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The Station interview: Will Millar

Will Millar - Andrew Leong
Will Millar
— image credit: Andrew Leong

Will Millar lives down a long country road in an early-1900s house on an acreage overlooking Quamichan Lake.

This unassuming and quiet setting is home to the former lead vocalist of one of the longest-running and most famous bands in the world: The Irish Rovers.

Originally from Ballymena, Northern Ireland, Millar’s band of young Irishmen formed in Calgary in the 1960s and soon found success across North America. They are most famous for their songs Wasn’t That A Party and The Unicorn, which sold 8 million copies worldwide.

In 1995, after 35 years, Millar left the band in an acrimonious split.

While we may still picture him as the energetic red-head leprechaun on their 1970’s hit CBC television show, The Irish Rovers, Millar has moved on.

Since leaving the band, he’s written three books, produced 10 albums, and dedicated his life to his real passion: painting.

His oil paintings are displayed with pride next to his framed platinum and gold albums, while others are scattered around his brightly lit, lakeview studio.

Millar is deeply connected to his country’s history. His colourful works depict scenes of an old-world Ireland, with hardworking countrymen in their fields or outside a pub with a pint of Guinness.

His art is showing at the E.J. Hughes Gallery in downtown Duncan throughout the summer. At 74, his creative energy seems boundless.

We sat together on sofas in the sunroom of that old farmhouse while the haunting sounds of tin whistle and bodhrán drum from the Chieftains sang out from the stereo in his studio below.

We drank tea and ate a slice of his delicious homemade Irish raisin boil cake while Millar shared stories about touring as an Irish Rover, how art saved him, and how much he loves his wife.

*****

MM: When did it all begin?

WM: Would you believe it’s the 50th anniversary? Fifty years ago the boys joined me in Calgary on a kids’ show on TV. Channel 4.

MM: When there were three channels.

WM: Two channels. We were lucky we had a series — there were only two stations in Canada. We had a captive audience: prime time Sunday night. When you were a baby.

MM: Before or after the Wonderful World of Disney?

WM: After. It’s amazing how fast life goes by. I led the Rovers for 35 years. We started in ‘64. My brother was only 15. Now he runs the Irish Rovers with a different band.

MM: You left the band in 1995. How did that happen?

WM: We were starting to become a bit dysfunctional. Irish family 30 years together, how can anybody survive? People can’t survive with a wife that long let alone four other fellows. I guess my younger brother felt I was becoming a bit of a dictator but the only way to possibly get five Irish guys together was to be a bit demanding; there had to be a leader of some sort. We just got to be not friends anymore. The more I travelled, the less I liked it; my kids were growing up. I said ‘I’m just going to stay home and paint.’ Of course my poor wife, she thought I was bonkers. And, unfortunately, it wasn’t a smooth, peaceful parting. It was an unhappy parting with lawyers involved. I look back on it all now; it was so stupid. I wish him well.

MM: So what happened 50 years ago?

WM: I was in Calgary singing around tables in a pancake house, and doing a television show five days a week — ad lib. And then my brother and Jimmy Ferguson came out to Calgary for a two-week holiday and I never got rid of them for 35 years! They saw the life I had: I had an old Jaguar car, my own little apartment with red lights and lots of hot girls running in and out all the time. And they said ‘geez, we’re not going back.’ My brother was at school and Jimmy worked at a Scotch tape factory. I brought them onto the kids’ TV show and we’re singing Whisky, You’re the Devil and all this. The parents of the children, they started watching.

MM: Even though you were singing about whisky to the kids.

WM: In those days it wasn’t so politically incorrect. It wasn’t doing them any harm.

MM: It was a happy jig.

WM: After being at Phil’s Pancake House, and getting over a lost love at the time, I said ‘I’m leaving.’

MM: You worked at Phil’s Pancake House?

WM: I sang around the tables. I had no money before the Rovers started. Phil was a great guy, and I told him what I was doing  in Toronto — musical host — and it worked: people were coming in. My guitar was covered in pancake syrup from all the kids grabbing it. One little lucky thing happened. Phil said, “Look, you guys are great, I think you could make a good band together, but I can’t handle it. I know a guy in town.” Les Weinstein, head of Columbia Pictures in Calgary. Les took me on. To this day, Les is still my friend. He got the Irish Rovers going. He gave us a hundred bucks, and in my old car we headed to San Francisco. All I wanted to do was get an audition at Mecca: The Purple Onion and The Hungry Eye.

MM: That’s why you went to San Francisco?

