The Irish Rovers hold an interesting distinction in pop-music history. In the late 1960s, the band had a hit with Shel Silverstein’s “The Unicorn,” perhaps the most happy-go-lucky sing-along ever committed to vinyl about the extinction of an imaginary animal.
Over the decades, the Rovers have released 40 albums of Irish folk, Celtic and pop music, hosted three Canadian and internationally syndicated music-comedy TV series, and toured Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Their popular 1980 recording of Tom Paxton’s “Wasn’t That a Party” spoke to the band’s penchant for post-show revelry, and by the end of the ’80s, the Rovers had represented Canada at five World Expos.
Now the band is poised to release the triple CD “The Irish Rovers – 50 Years,” which includes new material, children’s songs and cuts from its first two albums. Many of these tracks will likely be referenced Saturday when the Rovers take the stage at the Crest Theatre. Part of the band’s “Farewell to Rovin’ ” tour, the show may be the last opportunity to see them locally.
“We are going to retire in 2015,” said George Millar, Rovers guitarist-vocalist and co-founder, during a recent call. “That will be our official 50th year. We’re still going to do CDs and the bigger folk festivals. But as you get older, it’s time to gracefully get off the road.”
Millar, 66, a Vancouver Island resident, has been immersed in music since his childhood in Ireland. “We didn’t have television then,” Millar said. “Most didn’t even have a radio. So you made your own music. My father played accordion. My two uncles played banjos and fiddles. Everyone would congregate at our house, and we’d listen to this music late into the night. It’s just like osmosis. It goes into you and stays there.”
In 1957, the family moved to Toronto. Millar picked up the guitar at age 12. At an Irish function in 1963, the host paired the 16-year-old guitarist with 24-year-old vocalist Jimmy Ferguson to fill a five-minute spot. The two became best friends and a band was born. (Ferguson died in 1997.)
After graduating from high school, Millar hopped a bus to Calgary with Ferguson to meet up with Millar’s brother Will, who played guitar, banjo and mandolin, and their cousin Joe, who sang and played accordion and harmonica.
Will Millar booked the lads on the kids TV show he hosted. With 5-year-old kids sitting at their feet, the four Rovers broke into “Whiskey You’re the Devil” and “Finnegan’s Wake” – about a man waking from the dead after a bottle of whiskey is splattered over his body. The station switchboard lit up. Will was fired.
Two days later, the band drove to San Francisco. “If it wasn’t for ‘Whiskey You’re the Devil,’ ” Millar said, “maybe we’d still be sitting in Calgary singing to children.” Instead they landed a five-month gig at the famed Purple Onion.
The group lived in North Beach. “Lenny Bruce was playing about three doors down, and (legendary stripper) Carol Doda ... was about two doors the other way,” Millar said. “We stayed in this horrible, filthy little hotel. It was $8 a week. But we thought, ‘Oh my god, we are in America, and it’s great.’ ”
The Rovers’ first album did well in 1966, but it was the title song of their second album, “The Unicorn,” with session man Glenn Campbell on lead guitar, that went to No. 2 on the adult contemporary charts.
“To this day, we shake our heads,” Millar said. “How on this earth did this little song slip in between the Beatles and Strawberry Alarm Clock? It’s even more a mystery to me today than it was then.”
The Rovers’ lyrics eschew politics while often embracing drink, women, sailors and ships. The band’s core members are George Millar, cousin bassist-guitarist-vocalist Ian Millar, original accordionist Wilcil McDowell, mandolin and four-string banjo player Sean O’Driscoll and percussionist Fred Graham. They are supported by backup vocalist-keyboardist Morris Crum, whistle/flute player Geoffrey Kelly and fiddle player Gerry O’Connor.
“We have not played Sacramento in 12 or 15 years,” George Millar said. “We played in a pizza parlor for university students and it was a great show. I don’t know if anyone will remember us, but we’ll soon find out.”