The late Rick James and Neil Young are two bonafide heroes of music, but, it’s no understatement to say that their divine sounds come from polar opposite ends of the spectrum. While James has become known for his incessantly funky numbers, Young’s a straight rock ‘n’ roller. However, despite the chasmic differences between the two, there was a time when these two men somehow found themselves in an R&B group together and even penned one of the definitive Motown classics.
For a short time, the two men even lived together to make this union even more bizarre. This short but sweet time that they spent as bandmates resulted from utter coincidence and strange circumstances. In the mid-60s, Neil Young was a young roving artist living the troubadour dream, travelling town to town at his own pace throughout Canada and learning his craft. In Toronto, his new-friend Bruce Palmer persuaded Young to stay and even recruited Old Shakey to join his band, The Mynah Birds.
The Mynah Birds were an R&B infused rock ‘n’ roll group that was not dissimilar from the brand of music that The Rolling Stones had perfected on the other side of the Atlantic, and the Canadian group had their own Mick Jagger. Young commented about the Stones’ influence on the group, years later in Shakey: “We got more and more into how cool the Stones were. How simple they were and how cool it was.”
At the point of Young’s arrival, they were fronted by the eccentric Ricky James Matthews, who would, of course, go on to have an iconic career under the moniker of Rick James. Matthews ended up in Canada after going AWOL in a desperate bid to avoid joining up with the US Navy. As a teenager, he built up a string of convictions for various low-level crimes that put him on authorities’ radar. After continuously missing his twice-monthly reserve sessions, James landed himself in a spot of bother after being ordered to serve in Vietnam. Rather than do that, he fled to Toronto and ended up fronting The Mynah Birds, but not even his bandmates knew about his backstory.
Neil Young’s biographer, Jimmy McDonough, vividly described the band’s image in his book Shakey, “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.”
There was a brief time in 1966 when Young and James were flatmates in Toronto. This time remains an experience that is foggy to the singer-songwriter all these decades later. Speaking about that hedonistic filled time to Howard Stern, Young recalled, “We did some wild things. It’s all very hazy to me now. I’m glad I made it through that stage. It got a little dicey. There were some drugs going on. I remember singing one song for about a day and a half.”
The Mynah Birds would release the double A-side, ‘The Mynah Bird Hop’/’The Mynah Bird Song’ on Columbia and then managed to get a deal with Motown off the back of that single’s success. However, their story didn’t take long to turn sour. In 1966, their manager somehow ‘lost’ their advance money from Motown and the band didn’t waste any time getting rid of him.
After his dismissal, the manager then let slip to Motown about James and how he was AWOL from the Navy. The singer was quickly then taken into custody and incarcerated by the Navy, an incident that led Motown to scrap plans to release a Mynah Birds album.
Palmer would staggeringly admit years later that he and his bandmates were completely oblivion to James’ backstory and said they all ‘thought he was Canadian’. Following James leaving the country, Young and Palmer found themselves at a loose end. Without much thought, they decided to pack their bags, sell their belongings and leave town with a new bright future in Los Angeles entrenched on their minds.
This decision would lead to the two men founding Buffalo Springfield, and James’ talent thankfully got the appreciation it deserved eventually too.