Still Roving After All These Years
By the time you read this, the Irish Rovers will be doing what they have done, for over 40 years: Roving.
You’ll have a chance to hear and see them yourself Friday, December 5, at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, as the Rovers present their Christmas show. (The show starts at 8.)
Just before the tour began, we caught up with the Rovers’ George Millar by phone from his home on Vancouver Island, a scenic outpost off Canada’s Pacific coast, about 75 north of Seattle. Millar had lived there for over 15 years.
It’s a short tour, thankfully. After 40-plus years in the business, touring is an exhausting business.
“It’s 12 cities in all,” he says, “starting with three in Canada, ending up in Florida on the 14th of December.” You wouldn’t think there’d be much call for winter holiday songs in Florida, but, Millar says, you’d think wrong. “Isn’t it crazy?” he says. “And yet we do it every year and they all show up with their red and their green on and it’s about 130 degrees out.”
The Christmas tour has proved a popular way for fans to get their annual dose of Irish Rover music. And, Millar says, the boys aim to please.
The Christmas show was the brainchild of the band’s agent, Millar says, perhaps in part due to the popularity of their version of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” originally recorded by an obscure duo, Elmo and Patsy. Of course, the Rovers are about so much more than holiday ditties, so fans will be treated to a crowd-pleasing mix of Christmas and traditional Irish music.
“The trouble with us and doing a Christmas show is we really can’t do the traditional Rudolph and things like that,” says Millar. “So we have to look for the more obscure English-y, Irish-y songs, or we wrote similar type songs. We always have to do “The Unicorn,” “The Black Velvet Band,” and of course “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” That’s a must—you have to do that whether you like it or not.
“To keep the tours fresh, we have to keep changing songs. You have to keep so many of them (standards) in, of course. We’ll do the songs they expect to hear, that’s what they pay for. But we keep coming up with new songs to keep ourselves fresh and keep ourselves interested. We just keep it fast paced, and before you know it the two hours is up and we’re off having a Guinness somewhere.”
For the Rovers, there seems to be no slowing down. If it all seems a bit formulaic, well, maybe it is. But it’s a good formula, and one that fans truly appreciate, as they have done since the beginning.
Millar recalls how the Rovers started, by accident, at a weekend show in Toronto.
“It was like a charity show,” he says “At least twice a month in Toronto, where we had immigrated (from Ballymena, near Belfast) there was a big Scottish-English-Irish community, and they would put on these shows about twice a month. They were just like an amateur show. People would come and pay their two dollars and they would drink their rye and ginger ale, and their beer. My sister was quite the singer, and I was playing guitar behind her. I was about 14 or 15 when this all started.
“Well, one night, this fellow (Jimmy Ferguson) gets up and starts singing Lonnie Donegan songs. In those days, Lonnie Donegan was a huge British star. He was as big as the Beatles in his day. He used to sing folks songs, but to electric guitar. So Jimmy was playing this kind of song. Well, one time I went into the toilet to tune the guitar. We were just about to go on and it was so noisy in the place. And I’m sitting on the floor tuning my guitar and humming to my self the song, “The Irish Rover.” And this fella Jimmy comes into the bathroom and he starts singing it along with me. And we sort of looked at each other and I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you knew that song.’ He said, ‘Well I’m from Belfast, so of course I do. I learned it in school.’ Just then, the fella who was running the show comes in and overheard us singing “The Irish Rover,” and he says, “Somebody didn’t show up tonight. Can you do it in the show?”
At that point, the two weren’t sure they knew all the words but they tried it out—still in the bathroom. And, Millar recalls, the concert promoter said to them, “It’s perfect.”
“After I sang with my sister and Jimmy did his little bit, we did this one song together, we got up and sang it and the audience loved it. That’s all there was to it.” That’s how they got together, started learning songs and formed the core of what would grow to become the Irish Rovers.
Making a living in music as opposed to any old factory job seemed like a wise choice. In time, they found themselves touring, and they turned up with a gig at the legendary Purple Onion in San Francisco in the late ‘60s. They rubbed shoulders with some young performers, like Linda Ronstadt and Steve Martin, who would themselves go on to fame and fortune. For the Rovers, though, fame came in the form of a Shel Silverstein tune called “The Unicorn,” in 1968.
Two more hits—recorded under the shortened name, ”The Rovers,”—came in later years, including the Tom Paxton tune, “Wasn’t That a Party.” By all accounts, the Rovers’ parties were memorable indeed, and this was Paxton’s paean. A little while later came “Grandma,” a tune that reinvigorated the Rovers’ career, even as it rubbed some audiences the wrong way.
The Rovers acquired the Elmo and Patsy tune, which had been a regional hit, when they were looking for songs to fill a Christmas album.
“We re-recorded it about 30 years after they did it, and it became an underground hit,” says Millar. “You either like the song or you hate it. There’s no happy in between on that one. It’s just a comical, funny song. Even my own mother, before she passed on, said to me: ‘Shave your beard, cut your hair and don’t ever sing that horrible Grandma song again.’”
Of course, sons often do go their own way—and many fans are grateful that the Rovers have.
The fact is, Rovers fans are diehards. Long after “The Unicorn,” they keep on coming. Millar isn’t sure they’re about to stop.
“We’re never going to get retired at this point,” he says. “We’re blessed that we still have a built-in audience of people that wants to see us. When people ask us about retirement, I say, well … why? I can now see why George Burns kept going until he was almost 100 years old. It’s not like rock and roll. We don’t have to weigh 105 pounds and wear Spandex … luckily. With Celtic music, the hair can recede and the stomach can come out a wee bit, and it seems to fit the image.”