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Rick James, The Mynah Birds and Neil Young

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Funk legend Rick James, the flashy Motown Records artist best known for his 1981 hit ‘Super Freak,’ died on August 7, 2004 at age 56.

While much is known about James’ “Super Freak” period, relatively little is known about the period during the 1960’s when he formed a band known as the Mynah Birds with Neil Young, Goldie McJohn (later of Steppenwolf) and Bruce Palmer (later of Buffalo Springfield). The name of the band Mynah Birds was apparently a takeoff of the well known folk-rock band The Byrds.

In Jimmy McDonough’s definitive Neil Young biography “Shakey”, McDonough writes that “James, fancied himself the next Mick Jagger, a claim particularly ironic since he was black, although as Bruce Palmer told Scott Young (Neil’s father), ‘as far as we knew he was white then’.”

    “Those lucky enough to see any of the band’s few gigs say they were electrifying. ‘Neil would stop playing lead, do a harp solo, throw the harmonica way up in the air and Ricky would catch it and continue the solo.’ “

When author McDonough asked Neil Young what it was like to work with Rick James, Young replied:

    YOUNG: “Intense. 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. Runnin’ from the draft. I wasn’t a driving force behind the Mynah Birds – I was the lead guitar player, Ricky was the front man. 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 havin’a good time. “

In an interview with Neil Young in MOJO Magazine in 1995, Neil was asked about a 1965 Mynah Birds album being recorded which never was released.

    YOUNG: “Yeah, there are tapes of me and The Mynah Birds also. After I arrived in Toronto I tried to keep my band going and then tried to work with several others. But it just never worked out for me there. I could never get anything going in Toronto, never even got one gig with a band. I just couldn’t break into that scene. So I moved instead towards acoustic music and immediately became very introspective and musically-inward. That’s the beginning of that whole side of my music.”

The brief period of the Mynah Birds is recalled in the song “Big Time” on the album Broken Arrow. An analysis of the lyrics of Neil Young’s ‘Big Time’ reveals them to be autobiographical in nature, with the lyrics: ‘Gonna leave the pain behind, Gonna leave the fools in line, Gonna take the magic potion. Gettin’ in an old black car, Gonna take a ride so far, To the land of suntan lotion. Gonna take it state by state, Until I hit the golden gate, Get my feet wet in the ocean.’ The lines harken back to earlier days of Young’s musical career and the need to head West to become closer to the exploding music scene in the 1960’s.

From a book by John Einarson titled Neil Young`s Canadian Years there is a mention of the legendary Mynah Birds sessions: “A listen to the tapes years later reveals no trace of Neil’s characteristic guitar or vocals.”

Bummer. Rest in Peace, Ricky.

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  • charlie

    Nancy, if Rick told you that he taught Neil Young to play guitar, he was lying. Neil was basically self-taught LONG before he ever ran into Rick James.

  • nancy

    Rick told me he taught Neil Young to play guitar. I don’t know why it took Rick so long to make it except that perhaps he was ahead of his time. I miss him every day.

  • chinilev

    Rick James is one of the best that ever did it! I also credit him with heavily influencing Teena Marie another one of the best that ever did it! Music will not be the same without him from Dance WIt me to countless others Rick could do ballads like no other and then funk you to death and make you love him. God Bless his soul he left us way before his time, but God has a place in heaven for redeemed funksters!