to death in Toronto and we didn’t know what to do next; what direction to take. So we decided to visit Will in Calgary, ended up staying there, and the Irish Rovers became four. „“.Joe moved his family out from Toronto, and the band continued in Calgary.
George was enrolled in a local Calgary high school and Jimmy found work at a local Calgary slaughter house. Jimmy’s job would last but a few hours. George soon quit school and Will’s home became the new home base for the band.
The Irish Rovers became regulars at Calgary’s Depression coffee house, a folk club operated by John Uren that also contributed to the start of Joni Mitchell’s career.
Will Millar introduced the group to his manager Les Weinstein who became the band’s full-time manager, while Will became the band leader.
The Rovers drove to California in 1966, hoping to perform in the folk clubs there. On the way, their car broke down on northern Californian coast, at an Italian restaurant owned by two Irish immigrants. The boys were given room and board and an introduction to a booking agent who helped them secure an appearance at The Purple Onion in San Francisco where they played for five months. The group was then booked at other folk clubs across California.
In 1966, the Rovers signed a recording contract with Decca Records with Charles Dant and recorded their first album, The First of the Irish Rovers, at The Ice House in Pasadena. The album was successful enough to warrant another album, which included their first hit, which was from a song originally written and recorded in 1962 by Shel Silverstein, The Unicorn. Glen Campbell played guitar on the original recording. After recording the album, Joe Millar left the band for a more „reliable“ income for a family man. It was at this time that they invited All-Ireland Champion Wilcil McDowell to join the band. After the success of „The Unicorn,“ Joe returned to the band. The album included the Irish tunes „The Orange and the Green“ and „The Black Velvet Band.“ Wilcil’s accordion has continued to be a signature sound of the band.
Starting in the late 60s, the The Irish Rovers performed on various North American television programs including several appearances on the TV western The Virginian, as well as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Mike Douglas Show, The Dating Game, The Pig And Whistle, and The Beachcombers.
In 1968, they were named “Folk Group of the Year” by the predecessor of the JUNO Awards, and in 1969 they received a Grammy Award nomination for „Folk Performance of the Year.“
In 1971, The Irish Rovers were offered their own CBC-produced television series, The Irish Rovers. While entertaining a family audience, the show promoted Ireland and Irish music to North Americans. Guest stars included their friends The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Bobby Darin, Glen Campbell, Vera Lynn and Anne Murray. Visits from Shari Lewis and her puppets, including Lamb Chop, were audience favourites. There were regularly taped visits to Northern and Southern Ireland, Scotland, England, New Zealand, P.E.I., Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Banff and even Alert – at the tip of Ellesmere Island – the farthest, northerly inhabited base in the world.
„The Irish Rovers Show“ ran for 7 years, winning an ACTRA Award for Best Variety Performance. Brothers Will and George Millar co-wrote the majority of their original Irish compositions. Producer and Director Ken Gibson and Michael Watt often hosted special effects technicians from L.A. who were learning the new green screen technology, which were used for comedic leprechaun segments featuring Will, George and Jimmy. The Rovers then continued with another television series on the Global Television Network in conjunction with Ulster Television in Ireland.
Although the majority of their music focuses on the band’s Irish roots, in the early 1980s, The Irish Rovers recorded an unknown novelty Christmas song written by Randy Brooks. Record producer Jack Richardson produced The Rovers‘ album, It Was A Night Like This. The single release of „Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer“ rose to the top 20 in Canada within a week of airplay. Exposure of the music on television no doubt also added to the popularity of their music.
In 1980, their crossover hit recording of Tom Paxton’s „Wasn’t That A Party,“ which was inspired by the boys‘ own after-show partying, put them at the top of the charts again. In 1981, the group starred in their second Canadian TV series: The Rovers Comedy House, a 7-part CBC series of comedy and boisterous Irish music produced by Ken Gibson. For most of the 1980s the band was known as „The Rovers“ and followed up hits with songs such as „Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy“ and „No More Bread and Butter.“
Their third television series, Party With The Rovers, ran from 1984 to 1986 with Jack Richardson as Musical Director and Ken Gibson as Executive Producer. The show was set in a traditional pub setting featuring music sessions with the band performing together with Liam Clancy, Tommy Makem, John Allan Cameron, Kenny Rogers, Lonnie Donegan, Andy Gibb, Rita Coolidge, Ronnie Prophet, and many others. The series was produced for Global Television in conjunction with Ulster Television in Ireland, and was syndicated around the world.
