February 12, 2020
By: Bob Mersereau
Could’ve been the whisky. Might have been the gin. It’s one of the most famous parties in popular music, a tale of way too much liquor and one massive hangover, a huge hit for the Irish Rovers in 1981. Err, The Rovers. But that’s another story, we’ll get to it.
First, about that party. There really was a party. Actually, parties, and a lot of them. As it turns out, the song isn’t just true, it’s actually about The Irish Rovers, and the legendary parties the group would hold every night after their shows finished. Not only that, it was written for the band by one of the very best folk songwriters of the day, Tom Paxton.
George Millar was a founding member of the group in 1963 during the heady days of the folk singing boom. He still leads the band, which is hitting the road again in February for a Canadian tour, promoting the brand new album, Saints And Sinners. He remembers how Paxton saw the group in party action first-hand.
“We did a tour of Illinois, about two weeks in the summer, and he was the opening act on all the shows,” says Millar. “And along the way, he came up to us and said, ‘I’ve written a song for you guys.’ And we said, how nice. And he played it for us, and it was a talking blues at the time.”
Were the parties that legendary? “Well, yes,” Millar admits. “You could ask some of our fans, who we stayed with and partied with. For some reason, many of our parties would end up in water fights, with a garden hose and such. I don’t know how that started. There was great laughter, we would douse each other and… anyway….”
The band members learned to have those parties growing up in Northern Ireland, listening to their parents and relatives playing music. They had their own version of the kitchen parties they found later in Canada. “At our house in Ireland, the music would go all night long on Friday and Saturday nights. We were supposed to be in bed but of course we were listening at the top of the stairs. Nobody had the money to go to pubs and all that. So you’d party there, Everybody would sit in a big circle. If you couldn’t play an instrument, you’d sing along, or maybe tell a story.”
Millar and the rest of the original band (his brother Will, cousin Joe, and friends Wilcil McDowell and Jim Ferguson), all immigrated to Canada in the ’60s and continued that party tradition after their shows. They felt it was part of their job to keep the fun going for all their friends and hosts. But with one important rule. “I must say we were never drunk on stage. That was a rule, drink as much as you want after, but you never drink before. Ever. And that’s still the rule.”
Back to Paxton’s song. While they were honoured by it, a talking blues wasn’t exactly what the band was known for, so they didn’t figure they’d record it. But fate stepped in. “We got signed up to Attic Records,” says Millar. “They had Jack Richardson producing us, who had made all the hits with the Guess Who and lots of others. And at the end of it, he said, ‘Fellows, we need one more song here.’ And we said, well we’ve got this song, but we don’t know if it’s our style or not.”
Richardson helped rearrange it with a party beat, and a hit was born. First though, the group went through an image change. While hugely popular in the folk scene world-wide, they weren’t exactly hip to radio then, with its disco and New Wave sounds. It was Attic Records head Al Mair’s idea to temporarily drop the word Irish from their name, a move that had them taking a lot of flak from their longtime fans. But it worked.
“It was sent out to all these North American radio stations as ‘The Rovers'” says Millar. “The cover story was that it was a new band out of Nashville. And that’s what got it played. One of our friends was a program director out in Edmonton, and he said it had hit written all over it, but ‘If I had known it was The Irish Rovers, it would have never been played.'”
Millar, no surprise, is one of the very great storytellers, and one highlight of the group’s long career leads quickly to another story. It seems “The Unicorn” was recorded in a similar way, as an afterthought, in 1967.
“We had been signed by Decca Records in the U.S., they wanted us to make a record of Irish drinking songs,” explains Millar. “They needed something like that for their label, the only thing they had close to it was Bing Crosby. So we recorded an album, and I think it sold about 10,000 copies, and we thought, well, that will be the end of that. On the contrary, they came back to us and said, ‘That was great, we didn’t expect to sell even half that,’ and they wanted another one. We recorded the album, but at the end of it they said, ‘We need one more song, have you got anything different?'”
“Well, we were doing a lot of work in those days in Aspen and Vail, Colorado, ski resorts, we’d spend two months there. And we did this song on stage, and when we did, all these skiers would stop and listen, everybody seems to like it.” It was a tune that Will Millar had first done on his TV show in Calgary in the mid-’60s. It was a kid’s show, so he needed some material that wasn’t about whisky and such. It was a cute song that had first been recorded by its writer, songwriter and humourist Shel Silverstein on his folk album from 1963, “The Unicorn.”
