Proudly Canadian: The Mynah Birds

The Summer of 1965.jpg

Submitted by Cashbox Canada
Source: Wikipedia
Photo: The Summer of 1965

 The Mynah Birds were a Canadian R&B band formed in Toronto, Ontario, that was active from 1964 to 1967.  Although the band never released analbum, it is notable as featuring a number of musicians who went on to have successful careers in rock, folk rock and funk.

Over its short lifespan, the group featured a large number of artists in its many different configurations. Its most memorable lineup included Rick James (who later had a solo career in funk music), Rickman Mason, John Taylor and Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, both founding members of Buffalo Springfield.   Goldy McJohn and Nick St. Nicholas would later become members of the rock band Steppenwolf. Also, a late-running 1967 version of The Mynah Birds featured heavy rocker Neil Merryweather.

The Mynah Birds grew out of a 1964 group called the Sailorboys, fronted by Jimmy Livingston and also including guitarist Ian Goble, drummer Rick Cameron, organist  Goldy McJohn and bass player Nick St. Nicholas.

In the early 1960s, a 15-year-old singer named James Johnson signed up for the U.S. Naval Reserves. When called up for active service, he headed to Canada. In August, 1964, the AWOL sailor made his way to Toronto, Ontario, and nearly got into a fight on the street there. As he tells it in his autobiography, Johnson was rescued from a beating by a couple of local musicians, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. Helm and Hudson were former members of Ontarian Ronnie Hawkins‘  band the Hawks and went on to form the legendary group, the Band. Hudson and Helm took the shaken young sailor to a local bar, where he jumped up onstage with the band playing at the time. That group was impressed enough that they invited him to join them, and renamed themselves the Sailorboys. Johnson quickly got to be on good terms with a lot of members of the Toronto music scene. One of them was Shirley Matthews, a local celebrity at the time: she’d had a big Canadian hit with “Big Town Boy” earlier in 1964.

Matthews, learning that Johnson was a fugitive and in danger of being found out, suggested he call himself Ricky Matthews, after a cousin of hers who had died. At some point, the Sailorboys changed their name to the Mynah Birds; they shifted their lineup a few times, adding a keyboardist who went by the name  Goldy McJohn. (Their single “The Mynah Bird Hop” got recorded somewhere around this time.)

In early 1966, the Mynah Birds were signed to Motown Records. Shortly before recording began, their then bass player, Bruce Palmer, invited an acquaintance of his to join the band: local folk musician Neil Young.  An article about the Mynah Birds in a May 1966 Billboard magazine indicated that their first single would be an original song called “I’ve Got You In My Soul.” That never happened, likely because somebody noticed that “I’ve Got You In My Soul” sounded remarkably similar to a 'Them' (the band fronted by Van Morrison) song called “Little Girl.” Still, the Mynah Birds completed a single that was prepared for release on Motown’s V.I.P. imprint, called “It’s My Time.”

By that point, Ricky Matthews, formerly James Johnson, had combined those names into the stage name he’d use for the rest of his life: Rick James. But the band’s manager apparently misappropriated their advance money from Motown and they fired him. In return, the manager informed Motown that the band’s singer was AWOL from the Navy. One thing led to another, and Matthews ended up going to jail for a year.

“It’s My Time” was never actually released, and Motown scrapped their plans for a Mynah Birds album. In the meantime, Goldy McJohn, who’d left the Mynah Birds a few years earlier, helped form the band Steppenwolf (which ex-Mynah Byrds bassist Nick St. Nicholas later joined). Neil Young and Bruce Palmer bought a hearse, drove to L.A., and helped form Buffalo Springfield, whose own tribute to that period of their career was the Neil Young song, “Mr. Soul.”

After Matthews was released from prison, he briefly went back to work for Motown, and then performed with various rock bands. In 1974, he released his first solo single under the name Rick James, “My Mama.”

Neil Young and Rick JamesNeil Young and Rick James“It’s My Time,” though, became one of the great lost Motown singles. It made its first official appearance in a Motown boxed set released in 2006, and recently appeared in its originally intended form, with its b-side “Go On and Cry," for 2012's 'Record Store Day.'

An early line-up, comprising Rick James, St. Nicholas, Rick Cameron and guitarist Frank Arnel (aka Frank Iozzo), recorded "The Mynah Birds Song" for Columbia Records in late 1964 as a prospective single. However, the track was not deemed strong enough and a new track, "The Mynah Birds Hop", was recorded for the A-side.[1] The second track saw James, St Nicholas and Arnel joined by second singer, Jimmy "Liver" Livingstone (born February 28, 1938, Nova Scotia; died June 1, 2002), keyboard player John Goadsby, aka Goldy McJohn and drummer Richie Grand (born June 11, 1945 in Toronto, Ontario). The single was released in Canada in early 1965, but was not a hit.

Shortly thereafter, Bruce Palmer joined the band in an unusual bass-player swap: Jack London & The Sparrows gave up Palmer to get Mynah Birds bassist St. Nicholas.

James and new bass player Bruce Palmer then put together a new version of The Mynah Birds, featuring drummer Rickman Mason (born December 2, 1945 in Brantford, Ontario) and guitarists Tom Morgan (born Tom Catherwood, July 4, 1944 in Brantford, Ontario) and John Taylor (born John Yachemac, June 12, 1946 in Welland, Ontario; died September 27, 2002). After leaving The Mynah Birds in April 1965, Jimmy Livingstone joined The Muddy Yorks and then Just Us, which evolved into Livingstone's Journey through The Tripp.

As Rickman Mason has stated that the Motown contract stipulated the group must fulfill six-months of work, so in order to honour these commitments or face being sued, Mason and John Taylor drafted in former guitarist Tom Morgan and two new musicians, singer Mark Smith and former Bunkies bass player John Klasen (b. Brantford, Ontario). The Mynah Birds resumed gigging, appearing at numerous venues throughout  Ontario, including a return to the El Patio in Toronto (8–10 August), a performance at the Whitby Arena (31 August) and a show at Peggy's Pavilion in Stroud (10 September) by which point, Robert Benedict had replaced Morgan on guitar.

Morgan was replaced by Neil Young in January 1966.

The Mynah Birds signed a seven-year deal with Motown Records in 1966. They recorded a number of tracks, and their first album was in the works when James was arrested, having deserted the United States Navy prior to forming the Sailorboys. Motown subsequently shelved their recordings. (James would later re-sign with Motown and have a successful career there.)

Young and Palmer left the band after James' arrest.  Several of the remaining members continued to perform as the Mynah Birds throughout 1966, but did not make any recordings. James put together a new short-lived line up of the band in the summer of 1967 with bass player Neil Lillie aka Neil Merryweather. The group recorded a new version of "It's My Time" but broke up soon afterwards.

A planned single, "It's My Time" b/w "Go On And Cry", assigned the catalog number V.I.P. 25033, was withdrawn just prior to its scheduled release by Motown. It was not released until the single was included in the 2006 box set The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 6: 1966, released in a limited edition of 6000 by Universal archival label Hip-O Select.

It's My Time with Rick James and Neil Young