The band members became Canadian citizens after Canada’s Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, asked them to do so, in order to officially represent Canada around the world. By 1989 they had represented Canada at five world Expos: Montreal (1967), Osaka, Japan (1970), Okinawa, Japan (1976), Vancouver (1986), and Brisbane, Australia (1988). In recognition of their quarter century of contributions of Canadian music to the International music world, they were awarded Canada’s top music honor, the Performing Rights Organization’s (PROCAN) Harold Moon Award. With their double album 25th Anniversary Collection in 1989, which featured the backing of The Chieftains and songs written by, amongst others, Randy Bachman, Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, the band was, once again, officially known as The Irish Rovers, but many fans still refer to them as The Rovers.
Will Millar announced he was leaving the group in 1994 and has become a successful artist focusing on the Ireland of old as a favorite subject matter. Upon departure, his brother George Millar took over as leader of the band and hired musicians John Reynolds and Wallace Hood.
After a court battle for the name of „The Irish Rovers“, the full band continued to tour, then filmed the video „The Irish Rovers, Live and Well“, plus the CD, ‚Celtic Collection: The Next Thirty Years‘. Over the following two years they followed up with two more albums, „Gems“, and „Come Fill Up Your Glasses“. A shock to the band came when Jimmy Ferguson died suddenly while on tour in 1997.
For a return to television in 2011, the band filmed the television special, The Irish Rovers, Home In Ireland. Locations for the special included Dunluce Castle, Carnlough Harbour, Portglenone, and various spots along the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. The show was transmitted in 2011 and 2012 across the PBS Network in North America.
In 2012 „The Irish Rovers Christmas“ Television Special, which was filmed at various locations in Banff National Park, Sunshine Village and Chatham-Kent’s Capitol Theatre, was shown across the PBS Network throughout the US and Canada. Both specials were released on DVD and are rebroadcast during the holiday seasons.
While The Rovers filmed their own 50th Anniversary concert on St. Patrick’s Day in Nanaimo, Canada, Shaw Communications filmed the event behind the scenes. The resulting documentary, called „The Irish Rovers 50th Anniversary Special“, with interviews from band members and Celtic music specialists, is being broadcast across Canada on SHAW Video on Demand, 2015 / 2016.
In the early 1980s, the group adjusted its style and began aiming itself towards the country-rock field. Renamed The Rovers, the group scored a major international hit with „Wasn’t That a Party“ and also found success with the Christmas novelty recording „Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer“. By the late 1980s, however, the group had reverted to their original Irish Rovers branding.
The band continued to tour and record throughout the next 30 years. Joe Millar retired from the band in 2005 when his son, Ian Millar, took up the family ranks. Joe and Ian performed once together on stage before Ian took over his father’s spot.
The present line-up of George Millar, Wilcil McDowell, Ian Millar, Sean O’Driscoll, Fred Graham, Morris Crum, Geoffrey Kelly and Gerry O’Connor continues to tour Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
In 1993 the band formed their own record company, Rover Records, which allowed them artistic freedom that as a younger band they could not afford. George Millar continues to write songs for the band, with Rover Records producing their last sixteen albums including Celtic Collection, Come Fill Up Your Glasses, Down by the Lagan Side, Still Rovin‘ After All These Years, and their Greatest Hits albums, 40 Years a-Rovin‘, and The Irish Rovers’s Gems. Their Irish homeland continues to be the primary subject of their music, as in „Erin’s Green Isle,“ „I’ll Return,“ „Dear Little Shamrock Shore,“ „Dunluce Castle,“ „Home to Bantry Bay,“ „The Dublin Pub Crawl,“ and „Gracehill Fair.“ Recently, their recording of „Drunken Sailor“ reached a younger audience on YouTube.
In 2010, The Irish Rovers marked their 45th anniversary with the release of the CD Gracehill Fair, which won a local music award on their home base of Vancouver Island.
The band returned to the World Music charts in 2011 with their album, Home In Ireland.
In 2012, their single, „The Titanic,“ released from their Drunken Sailor album, focused attention on Belfast and the Harland and Wolff shipyard that had built the Titanic a century before. After the song, and accompanying video made headlines in Belfast, N. Ireland, it was also featured in a Canadian documentary for the CBC which aided in returning the credit of building the ship to the Northern Ireland shipyards of Belfast. The album was produced in response to YouTube activity.
The band slowed down their touring schedule in their fiftieth year. The release of The Irish Rovers, 50 Years compilation album supports their Farewell To Rovin‘ Tour will take a few years to complete. After the long tours are done, the band says they will still record and play special events.