Monday, May 9, 2011

Former Irish Rover puts down the penny whistle to pick up the paintbrush

Will Millar (far left) and the Irish Rovers in 1966, a few months before they hit No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "The Unicorn."

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 9, 2011


The voice is immediately recognizable, delivered in a lilt familiar from hit records and eight seasons on television variety shows.

Will Millar’s tongue betrays his County Antrim roots more than a half-century after his family left Northern Ireland to seek opportunity in Canada.

Back when the Beatles and psychedelia dominated the music charts, Mr. Millar and his fellow Irish Rovers cracked the Billboard Hot 100 with a whimsical song about the building of Noah’s Ark.

“The Unicorn” rose to No. 7, as the folk quintet, including his brother, George, sold more than a million copies of a song referencing “humpty-back camels and chimpanzees.”

The hit was followed by other successful albums, resulting in the launch, in 1971, of a popular eponymous show on CBC TV, a format revived a decade later for international syndication. The exposure made famous the face and voice of Mr. Millar, familiar for his red beard, workingman’s cap, and 5-foot-1 stature. A puckish stage presence was made more pronounced when he occasionally dressed in green to perform as a leprechaun.

Mr. Millar left the band in 1995, retiring to a bucolic setting near Duncan, where he has, for the most part, put down the penny whistle and picked up the paint brush.

His paintings offer a romantic and nostalgic view of an Ireland he acknowledges exists now mostly in memory.
Will Millar in concert.

“The Ireland I paint and the ireland I sung about are one and the same,” he said. “We sang about fine whiskey and beautiful colleens and great Irish thoroughbred racehorses.

“I paint the old pubs. I paint the old characters drinking pints of Guinness. And now I’m one of the old characters. I’ve got to go back to keep the culture alive!”

On his last journey home to Ballymena, about 35 kilometres northwest of Belfast, he discovered to his dismay that the mill that employed four generations of Millars had been replaced by a shopping mall. His old local not only had a name change but the woman pulling pints hailed from a land beyond.

“All the old Irish tinkers that I’ve painted and sang about all my life are now Romanian gypsies,” he noted. It was not a complaint.

Mr. Millar left Sunday for the old country, where a gallery in the nearby town of Ballymoney will soon begin selling his works.

The irrepressible artist takes great pride in his hometown, explaining the name Ballymena is Irish for “town in the middle.” (And what of Ballymoney? “I’m not quite sure. I’m hoping it means town of money.”) Ballymena is the ancestral home of Timothy Eaton, who left Ireland to build a retail empire in his own name in his adopted Canadian homeland. It is also the birthplace of the actor Liam Neeson, whose father operated a public house a short stagger from the Millar home.

“Many a time my da’ played the button accordion in Neeson’s pub,” he said.

The old man’s instrument now rests in a corner of the house in Duncan. He regrets not knowing how to play it.

The family, save for an older sister, emigrated to Canada when Will was 15. They settled in Toronto, where they were mentored by the family of Alan Eagleson, who later became a prominent figure in the hockey world before suffering the disgrace of pleading guilty to fraud.

As a young man, Mr. Millar rejected the music of his homeland in favour of a sound he found more exotic and exciting. It is a tale he has told to Boon Collins, a writer and film director with whom he has written a script.

“The Banana Boat Song” is an “Irish Billy Elliot story — the misadventures of one young boy who was mad for calypso playing steel pan band.” The freckled and red-haired Will joined West Indian musicians in the Tropitones, Toronto’s only steel pan band, which had a regular gig at the Calypso Club on Yonge Street. He even performed in Trinidad and Tobago.

Only after his unlikely Caribbean adventures did Mr. Millar get invited to join the fledgling Irish Rovers. He was hosting a children’s television show in Calgary at the time. The band played the Depression coffeehouse, where Joni Mitchell also got her start, before heading to California. They performed at The Purple Onion in San Francisco, got signed by Decca Records and appeared in three episodes of television’s The Virginian as musical bankrobbers. The release of “The Unicorn” made them famous.

At 71, he was returned to his first passion, as his mother had saved shillings to by him his first paint set as a young boy. In those days, he’d thin his oil paints by dipping his brush into the oil lamp that lit the house. Sometimes, he’d chew the end of long wooden matchstick for use as a modified paintbrush.

He now lives in a century-old cottage from which he sells art cards, paintings, books, talking books, and compact discs of his recent recordings. He is literally a one-man cottage industry.

No comments: