Neil Young and Rick James
Funk legend Rick James, the flashy Motown Records artist best known for his 1981 hit 'Super Freak,' died on August 7, 2004 at age 56.
While much is known about James' "Super Freak" period, relatively little is known about the period during the 1960's when he formed a band known as the Mynah Birds with Neil Young, Goldie McJohn (later of Steppenwolf) and Bruce Palmer (later of Buffalo Springfield).
The name of the band Mynah Birds was apparently a takeoff of the well known folk-rock band The Byrds.
In an interview with Neil Young in MOJO Magazine in 1995, Neil was asked about a 1965 Mynah Birds album being recorded which never was released.
YOUNG: "Yeah, there are tapes of me and The Mynah Birds also. After I arrived in Toronto I tried to keep my band going and then tried to work with several others. But it just never worked out for me there. I could never get anything going in Toronto, never even got one gig with a band. I just couldn't break into that scene. So I moved instead towards acoustic music and immediately became very introspective and musically-inward. That's the beginning of that whole side of my music."
The origin of the band name is somewhat disputed. Some have claimed that it was a takeoff of on The Byrds. Another story goes that Rick James partnered with a Yorkville (Toronto Canada area) pet store which sold Mynah birds. As a promotion, the Mynah Birds dressed in yellow boots, black leather jackets and yellow turtlenecks as an advertisment for the pet shop. (See Toronto Star.)
In Jimmy McDonough's definitive Neil Young biography "Shakey", "James, fancied himself the next Mick Jagger, a claim particularly ironic since he was black, although as Bruce Palmer told Scott Young, "as far as we knew he was white then."
"The Mynah Birds -- in black leather jackets, yellow turtlenecks and boots -- had quite a surreal scene going. The band was financed by John Craig Eaton of the Eaton's department-store dynasty. Legend has it he poured money into the band, establishing a bottomless account for the band's equipment needs.
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.'
Unfortunately, everything screeched to a halt when James was busted in the studio for being AWOL from the navy. "We thought he was Canadian," said Palmer. "Even though there are no Negroes in Canada." A single, "It's My Time," was allegedly pulled the day of release, and the album recordings were shelved and remain unreleased to this day."
When author McDonough asked Neil Young what it was like to work with Rick James, Young replied:
YOUNG: "Intense. Ricky was great. He was a little bit touchy, dominating -- but a good guy. Had a lot of talent. Really wanted to make it bad. Runnin' from the draft.
I wasn't a driving force behind the Mynah Birds - I was the lead guitar player, Ricky was the front man. He's out there doin' all that shit and I was back there playin' a little rhythm, a little lead, groovin'along with my bro Bruce. We were havin'a good time.
Rick James was really into the Stones. "Get Off My Cloud," "Satisfaction," "Can I Get a Witness" - all these songs we used to do. We got more and more into how cool the Stones were. How simple they were and how cool it was.
We were the only white band at Motown."
From Ear Candy Magazine's Mynah Birds Part II- Rock 'N Roll Case Study:
"[The Mynah Birds] rescue came in the form of an unlikely figure - struggling folkie, Neil Young. As Bruce Palmer remembers the fortuitous meeting, he was walking down Yorkville Avenue when he ran into Young, carrying his acoustic guitar and balancing an amp on his head, coming in the opposite direction. After exchanging pleasantries, Palmer invited Young to join the band. It seemed a ridiculous decision introducing an acoustic player into a rhythm and blues outfit. But by combining Young's folk inflected guitar and Matthews' R&B vocals, the Mynah Birds, as noted rock historian John Einarson aptly put it, successfully bridged the two Toronto styles - Yorkville Village's folk and Yonge Street's R&B. Mason, who says he never got along with the band's new guitarist, remembers Young's first job with the band - the Inferno, a club on Toronto's east side. 'They put rubber gym mats out for us to play on! The first song we go to do, Neil goes up to do his lead and unplugs his guitar. He plays the whole lead without his guitar plugged in. Didn't even know what he was doing.'"
The brief period of the Mynah Birds is recalled in the song "Big Time" on the album Broken Arrow. From an analysis of the lyrics of Neil Young's 'Big Time' from The I Magazine:
"Autobiographical, "Big Time" calls upon the spirit of the past and twists it to now. In the first verse Young simply unwinds his own beginnings. 'Gonna leave the pain behind, Gonna leave the fools in line, Gonna take the magic potion. Gettin' in an old black car, Gonna take a ride so far, To the land of suntan lotion. Gonna take it state by state, Until I hit the golden gate, Get my feet wet in the ocean.'
The devout will recognise the setting and the story, but for those who don't ... In 1965, Young recorded an acoustic demo for Elektra Records featuring early versions of Sugar Mountain and Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing but wasn't offered a contract by the label. Returning to Toronto, Young played the same Yorkville district coffeehouse circuit as fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell before he joined The Mynah Birds, a Toronto-based band led by singer Ricky James Matthews (later to be known as Rick James who would go on to have several smash dance hits, in particular Super Freak, a song which would later heavily influence Prince).
The Mynah Birds recorded several songs for Motown Records (the first white band to ever be signed by the label)in Detroit that were never released. During one of these recording sessions, James was arrested and charged with deserting the U.S. Navy. The Mynah Birds flew apart when James was forced to complete his tour of duty. Only one song ever saw the light of day: Mynah Bird Hop on Columbia Canada."
The Mynah Birds recorded 16 songs and signed a seven-year contract with Motwon Records. From a book by John Einarson titled Neil Young`s Canadian Years there is a mention of the legendary Mynah Birds sessions: "A listen to the tapes years later reveals no trace of Neil's characteristic guitar or vocals."
Bummer. Rest in Peace, Ricky.
Also see Rick James links on biography and reviews and Rick James on Wikipedia.
rcmh2004_bow_cuFriends of Neil Young
Jammin' with Neil Young
A Neil Young Music Blog tracing His Influence from alt-country to Grunge
Thrasher's Wheat - A Neil Young Archives
Source: Rick James and Neil Young