Rock 'N Roll Case Study: The Mynah Birds
This is the fifth essay in our new column called "Rock 'N Roll Case Study". Scot Livingston examines the Mynah Birds, the group that once consisted of Rick "Superfreak" James and Neil "Southern Man" Young.
The Mynah Birds
By Scot Livingston
Right: The Mynah Birds circa 1965. Nick St. Nicholas is 2nd from right. Ricky Matthews is in the center. Goldy McJohn is at bottom right.
Who were the Mynah Birds?
An interracial Canadian R&B group that recorded 16 songs for Motown in 1966. However, when it was discovered that American lead singer, Ricky Matthews, was in fact AWOL from the US Navy, the Motown dumped the band from its contract and the record was never released.
A sad story of an almost-was. While interesting to its participants, hardly worth noting on its own. After all, the annals of rock'n'roll history are littered with stories of bands that almost made it, but didn't. You've got to figure that for every one-hit wonder you barely remember there's got to be a thousand no hit wonders you'll never hear of. Not that some of them are talented - or at least have personalities and anecdotes to wow the most jaded "Behind The Music" producer. What makes the Mynah Birds stand out from this throng?
Well, consider what happened to the various Mynah Birds after this whole Motown fiasco. Original keyboardist Goldie McJohn and bass player Nick St. Nicholas (and if those aren't the two most unfortunate names in rock this side of Norman Greenbaum) went on to join the equally aviary Jack London and the Sparrows. Which later replaced Jack London with German born John Kay. Changing their name to Steppenwolf, the group went on to record such '60s rock anthems as "Magic Carpet Ride" and "Born To Be Wild"
While replacement bass player, Bruce Palmer convinced the latest Mynah Bird guitarist to sell their equipment, buy a hearse and drive out to LA. Where they nearly quite literally ran into Stephen Stills and Richie Furay, and decided to form the Buffalo Springfield. Yes the guitarist's name was Neil Young.
That alone should've elevated the Mynah Birds to historical footnote status, much like say the Sparrows or the Squires (Neil's first band) But what happened to Neil Young's one-time roommate, Ricky Matthews? Born James Johnson, the nephew of original Temptation Milt Franklin, after serving his time (and not for the last time) Ricky continued to work for Motown. Writing and producing for The Spinners and Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers (as well as appearing on Bruce Palmer's lone solo album) before eventually picking up the bass himself. Then in 1978 he finally began recording for himself, pioneering the new sound of punk-funk, and recording such hits as "Give It To Me Baby" and "Superfreak". And yes, Ricky Matthews once again changed his name - this time to Rick James.
So there you have it. Rick "Superfreak" James and Neil "Southern Man" Young were in a band together. How weird is that? Of course, I have a perverse sense of humor so this little known band has always been of interest to me. Then again, my favorite Neil Young albums were always the ones he did during the eighties when Geffen Records sued him for not sounding enough like Neil Young.
But generally their music has not been sought out the way other non-appearing albums such as the Beach Boys' SMiLE or Prince's THE BLACK ALBUM. For one thing Rick James fans tend not to be too big on Neil Young, and vice-versa. Besides if it was really that great, Motown could've done something about Ricky's military status. Or at least the album would've released eventually - if not when originally anticipated, than at least afterwards, when everybody was famous. But quite frankly nobody's ever heard the Mynah Birds' album - which did have a serial number attached (MS-697) but as far as I've been able to determine, no title or cover art. In fact, all facts about the Mynah Birds are hard to uncover. Song titles. Photos. Everything has been pretty much forgotten. Not that any of the participants are particularly embarrassed with their association with each other. But rather it’s the artists' typical disdain for their own juvenilia that keeps them from talking about it. Although Rick James gets asked a lot more often than say Neil, because really what else are you going to interview Rick James about after, "How do you feel about MC Hammer?" and "What did you learn in prison?"
But what did the Mynah Birds really sound like? It's hard to say. In these days, when pretty much everything has been bootlegged, I have been completely stymied to find anyone who knows what this album sounded like? The one track that Napster substitute, Audio Galaxy says they have available, "I Wonder", is in fact a tune recorded by Neil's first band, The Squires. Does it sound like Neil's final chameleon album of the '80s? , THIS NOTE'S FOR YOU, an R&B-jump blues-swing concoction featuring a seven piece horn section? Unlikely. Neil was not the lead singer or even wrote that many songs. In fact only one "I'll Wait Forever" was copyrighted May 2nd, 1966 to Neil Young, Ricky Matthews, Dean Taylor, and Mike Valvano, though Neil does remember writing another one with Ricky entitled "It's My Time". There has been talk that the relative unavailability of the Mynah Birds material is in fact due to the fact that the tapes were mis-labeled in the Motown vaults. Although, everyone seems fairly confident that the master do still exist. One musicologist claims to have even discovered them in the vaults and found that Neil's vocals were be heard and that his distinctive guitar is mixed so low as to be indistinguishable. But will we ever hear them? Neil's constantly talked about and never worked on box set is rumored to include a couple tracks - but so far, nothing. Yes, it's sad to say, but I wrote this whole piece about a band that I have not heard one note from.
