All band members hail from Ireland, however, The Irish Rovers formed in 1963 in Toronto, Canada. Their 2012 album release was in response to mammoth attention their Drunken Sailor recording has received on YouTube. It is full of tales from the sea, including a tribute to The Titanic on its' 100th Anniversary.
Members George Millar and his cousin Ian Millar are from Ballymena, original member Wilcil McDowell is from Larne, Sean O'Driscoll is from Cork, and both John Reynolds and percussionist Fred Graham are from Belfast.
The story of The Irish Rovers (aka The Rovers) is one for the big screen; hosting three award-winning television series, topping the music charts again and again, several appearances as musical bank robbers on "The Virginian", and more than 46 years of international recordings and touring their music around the world. The Irish Rovers themselves, were the inspiration for one of the world's best-known party anthems. The boys in the band have lived large.
The Irish Rovers at Carnlough Harbour, N. Ireland. Photo by Aidan Monaghan The band regularly tours Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In 2010, they released Gracehill Fair (Rover Records), which received high accolades from Maui to Belfast, and in 2011 released both Home In Ireland, and their first Christmas CD in over a decade, Merry Merry Time of Year. In September 2010, the lads returned to their roots, to film in Northern Ireland for their DVD / television special, Home in Ireland. Life in Ireland, and emigration have long been the focus of the band's original music. Home In Ireland is a tribute to their homeland and the Irish emigrants who long to return. While revealing the beauty of their homeland The Irish Rovers perform on location at Carnlough Harbour, Dunluce Castle, The Giant's Causeway, Slemish Mountain, Glenarm, Galgorm Manor near Ballymena, and onstage at Waterfront Hall, Belfast. George Millar says, "It's basically The Irish Rovers 'Coming Home' because this is our home, for all of us. We want to show the world what the northwest Irish coast is like. I've traveled the world now for over 40 years and there's nothing like it."
"The Irish Rovers, one of the most successful and enduring of all Irish folk bands." - BBC ULSTER, 2010
As young Irish immigrants themselves, the Rovers became so much a part of the Canadian cutlure that Canada's Prime Minister Trudeau personally asked them to become Canadian citizens so they could officially represent Canada around the world. By 1989 they had hosted three international television series, recorded 25 albums and had represented Canada at five world Expos - Montreal (1967), Osaka, Japan (1970), Okinawa, Japan (1976), Vancouver (1986), and Brisbane, Australia (1988). In recognition for a quarter century of contributions to the International music world, The Irish Rovers won the Performing Rights Organization's (PROCAN) 'Harold Moon Award'. At Expo86 in Vancouver, they recorded, "The First Thirty Years" at their Irish Rovers Free House "The Unicorn". In '89, their "Silver Anniversary" Collection Album featured backing by The Chieftains and songs written by Randy Bachman, Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.
The Irish Rovers formed their own record company in 1993, which finally gave them full control over their music production. Since then, several of their albums have been recorded in both Canada and Ireland. Over the years, the band has survived management changes, record label changes, personnel changes and still over 46 years later, they're selling out concert halls internationally. Since '95, they've released ten more albums including Come Fill Up Your Glasses, Down by the Lagan Side, Still Rovin, Gracehill Fair and two double album Greatest Hits, Gems and 40 Years A-Rovin. Recently, their recording of Drunken Sailor reached a younger generation with over 5 million hits on various YouTube sites, which in turn has lead to the release of their latest album.
"There aren't many groups in Canada that can match the legacy of The Irish Rovers. TV stars, huge concerts draws...major memorable hits. Plus, you have the longetivity...their popularity continues. They are on a national tour, have a brand new Christmas CD, and a TV special filmed in Ireland coming up." Bob Mersereau, CBC, 2011
The story of the Irish Rovers starts in 1963 in Canada, where the 16-year old George Millar and 23-year old Jim Ferguson, both new emigrants from Northern Ireland, met in Toronto at an Irish function. They sang together 'til dawn; and so the Irish Rovers were launched. "George and Jimmy formed the first Irish Rovers for an amateur variety show in Toronto and won!" -The Calgary Herald, 1971.
George's cousin, Joe Millar, also then immigrated to Canada. Joe, who played button-key accordion, harmonica, and sang traditional ballads, was recruited as he stepped off the plane.
"THE FOLK SINGING "BOOM" in the States and Canada has proved profitable for three young Ballymena men who form the nucleus of a popular, Toronto-based group who call themselves "The Irish Rovers."-Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 1964
George's musician father Bob, became the band's first manger and guided the young lads through several months of playing folk song festivals, 'Hootenany's, coffee houses, and Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre. At first they played as a trio, then in November of '63, George, Joe and Jimmy were joined by bass guitarist, Vic Marcus and banjo player, Doug Henderson. Later in '64 George, Jimmy and Joe headed west to Calgary, Alberta, to join forces with George's brother, Will who was solo singing at Phil's Pancake House, and performing on a childrens' television show. Their first disasterous television appearance, got them thinking of greener pastures. Photo above, from left, Will Millar, Jimmy Ferguson, George Millar, Wilcil McDowell, Joe Millar.