WM: The folk club days were big. The Kingston Trio was playing at The Hungry Eye. I really absolutely believe it was fate because without things happening.... Here’s one of the typical things. I decided to take the coast road down to San Francisco. I wanted to see the ocean; I missed the ocean being in Calgary. The old Jaguar broke down in a place called Bodega Bay, where they filmed The Birds. And there is a little village there called the Valley Ford where there’s Denucci’s Italian Dinners, a big restaurant pub, where the car rolled in and broke down.

The garage across the road knew nothing about Jaguars and they said there’s a guy in Santa Rosa, contact him. I couldn’t get on the phone to him so I had to hitchhike. I left the boys sitting in the Jaguar outside this pub. It took me to about 11 o’clock that night to get back. By then there were trucks and cars all outside. I could hear Irish music singing out of the pub. Here’s the first fate: Denucci’s Italian Dinners a month earlier had been bought by two guys just come out from Ireland.

The boys rolled in there and they found compatriots who said, “Git up there boys, give us a song.” All of a sudden it was a plastic bucket on the pool table and it was full of dollar bills. And these guys kept us for a month. We lived there.

MM: You stayed?

WM: We still hadn’t made it to San Francisco, but we stayed with them because they fed us every night. They loved it. We filled the place up. Then in came a couple of booking agents from San Francisco. They said “You guys are great, what are you doing down here?” We said, “Oh we’re trying to get into the Purple Onion.” And they said, “We can get you into the Purple Onion, no problem.” They took us for an audition, is what they did. But they got us in there and all of a sudden we had made it. They booked us for New Year’s Eve and they kept us for six months. We sold more booze in that six months than the Purple Onion had ever sold for any band.

Then we got booking at other folk clubs. We played at the Troubadour in LA. We went to Aspen, Colorado for the ski season. We played Aspen every winter for about four years. What a life. For young guys, it was amazing.

MM: Was it lucrative?

WM: We made about $400 per week, which was a fortune to us. And we never bought drinks because everyone used to buy us drinks. We used to be up on stage and there would be tray fulls of pints of Guinness and shots of whisky coming up to us. I remember all the Texans that came to Aspen. They used to send up $50 bills, and say “Sing Mother McCree!”

MM: Where did the Irish Rovers get the name?

WM: It’s the name of the song [sings] “In the year of our Lord, 1806...”  I sang that song when I was 10 years old. I used to make a couple of bob in the pubs for singing. It was a perfect name for a folk band in those days, roving around. It was smart putting Irish in it. The Irish Americans loved us. We played in every Irish-American hall for every priest in North America. We rode in St. Patrick’s Day parade the first year we played in New York. We were riding with Ted Kennedy and John Glenn the astronaut in a five-hour St. Patrick’s Day parade through the streets of New York.

MM: What other famous people did you meet?

WM: CBC had a budget in those days when we did our weekly show so they could afford big names. I’ve got pictures of me with Johnny Cash, Mother Maybel Carter, The Carter Family, Waylon Jennings, Pat Boone, Roger Miller.

MM: Were they good people?

WM: They were all very nice. Waylon Jennings was stoned out of his brain all the time. Whenever he came out of his dressing room I could smell the smoke. Johnny Cash was the nicest guy. I have a picture of me and Johnny together; I’m playing the banjo for him. Those are the little treasures I’ve kept over the years.

MM: When did you come to Canada?

WM: 1957. I was about 17.

MM: On your own?

WM: No with the whole family. Three years later my mother promptly left — homesick. I went back to Ireland four times, the last time I went, before I was married to Catherine, I restored an old Georgian house and I became the Lord of the Manor. I had a big old stone house. I had a Connemara pony with a beautiful little trap with two wheels and brass lights on it and I’d ride around the countryside, like right out of The Quiet Man.

MM: When was this?

WM: 1970-1973.

MM: How did you do the show?

WM: I’d fly back and forward. Unfortunately, that was the time of the Troubles. The bloody bombs were going off every time I went into Belfast. I said, “why did I pick this time in my life to come back to this country.? It’s insane.” Should have went to the south of Ireland where it was much quieter but oh no, I went back to the roots, to the home.

MM: How did you meet your wife?

WM: I was heading down to Hawaii. Our old record producer lived in Hawaii and I just wanted to get away. When I got to the airport, I saw this very pretty girl in a line-up and I wrote in my journal — before I’d ever met her — that I’d just seen the most beautiful girl. And then there she was sitting with my old girlfriend. I asked where they were going and they said they were going to stay with this pilot on Waikiki and they weren’t sure what this guy was like, and could maybe they stay with me. My little heart was pounding. So my big lie was I said, ‘Yeah I’ve got this big house on the beach.’ I didn’t think they would. Later that night they phoned and said, ‘This pilot’s a bit weird. Can we come stay with you?’ I got off the phone and I said to my producer’s wife I need a house for this week. She knew a real estate guy in Kona so she phoned him and he said — as fate would have it — a family just cancelled their house so I have a house on the beach. It was exactly like I had explained it, even with the palm trees with the hammock.