But what little interest the album does generate doesn't quite qualify as kitsch either, like say William Shatner of Danny Bonaduce's albums. I mean they were signed to Motown. But what did the music sound like? It probably wasn't a magic carpet ride with Mr. Soul and a very freaky girl ... the kind you don't bring home to mother. It's doubtful that Motown would've signed something like that back in 1966. In fact it's doubtful that Motown would sign something like that even today. Reports describe the group as a fairly R&B for a rock band, but fairly rock for a Motown group. In fact it was one of the first primarily white bands ever signed by Motown, so it's doubtful they suffered as much resistance as the equally unreleased and interracial Rising Sons (featuring Taj Mahal and John Fogerty) did at Columbia. Motown was looking to take a bite back from the losses they suffered during the British Invasion. Particularly from the Rolling Stones. In fact Ricky Matthews was often described as a "black Mick Jagger", which is ironic considering how hard Mick Jagger was trying to sound black.
So while they were neither revolutionarily great or gut-bustingly bad, and while information about them is scant, still I'm fascinated. Why? Well, consider this hypothetical scenario: The Mynah Birds make it big - or at least they're offered enough hope for the future success of the project that they never realize their true careers. Would Goldie McJohn been kicked out for doing too many spacey, jazz interludes like he was in Steppenwolf? Would Neil Young have eventually chafed against his non-singing non-writing sideman role like he did with Buffalo Springfield? Would Rick James have spent more or less time in prison? Would Poco finally been appreciated out form the shadow of Buffalo Springfield, or would any ever even give a damn about them? Would Kenny Loggins have ever met Jim Messina? Wouldn't the world be better without Loggins & Messina? Would Prince just be considered and weird little pervert without Rick James paving the way? Would the Eagles be around with "Buffalo Springfield paving the way? Wouldn't the world be better without the Eagles? Would grunge have been able to go on godfather-less? Would Kurt Cobain still be alive - and serving Starbucks somewhere in Seattle? Would MC Hammer have ever happened without the bass line of "Superfreak" propelling "U Can't Touch This"? Without MC Hammer would anyone in white middle class suburban America know (or care) who Snoop Dogg, Puff Daddy or Tupac were? Without "Born To Be Wild" would "Easy Rider" still have been a hit? Without the surprise hit of "Easy Rider" would the Hollywood studio system have surrendered the reigns of control to the directors, issuing in the golden age of Hollywood in the 1970s. Without the freedom that the film school brats enjoyed would we even know who George Lucas, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, or Stephen Speilberg are? Without the success of "Jaws", the merchandising of "Star Wars", and the failure of "Heaven's Gate" would Hollywood now be mired in the myopic, big budget, blockbuster mentality that is ruining cinema today?
Left: The Mynah Birds live at Chez Monique in December of 1965. That's Bruce Palmer on bass peeking out from behind Ricky Matthews.
But aside from the name dropping, almost "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" like way the Mynah Birds touched everything; there is also the funny, far more lurid and Spinal Tap-esque story behind the music. Neil Young was only in the band for a couple of moths. There is far more to this story than that - like, say, why are they called the Mynah Birds. And like any good Rock'N'Roll saga, this one begins with a spiritual journey to India. Or rather a golf tournament.
In 1956 a young American professional golfer named Colin Kerr was playing in India. Playing badly, in fact. So, being the gullible sort he went to see a young boy whose mynah bird, Rajah, was locally known for giving off good luck. So Colin met the young Indian boy and his lucky bird and immediately (according to Rajah's web site) Colin began winning. So of course, Colin returned to the 9-year-old, who taught him all about Hinduism and reincarnation and karma and the like. But the boy was sick with leukemia (okay - that's laying it on a bit thick, but that's what Colin claims) and was soon reincarnated into the already born bird.
So what does Colin do? He takes Rajah home with him. And starts a nightclub in Toronto to show off the bird. Or rather a strange pet shop/strip club combination rather uncreatively named The Mynah Bird. In this club you could pay your $20 or whatever and paint a numbered section of some poor girl's flesh. This is the kind of stuff you learn in India I guess. And he also had the bird. The bird was really pulling his weight, until a chance encounter with Liberace (this story just keeps getting better and better, don't it?) convinced Colin to teach the bird how to say "Hello, Ed Sullivan" in an attempt to get on the Ed Sullivan show. Rajah's web site claims he's appeared on Ed Sullivan as well as Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, David Letterman, David Frost, and Johnny Carson. But everyone else seems to remember the gimmick being a bust.
But of course, you can't have a talking bird on Ed Sullivan without a backing band, and so Colin put together the Mynah Birds, featuring members from local bands The Sailor Boys and The Swinging Doors. The original Mynah Birds even dressed like actual mynahs: Black leather jackets, yellow boots, & yellow turtlenecks. Colin even wanted them to shave a "V" in the back on their heads to mimic the mynah's plummage - but luckily that idea was vetoed. The first Mynah Birds' line-up featured two lead singers, Sam And Dave style, Ricky Matthews and Jimmy Livingston. The rest of the band consisted of Frank Arnel on guitar, Kent Dawbney on drums and Nicholas St. Nicholas on bass. Jimmy did not last long. And neither did Rajah, who was constantly being forgotten when the band loaded up all of their equipment. But Rajah did last long enough for them to cut their first (and only) single "The Mynah Bird Hop" b/w "The Mynah Birds Song" (Columbia G4-2660). Colin provided the lyrics and narration and Colin's brother Ben wrote the music. The Hop was an up-beat calypso-ish number while the Song was more of a ballad. But Rajah's songs were not a success.
But that's okay, the club was doing well, and the band was going strong, finally swapping Nick St. Nicholas for the Sparrows' bassist Bruce Palmer. Bruce was happy to leave the group since leader Jack London (not his real name) insisted that all the band members speak in phony British accents even though they all grew up in the neighborhood and no one was fooled for a second into thinking they were British. Around the same time that Bruce joined, Goldie McJohn also popped up on organ. Goldie in fact later defected to the pseudo-British Sparrows. Also filling in for the group at this time were Richie Grand on drums (later to be replaced by Rick Cameron). The main problem seemed to be hanging onto a guitarist. First there was Ian Gobel. Then some Italian whose name no one remembers. Then Tom Morgan. And then John Yachimak.
Even without a steady guitarist or Rajah, Colin Kerr continued managing the group. Staging events with the local thespian guild pretending to be chasing after the Mynah Birds fleeing from their "broken" limo right in front of the press corp. Good publicity was had by all, but Colin Kerr was on his way out. See, John Craig Eaton, owner of Eaton's supermarkets, one of the richest men in Canada, was looking for a hobby. A band to manage. Well, not exactly manage, since John knew nothing about the music business or even music. But rather band to give money to. To patronize. To give motivational pep talks to, Knute Rockne style. And after debating between them and the Sparrows, he decided on the Mynah Birds to bestow his largesse. Boy did they eat it up. If they needed money they barged right into the back offices and demanded some. Which John was all too happy to dole out. They needed a place to sleep - bingo John was letting them crash at his mansion. When their new guitar player turned out to be a folksinger-songwriter in the tradition of Gordon Lightfoot or Joni Mitchell who owned not an electric guitar, but an acoustic 12 string, John bought them a new Rickenbacker with a Traynor amplifier.
And yes that folksinger was Neil Young. And that was the equipment he sold to get to LA. Years later John Craig Eaton sued Neil for the money he spent on that equipment. By which time Neil was more than able and happy to pay. But it was an odd choice for a guitarist for the Mynah Birds, but it worked out well. In fact one of his first gigs with them, he got so excited during his guitar solo he jumped off the stage, thereby unplugging his guitar and leaving his solo fairly silent. Not long after, they were signed to Motown. And they were in Detroit recording. Session musicians would come in and polish off whatever the Mynah Birds couldn't do themselves. Money was spent. Ricky introduced Neil to amphetamines. Smokey Robinson would come in and supervise, if not actually produce, the recording sessions.
The March 5th, 1966 issue of Billboard announced that "I've Got You In My Soul" was scheduled to be the first single, but then little Ricky Matthews was caught by the FBI. Or he turned himself in voluntarily. Or Motown forced him to. Or Motown turned him in themselves in order to get out of their contract. It's hard to say. Then Ricky returned to the Navy. Or spent some time in jail. Or hid out in Europe. It depends on who you believe. Either way, Ricky bid his roommate Neil Young a tearful goodbye. It was very heavy. They promised to stay in touch. Which are as far as I can tell - they didn't. Although Nick St. Nicholas did visit Rick in the hospital after his most recent heart attack.
Rick James still says he'd like to discuss what's to be done with the Mynah Birds' album with Neil, and would like to even play with him again, Neil has not said much to the press about Rick. Who knows? Maybe they still write. Neil doesn't say much to the press about much of anything. So for now, the future of the Mynah Birds is still up in the air. Who knows if we'll ever hear that album? Who knows how disappointed we'll all be if we do. Who cares, it's still a great Rock'n'Roll story.