When Neil Young & Rick “Super Freak” James Formed the 60’s Motown Band, The Mynah Birds

At the height of Motown’s pow­ers in the 1960s they were set­ting trends, not chas­ing them, but even that record com­pa­ny fell under the spell of the British Inva­sion. Sure, the juke­box R’n’B sin­gles that made their way across the Atlantic were in the DNA of The Bea­t­les, Rolling Stones, and the Who, but in the mid’60’s the label decid­ed they need­ed a beat group of their own. That’s how one of the weird­est tales of pop music unfold­ed, and would have stayed a tiny foot­note if it weren’t for the future fame of two of the Mynah Birds’ mem­bers: funk over­lord Rick James and folk-rock­er-noise­mak­er Neil Young.

Yes, for a brief peri­od of time they were in the same band togeth­er in Toron­to, Cana­da, part of an explod­ing beat group scene that was most­ly all white. “I was an authen­tic R&B singer liv­ing in a city where white musi­cians were striv­ing to play authen­tic R&B,” Rick James wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy quot­ed in Bandsplaining’s above video. “That added to my sta­tus. It also got me laid.”

James Ambrose John­son Jr., had been in Cana­da for two years already, hav­ing escaped the Viet­nam draft by flee­ing north in 1964. Saved from a bar brawl by future mem­bers of The Band, Lev­on Helm and Garth Hud­son, he entered the music scene and adopt­ed the name Ricky Matthews, as a way to hide his iden­ti­ty. The Mynah Birds began in 1964 and even put out a sin­gle on Colum­bia that went nowhere. They tried (and failed) again in 1965, with an ever-chang­ing line-up. Ricky Matthews though, remained the dynam­ic lead singer.

Enter Neil Young. As Rick James tells it, he was look­ing to change their sound and he saw Neil Young play­ing in a cof­fee­house and asked him to join. (James’ rec­ol­lec­tion is in the above video.) How­ev­er, Kevin Plum­mer in the Toron­toist has a dif­fer­ent ver­sion:

One day—most like­ly in the fall of 1965, but some say in ear­ly 1966—Young was walk­ing down Yorkville Avenue with an amp on his shoul­der. As he passed, Palmer struck up a con­ver­sa­tion. The Mynah Birds were, once again, with­out a lead gui­tarist, so he asked Young to join—despite the fact that Young only owned the twelve-string acoustic. “I had to eat,” Young is quot­ed in John Einarson’s Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied (Quar­ry Press, 1992). “I need­ed a job and it seemed like a good thing to do. I still liked play­ing and I liked Bruce so I went along. There was no pres­sure on me. It was the first time that I was in a band where I wasn’t call­ing the shots.”

As Young and James were soon to share a base­ment apart­ment and a whole lot of drugs, the par­tic­i­pants can be for­giv­en for their hazy mem­o­ries.

The video also con­flates their sven­gali (John Craig Eaton, a depart­ment store heir who bankrolled the band and gave them rehearsal space) with their man­ag­er (folk singer and fan Mor­ley Shel­man). Whether it was Eaton, Shel­man, or just luck, with­in two months of hav­ing Young in the band, and a rep­u­ta­tion for wild, amphet­a­mine-dri­ven concerts—the band had signed a sev­en-year con­tract with Motown, the first most­ly-white act to do so.

Neil Young remem­bered the first album ses­sions in an inter­view with Cameron Crowe:

We went in and record­ed five or six nights, and if we need­ed some­thing, or if they thought we weren’t strong enough, a cou­ple of Motown singers would just walk right in. And they’d Motown us! A cou­ple of ’em would be right there, and they’d sing the part. They’d just appear and we’d all do it togeth­er. If some­body wasn’t con­fi­dent or didn’t have it, they didn’t say, ‘Well, let’s work on this.’ Some guy would just come in who had it. Then every­body was groov­ing. And an amaz­ing thing happened—we sound­ed hot. And all of a sud­den it was Motown. That’s why all those records sound­ed like that.

Rick James was wor­ried about enter­ing the States and being arrest­ed for avoid­ing the draft. But in Detroit he was safe. It was when he returned that the trou­ble began—he dis­cov­ered that Shel­man had appar­ent­ly spent their advance on a fan­cy new motor­bike and a not-so-fan­cy hero­in habit. A fight broke out and Shel­man retal­i­at­ed by rat­ting James out. James turned him­self in to the Amer­i­can author­i­ties and the Mynah Birds’ career—at least the James/Young version—ended. Only four of the tracks record­ed for the album were ever released, two at the time as a sin­gle, the oth­er two in 2006 as part of a Rhi­no Records Motown ret­ro­spec­tive. More are rumored to exist but they remain hid­den away in a vault at best, destroyed at worst.

Young would move to Cal­i­for­nia soon after and join Buf­fa­lo Spring­field. James, once out of jail, would make his way back into the record­ing indus­try, iron­i­cal­ly return­ing to Motown. Band mem­bers Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas would form Step­pen­wolf. And through it all, James and Young remained friends.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Visu­al­iz­ing the Bass Play­ing Style of Motown’s Icon­ic Bassist James Jamer­son: “Ain’t No Moun­tain High Enough,” “For Once in My Life” & More

Catch Ste­vie Won­der, Ages 12–16, in His Ear­li­est TV Per­for­mances

Neil Young Releas­es a Nev­er-Before-Heard Ver­sion of His 1979 Clas­sic, “Pow­derfin­ger”: Stream It Online

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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