When you think of Rick James, you probably think of “Super Freak”, MC Hammer, and Dave Chappelle. However, for all the self-parody excess that would define him later in life, James had an incredible music career that produced many hits and collaborations, including the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and…Neil Young?
That’s right, the funk man (back when he was known as Ricky James Matthews) and the Canadian troubadour once played in a Toronto R&B group called The Mynah Birds. The band started in the early 60s when James, in hiding in Canada after going AWOL from the Navy, formed a band with some local musicians to earn some money and to get his music career up and running. In 1966 the band ran into a young and struggling folk singer named Neil Young who was roaming around Toronto looking for a band to play in, and James invited Young to play with the Mynah Birds. The rest is forgotten history.
As you can hear from this song, this band sounded good. This was classic 60s soul-influenced garage rock that was perfected by the Rolling Stones, whom James was a big fan. According to historian Nick Warburton, the Mynah Birds was also noticeable for being the first mostly white band to sign a deal with Motown Records. And what’s even more (super) freaky is that other band members included Bruce Palmer, who would later join Buffalo Springfield, and Nick St. Nicholas, who would help start Steppenwolf.
The band ended as quickly as it began when James was caught and served a year in prison, after which he moved to California to work on his music. Who knows what could have happened if James was never arrested, but the current bootlegs scattered across YouTube are worth checking out, even just to hear a strange collaboration that somehow sounded great.