Neil Young and Rick James' Motown Pop Band the Mynah Birds
Desperate to avoid the draft, a teenaged Rick James – born James Johnson – fled to Canada as soon as he was called up in August 1964. Adopting the name "Ricky James Matthews" to avoid the authorities, he arrived in Toronto, where he was almost immediately set upon by a gang of drunks. "A trio of three other white guys saw what was happening and came running to my aid," he wrote in his autobiography, Glow. Two of them were Garth Hudson and Levon Helm, future members of the Band, then playing backup for Ronnie Hawkins. The men helped introduce their new friend to the local music scene, and soon he had joined a group called (appropriately enough) the Sailorboys. Eventually, they changed their name to the Mynah Birds, playing an unusual fusion of soul and folk-rock. Their distinct sound earned them a brief stint on the Canadian division of Columbia Records, but their solitary single, "The Mynah Birds Hop," disappeared without a trace in early 1965.
Bassist Nick St. Nicholas (later of Steppenwolf) left the group soon after and was replaced by future Buffalo Springfield member Bruce Palmer. Looking for a new guitarist, Palmer spotted a local scenester named Neil Young strolling down Yorkville Avenue clutching a 12-string guitar. Young's attempts to establish himself as a solo artist had met with limited success, and he was happy to accept steady work in a gigging band. "I wasn't a driving force behind the Mynah Birds – I was the lead guitar player, Ricky was the front man," Young admitted to biographer Jimmy McDonough. "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 having a good time."
Young and James hit it off and soon became roommates, living together in a bombed-out musicians' crash pad and surviving on the baked goods that James stole off of early morning delivery trucks. "Neil was cool. He had a quirky sense of humor and a quick mind," James wrote in his memoir. "His singing was a little strange, but his facility on the guitar was crazy." Young had similarly warm memories decades later. "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," he told McDonough.
In early 1966 they were signed to Motown and invited to record at the famous Hitsville Studio in Detroit. As part of the induction the band were enrolled in the label's legendary finishing school. "We didn't to too well in etiquette and chorography – how to be cool, how to move," Young recalled. "I thought we fit in pretty good, considering." In addition to recording four tracks – "It's My Time," "I Got You (in My Soul)," "I'll Wait Forever" and "Little Girl Go," the experience brought James face to face with his hero, Stevie Wonder, who took exception to his lengthy "Ricky James Matthews" stage name. "That's too long," said Wonder. "Ricky James sounds more like it."
"It's My Time" was poised for release, and a full Mynah Birds album was planned, but James' past caught up with him. The band had fired their manager amid accusations of financial improprieties, and he informed Motown of James' status as a military deserter. The singer was taken to prison, album plans were scrapped, and the single was withdrawn – destined to remain unreleased for decades. Young and Palmer bought a hearse and drove down to Los Angeles, where they eventually formed Buffalo Springfield. James was released after five months, but he would have to wait significantly longer for his second chance at Motown fame.