Before Neil Young and Rick James would go on to become household names in their own right, the two first met in Toronto in 1965 and then joined a Motown band called The Mynah Birds. If it wasn’t for an untimely arrest, this forgotten band could have gone down on the Mount Rushmore of rock and roll history. However, that wasn’t to be the case and the careers of the two men veered off in opposite directions.
When the two met, Young was a young troubadour touring Canada as a solo artist. While he was playing in Toronto, a chance encounter with Bruce Palmer—who he would go on to form Buffalo Springfield with Young—would see the folk singer join forces with the bassist and soul singer, Rick James, as part of The Mynah Birds. The union, which was a freak coincidence, combines three legendary musicians would happen to be in the same place. Young, however, just happened to be in the right city at the right time as James, who had recently fled to Toronto, was attempting to escape being draft into the U.S. Navy as a late teenager.
James, performing under the pseudonym of Ricky James Matthews at the time, was trying to shy away from joining up with the U.S. Navy after a string of convictions as a teenager for theft. After continuously missing his twice-monthly reserve sessions, James then found himself ordered to serve in Vietnam and then came to the conclusion that fleeing to Toronto in the swinging sixties to start a band was a superior option.
Following bassist Bruce Palmer recruiting Young into The Mynah Birds, they would shortly go on to being signed by the famous Motown Records. However, things didn’t turn out as planned due to circumstances and no full-length release album would ever see the light of day. The band’s sound was a unique fusion of James’ Motown background with Young and Palmer’s garage rock which created a sonic formula—one that should have gone on to make them one of the defining artists of the era.
Neil Young’s biographer, Jimmy McDonough, once commented 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.”
The Rolling Stones were, perhaps unsurprisingly, a huge influence on the group at the time. More specifically, it has to be said, on Rick James who seemed to regularly draw comparisons to Jagger. Young professed this about the Stones years later in Shakey: “We got more and more into how cool the Stones were. How simple they were and how cool it was.”
Things would then turn sour in 1966 when the band’s manager apparently ‘lost’ their advance money from Motown and was fired in return for the mishap. Following an argument with the band over finances, the manager then informed Motown that James was AWOL from the Navy. The singer was then taken into custody and incarcerated by the Navy, an incident that led Motown to scrap plans to release a Mynah Birds album.
Remarkably, Palmer would later admit that the band had ‘thought he was Canadian’ which made the truth behind James’ past come as a complete surprise. Following the singer’s incarceration, Young and Palmer were clueless as to what to do next. Then, on a whim, they decided to pack their bags, sell their belongings and drive to Los Angeles—a decision which led to Buffalo Springfield being born.
Below, stream an example of some early Mynah Bird recordings.