The legacy of Rick James, who died in 2004, may be forever entwined with Dave Chappelle’s insane impersonations and MC Hammer’s use of “Super Freak,” but there is another major star whose onetime association with James has been obscured in music history. I’m talking about Neil Young, who once played guitar in a Toronto R&B group called The Mynah Birds, the first mostly white band signed to Motown Records in the mid-60s. The band’s lead singer? A young AWOL American sailor who went by the name of Ricky James Matthews, later Rick James. Before James went full-on funk and Young invented folk-rock, the two connected in this proto-supergroup that included, writes rock historian Nick Warburton, “several notable musicians who later found fame with the likes of Buffalo Springfield and Steppenwolf.” “It would be a gross oversight,” writes Warburton, “to view the group as merely a footnote to Rick James and Neil Young’s careers.”
It would also be a mistake to consider The Mynah Birds a minor league outfit. As you can hear above in “I’ve Got You In My Soul” (top), “It’s My Time” (above—co-written by Young and James), and “I’ll Wait Forever” (below), this was serious rock and roll, with a loose, garage-rock jangle and raw, soulful vocal melodies. The Mynah Birds were also, according to Jimmy McDonough, serious showmen. McDonough describes their onstage presence in his Neil Young biography Shakey:
The Mynah Birds—in black leather jackets, yellow turtlenecks and boots—had quite a surreal scene going…. Those lucky enough to see any of the band’s few gigs say they were electrifying. ‘Neil would stop playing lead, do a harp solo, throw the harmonica way up in the air and Ricky would catch it and continue the solo.’
This is a far cry from the scruffy, earnest Young of Harvest or CSNY or even the Les Paul-wielding jam-rocker of Crazy Horse and his 90s grunge revival period (and more recent Psychedelic Pill). But the folky leads in his guitar work with James’ band hint at his later incarnations.
Is it a stretch to imagine James fronting a band of white Canadian rockers? Young remembers the driven American singer—who crossed the border to avoid his draft assignment—as “a little bit touchy, dominating—but a good guy.” He also told McDonough that James was drawn primarily to the sound of the Rolling Stones, and brought the rest of the band around: “We got more and more into how cool the Stones were. How simple they were and how cool it was.” James had them play “Get Off My Cloud” and “Satisfaction”—before the braids, cocaine, and sequins, Rick James “fancied himself the next Mick Jagger.”
Unfortunately for the band, U.S. authorities caught up with James, Motown shelved the tapes, and they were never released. Discouraged—Young told MOJO Magazine in 1995—he “moved instead towards acoustic music and immediately became very introspective and musically-inward. That’s the beginning of that whole side to my music.” Young got in his hearse and headed for the States, James did his stint in the Navy, and the rest is, well, you know…. But the sound of The Mynah Birds lived on, perhaps, in at least one Neil Young song. His 1967 “Mr. Soul” with Buffalo Springfield, below, is classic sixties rock and soul with a riff lifted right from the Stones.