“So we get in the next morning to record it, and there’s Glen Campbell sitting there, on lead guitar,” says Millar. “There was me on whistle, my cousin Joe on harmonica and we brought in a bass player, and that was it. No keyboards, no drums, just singing. And that thing became a hit. Number one on the charts then was The Beatles, then us, then the Strawberry Alarm Clock. How on earth did we get up there with the Beatles, who were experimenting with all that Sgt. Pepper stuff, and us just with two guitars and a harmonica? It was the innocence of the song. But for this thing to slip onto the charts, I still shake my head.”
Another story. Some time after “The Unicorn” became a smash, the group dropped by Silverstein’s office at the Harry Fox Agency in New York, hoping to say hello. “He wasn’t there, but we met the owner of the company, and he said, ‘See that desk over there? That’s his desk.’ And it was all covered in cheques. He said it was thousands and thousands of dollars, all made out to Shel Silverstein. They’d been there for a year and a half, but they couldn’t get in touch with him to let him know he’d had a hit. He was somewhere in Tahiti, learning how to make sandals. And it was the first big hit he’d had. He didn’t know, and he probably didn’t care. He was a beatnik from way back, and he just liked to have enough money to travel.” Silverstein also wrote such classics as “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Cover Of ‘Rolling Stone'” as well as children’s books such as “The Giving Tree,” but it was “The Unicorn” that was his first giant hit, and kept him in sandals for a long time.
Then there was the time Prime Minister Trudeau ordered the group members to become Canadian citizens. That came about because of a friendship with Patrick Reid, another Irish ex-pat who was the Director of the Canadian Exhibition Commission, and was Commissioner General for world fairs at the time. “He was a Belfast man, and he took a liking to us. His job was setting up all the Expos for Canada. They’d always have a Canadian contingent. So anyway, he said to us, ‘How would you boys like to go to Japan? So we went over there, and played about two weeks, huge crowds, playing music in the Canadian Pavilion.”
That was the Okinawa Expo of 1975, and the group did other world fairs for Reid. Then Millar got a phone call at his Vancouver home. “Patrick Reid said, ‘You have to go downtown at noon, I will be there, I’ll meet you and I’m going to make you all Canadian citizens.’ I said, What’s going on? He said, ‘I got a nice phone call from Mr. Trudeau, and Mr. Trudeau said, and these are his words, “Patrick, I really like The Irish Rovers, and obviously you do too. But if they’re going to be doing Expos and working for Canada, they should be bloody citizens.'” Obviously they had some pull and got us a swearing-in right away. So the next day, we put our hands up and pledged our allegiance to Canada, and very proudly he made us Canadian citizens, in about five minutes. And to this day I’m very, very proud I did that.”
Which leads to another story. “About two weeks after we became citizens, we were playing in a big festival in Ottawa. And through Patrick Reid, we were invited to one of Mr. Trudeau’s garden parties. We were standing in a big line where he comes down and shakes everybody’s hand, and we’re the last in line. And he gets down to us, and said ‘It’s about bloody time you became citizens, welcome to our country.’ We said, thank you very much. And thanks for the party. And he said, ‘Enjoy yourselves, and drink all you want.’ A very fine man, Mr. Trudeau.”
Wait, there’s more. “Another funny story that night, we were standing in line with Hagood Hardy (the composer of “The Homecoming”), and Mr. Trudeau shakes his hand, and Hagood introduces himself to him, ‘I’m Hagood Hardy.’ And Mr. Trudeau goes, ‘Yes, it is a good party isn’t it?'”
The parties are still happening, although Millar admits the group is winding down. He’s the last original member still taking the stage, and for the past two years, The Irish Rovers have been touring the world on a goodbye tour. This year they are concentrating on Canada, but Millar says the plan is to still record and do some festivals, including their annual Casino Rama show.
Are the after-parties still as wild? “You know what? No! We have a quiet nightcap in our hotel and right to bed after, because we’ve probably got a morning flight. So those heady days of partying are gone. I’d like to be able to say we partied until 6 am and were on the bus at 7, but no. I used to be able to drink two bottles of wine, now two glasses is enough.”
Then there’s the time Jim Morrison hung out to hear some Irish laments. But that’s another story….