MM: You predicted your own future.

WM: I did. I got into that house and scattered all my stuff about.

MM: You kept up the lie?

WM: I did. I was well entrenched in my oceanfront home. It cost me over $1,000 but I didn’t care. I wrote poetry and love songs. One week I spent with Catherine and I was absolutely smitten with her. She’s the sweetest woman in the world. She hasn’t got a bad bone in her body — unlike the Irish.

MM: She stayed anyway.

WM: She did indeed.

MM: When did you two get married?

WM: 1980. And our boy was born in PEI in 1981. The summer I met Catherine, I was playing in Charlottetown. I went down there and met an Irish folk group who took me around the province. They showed me an old house right out of an Andrew Wyatt painting. Nobody living in it. Stark. On a cliff. No trees around it, 15 acres of shoreline. Found out it was owned by a doctor in Boston. Phoned him. $35,000. I bought the house.

MM: What did Catherine think of you moving there?

WM: She came out with me for the summer. I was just longing for her to be with me. She sat there making up a daisy chain and I said I want to come out and live here. And she said, ‘I love P.E.I.’ Who would have thought it? We were out there four or five years a before we got married.

MM: When did you leave P.E.I.?

WM: Left in 1982 to go to Vancouver. The winters were so dreadful we just could not cope with them anymore. And then when the summers came even thought we had lots of fun there, mosquitoes were so bad we couldn’t go out at night. I was travelling back and forth to Vancouver from P.E.I.; that’s where the boys were at that time. So I said, ‘You know what, let’s go.’ We found a little house in White Rock. Eventually we moved to Brentwood Bay and then we were drawn here.

MM: Why the Cowichan Valley?

WM: We were living on the ocean, down at another old house, in Brentwood Bay. It was a wonderful old place but it became like millionaire’s row, and the taxes were going sky high. I’ve been all over the world and this is it; this is wonderful. Then, of all things, three old ladies arrived one day in a van. They were from California. They said they were little girls in this house. Their grandparents built this house when they came from Orknay, in the north of Scotland, and their name was Flett. And I looked at Catherine, my wife. She said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but my grandparents are from Orknay and my grandmother’s name was Flett.’

MM: Get out.

WM: I swear to God; I got goosebumps. Of all the places in the world we could find.

MM: How was travelling and being an entertainer and a parent?

WM: It was hard on my wife in the busy years. And the winters came down in P.E.I. so early and lasted so long. My poor wife was a flight attendant with Canadian Airlines and all of a sudden she was alone. I was away all the time and she was living in this old, old farmhouse — we always had old houses —with a little baby boy. Luckily we had good friends who came and rescued her now and again. A hard life. And you know the great thing about it was, when I quit in 1995, the endless touring, it was getting more busy. Instead, I was able to get my easel out. I’ve always painted, and I was able to start painting.

MM: You’ve always painted?

WM: Ever since I was a child. Even when I was on the road with the band. After I got over all the drinking and the chasing girls era of being a young musician, I used to carry big drawing pads with me, and pencils and watercolour brushes. We got sued by a hotel somewhere because ‘who do they think they are a rock and roll band they trashed my motel room by spray painting it?’ They wanted $4,000. I had oil paint in a glass jar and I had cleaned my brush and it fell and splashed all over the drapes and the carpet. I was rushing for the airport and I tried to clean it as best I could. I used to travel on the road with paints and drawing. It was my kind of relief from touring.

MM: I painted a little painting once — I’m not a painter at all — but I really enjoyed it. It was two hours...

WM: ...and it feels like two minutes. The great thing about it was you were lost in the world. And that’s what happens to me with each and every painting, and I’ve done hundreds of paintings. I’m kind of a hyper person and, typical Irish, you hold grudges. But when I started painting, I painted an Ireland that doesn’t exist anymore. The Ireland I paint is of the ‘50s, and it’s old men making potcheen whisky. When I paint, it’s a perfect meditation for me. I say to people ‘if you learn how to paint, it’s the greatest stress reliever.’ Churchill said that. My art has been the savings of me.

MM: How do you feel now that it’s 50 years on and you’re not part of the band?

WM: I sometimes have pangs about it when I see they’re off on a tour and I think, ‘I should be in that tour,’ you know? Because I’ve gotten good success with my art, and I’m antsy. I couldn’t sit. I have to be doing something, whether I write a book, or paint a picture, or sing a song.

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