(Pictured: the Irish Rovers, circa 1968.)
One St. Patrick’s Day, my boss took me out for dinner at a bar owned by his wife’s family, and I got loaded on green beer. (I don’t recommend it.) Another year, the station’s jocks were scheduled to walk in our town’s St. Pat’s parade, dressed in green-trimmed tuxedos and handing out green-tinted carnations. However, a strong thunderstorm rolled through just as the parade was lining up. We got caught in it, trying to take refuge at one point under the overhanging back end of the nearby Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. (I don’t recommend that, either.) Although the parade went on after a delay, it went on without the four of us, who had gone back to the station to wring out our rented suits.
I don’t have any other St. Patrick’s Day memories, and the most Irish thing about me is all the Van Morrison records I own. But I’m not writing about Van today.
In 1966, the Irish Rovers, a group of Irish and Scottish immigrants to Canada, parleyed their Canadian fame as folksingers into American success, with dates at the fabled Purple Onion in San Francisco and other clubs. Two years later, just after St. Patrick’s Day 1968, “The Unicorn” (written by Shel Silverstein and featuring Los Angeles session man Glen Campbell on guitar) hit the Hot 100, eventually rising to #7 around Memorial Day, sharing the the Top 10 with “Tighten Up,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” The album from whence it came, also titled The Unicorn, went to #24, featuring Irish folk songs such as “Black Velvet Band” and “The Orange and the Green,” as well as songs written by the Rovers themselves. A followup album, All Hung Up, came out in the fall of ’68. Both “The Puppet Song (Whiskey on a Sunday)” and “The Biplane, Ever More” were released as singles, but reached only #75 and #91 respectively.
Despite their lack of continuing success on the record charts, the Irish Rovers were all over American TV for a couple of years. They did lots of variety and talk shows, but also appeared on The Virginian as musical bank robbers and even on The Dating Game. It wasn’t long, however, before the Irish Rovers went home to Canada, where they hosted series and specials on Canadian TV in the 70s and 80s. The group would make one more appearance on the American charts. They were billing themselves as the Rovers by then, and after the novelty song “Wasn’t That a Party” became an enormous hit in Canada at the end of 1980, it started crossing the border, and squeaked to #37 on the Hot 100 in May 1981.
In the decades since, the Irish Rovers have continued to perform and record, as ambassadors of Canadian culture and promoters of traditional Irish music. The current edition of the group is still on the road today, doing a 50th anniversary tour with dates in the United States this month. Two original members remain, George Millar and Wilcil McDowell.
If you are elderly enough, you probably know “The Unicorn,” and possibly “Wasn’t That a Party.” You may not know “The Puppet Song (Whiskey on a Sunday),” but you should—it’s a lovely thing, with a folk sound that was a throwback even in 1968.
My parents bought both The Unicorn and All Hung Up, probably in 1969, and before we had our own records, my brother and I frequently played theirs. So I know the words to far more traditional Irish songs than you’d expect from a guy who is mostly Norwegian. Nearly 50 years later, they’re another powerful memory trigger, back to a house that was usually full of music . . . of all kinds.
(Rebooted from a post originally appearing in 2008.)