"Will, was presenting a children's TV show called Just 4 Fun. We went on the show and sang, Whiskey You're the Devil," Millar recalls. "There were these little five-year-olds sitting on the floor in front of us. Of course the switchboards lit up with people going, 'Please don't be putting those songs in our children's ears.' Thatâ€™s how we began." -The Calgary Sun, 2010
The Irish Rovers were already regulars at Calgary's popular Depression Coffee House and Will invited Les Weinstein to one of their shows. Weinstein quickly recognized the potential of the group, so he became their manager and encouraged them to head south to "Americay". Landing at another famous folk club, The Purple Onion, in San Francisco, they headlined for an unprecedented 22 sold-out weeks. The folk clubs of California became the learning grounds for the young Rovers, and (through old-fashioned hard work and a wee bit of Irish luck) they were offered a recording contract with Decca Records in 1966. The lads fresh brand of Irish music was a hit in the US.
The Irish Rovers, The Unicorn In 1966, The Irish Rovers released their debut album, appropriately titled, The First Of The Irish Rovers (Decca), recorded live at "The Icehouse" in Pasadena. The liner notes introduced these new, young recording artists:
"Irish music is the history and character of the Irish people recorded in song. The special message of this music is conveyed with authority and skill by a refreshing new singing group, The Irish Rovers."- Judith Tane
The success of this first release lead to a second. This included a sweet little song with words written by Shel Silverstein, that they had been playing in the clubs, called "The Unicorn". It was at this point that their pal, All-Ireland Champ Wilcil McDowell completed the legendary lineup. One evening while driving to their next concert on tour, the lads realized, that it was in fact their recording of "The Unicorn" playing on the radio. They leaped out of the van and tossed their clothes as dancing Rovers filled the street. That little song became a multi-milion seller, and beloved by a generation. For five young adventurers from Ireland, life was about to change. In 1968, The Irish Rovers were named Canada's, "Folk Group of the Year", by the predecessor of the Juno's. The following year, they received a Grammy nomination for "Folk Performance of the Year".
The Rovers made several appearances on television in the US and Canada including several appearances as musical bank robbers on The Virginian, The Mike Douglas Show, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Beachcombers and even as contestants on The Dating Game. The band used their new found fame to promote Irish Music in general to the North American public.
During the 1970s, the Irish Rovers hosted CBC's, The Irish Rovers Show which ran for 6 seasons. Designed to entertain both children and adults, the award-winning show became the most popular Canadian variety show of its time. Between rousing Irish folk songs, Will, George and Jimmy might leap about in leprechaun costumes, then play host to their friends, Irish music legends The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem who would return several times throughout the Rovers' various television incarnations. The lineup of guest stars included many musical heavyweights like Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Vera Lynn and Carl Perkins. In '72, Attic records produced a live album at CBC television studios in Vancouver, Canada. Brothers Will and George Millar wrote many songs together during these years.
When Wilcil McDowell was asked if anything really stands out for him doing The Irish Rovers Show, he quickly said,
"Yes, one in particular. At one time when we were filming one of our shows, Johnny Cash was on tour, and this was in the early 70's. We thought it would be very nice to have him on the show because Johnny Cash had come over and toured Ireland, and he was immensely popular over here. So we asked him to come on, and the budget wasn't all that great, you know for the guest stars in those days, and we just wanted Johnny to come on with his guitar, and the little house band to back him up. But he landed in, not only with his guitar, but with The Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins and the complete Carter Family! Meanwhile, the producer and our manager are going up the walls "We can't afford this - there's no way". So they approached him and said to Johnny, "We told you what our budget is and we just can't afford this." Johnny said to our manager and the producers, "Don't you worry about it. Ireland has been very good to me. Just consider this a part of the favor returned."
Throughout the 70's, the Rovers often filmed on location throughout Canada. The CBC also sent them to Ireland for a musical tour of their homeland.
In the 80's, the group hosted several "Superspecials" for CBC and also starred in their second national television series, The Rovers Comedy House, a 7-part CBC series of Irish music and comedy which again had them filming many segments back home in Ireland.
The Rovers enjoyed life to such an extent, that their notorious partying inspired their next hit in '81. They soared to the top of the pop and country charts with Wasn't That A Party which their friend, Tom Paxton wrote after he attending one of the band's famous post-show parties. The Rovers also put their spin on an unknown dittie written by Randy Brooks, and also took it to the top of the charts in '82. They first released "Grandma Got Run-Over By A Reindeer" as the single from their album "It Was A Night Like This", and it remains a favorite holiday anthem today. During the 80's the band had several chart topping and award-winning albums, including "The Rovers" (1980), "No More Bread And Butter" (1981) and "It Was A Night Like This" (1982).
The Irish Rovers hosted several Superspecials for CBC famous Unicorn Pub At Expo86 in Vancouver was where they recorded, "The First Thirty Years". It was at this time John Reynolds began playing with the band. Their "Silver Anniversary" album (Rover Records, 1989) featured songs written by Randy Bachman, Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Most of the songs up to and including the 80's can be found on their Greatest Hits double album, The Irish Rovers' Gems.