This week, Ross Macfadyen talks to George Millar of Canadian/Irish band The Irish Rovers about their new CD album Gracehill Fair. (Saturday 12 noon; 12 midnight; Monday 18:00)
George Millar and his friend Jimmy Ferguson started out singing together as The Irish Rovers performing mostly Irish folk songs in Toronto. They traveled to Calgary where they met up with George’s older brother Will Millar who was singing children’s songs in the International House of Pancakes in Calgary. Will asked if he could join them and the core of the group was established. Will introduced the boys to Les Weinstein, who helped arrange for them to appear on television, and would later manage the group throughout the group’s career. They then invited George’s cousin Joe to join the group. Later, the boys became part of a popular folk club of the time called the Depression, a club that also kick-started the career of Joni Mitchell.
The Irish Rovers traveled to California in the USA, which at the time was the focus of many folk singers. On the journey there their car broke down in Northern California, which is when they met some Irish pub owners and an agent who helped them secure a gig at the popular Purple Onion in San Francisco. The group subsequently began performing in folk clubs all over California. Wilcil McDowell joined the band in 1966, around the time the group was signed by Decca Records when “The Unicorn” became a global success.
The group is best known for their recording of Shel Silverstein’s “The Unicorn” (1967) and Irish ditties “The Orange and the Green” / “Whiskey on a Sunday” (1968). They also hosted several variety television programmes in the 1970s on Canadian television – the Pig And Whistle from Vancouver being one.
Although they recorded many albums after that, they weren’t as successful commercially as “The Unicorn” until 1980 when the band had a crossover hit with a cover of Tom Paxton’s “Wasn’t That a Party.” The success of this, which was performed in a country-rock style rather than the band’s familiar folk style, led to the band rebranding itself as The Rovers and changing styles for the remainder of the 1980s, scoring follow-up hits with songs such as “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” “No More Bread and Butter,” and the Christmas hit “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” By the 1990s, however, the band was once again known as the Irish Rovers.
Will Millar left the group in 1995 but George and the remaining members of the band have continued to have a successful career, touring in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They have recently release their latest album (Varese Sarabande) celebrating 45 years in the music business. They are currently filming live on location in Ireland.
Founding member Jimmy Ferguson died in 1997.
More information and to buy the album, go to The Irish Rovers website.
Listen to Ross Macfadyen talking to George Millar on Saturday at 12 noon; 12 midnight (00:00) and on Monday 30 August at 18:00.