When Neil Young & Rick James Created the 60’s Motown Band, The Mynah Birds

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Great Sto­ry: How Neil Young Intro­duced His Clas­sic 1972 Album Har­vest to Gra­ham Nash

Neil Young Busk­ing in Glas­gow, 1976: The Sto­ry Behind the Footage

See Neil Young Per­form Clas­sic Songs in 1971 BBC Con­cert: “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • susie says:

    I knew about Young’s Motown con­nec­tion, but I had nev­er actu­al­ly lis­tened to the Mynah Birds before now. Liked it. It’s got a grit­ty “North­ern Soul” vibe. The Stones could not have done bet­ter.

  • Cynthia Scully says:

    First heard of The Mynah­birds on a soap called Days of Our Lives..when they men­tioned Neil Young & Rick James I came to atten­tion. The band is good,and a pleas­ant sur­prise ! Who would have thunk it ?

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