Rock 'N Roll Case Study: The Mynah Birds - Part II
By Nick Warburton
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.
Ambitious, charismatic and dripping in raw talent, Ricky James Matthews (b. James Ambrose Johnson, February 1, 1948, Buffalo, US) didn't take long to capitalise on his sharp looks, soulful voice and US navy uniform after his arrival in Canada in July 1964. Within weeks of landing in Toronto, the young singer found himself fronting the aptly titled Sailorboys, a raucous R&B outfit that subsequently evolved into the Mynah Birds.
Yet, unbeknown to his musical cohorts, Matthews was a wanted man by the US government. His failure to report for active duty with the USS Enterprise and a fear of arrest had prompted the young singer to flee to Canada. Interestingly, it was not Matthews' first brush with the authorities, for as a teenager he had been arrested on several occasions for stealing cars. Indeed, throughout his career, Matthews would have numerous run-ins with the law, culminating in a prison sentence in the mid-1990s.
While Matthews later enjoyed a string of hits for Motown Records in the late 1970s/early 1980s as funk star Rick James, little is known about his early life, particularly his involvement in the Toronto rock scene during the 1960s. And perhaps it would have remained that way had it not been for the fact that the Mynah Birds also briefly included Canadian rock legend Neil Young (b. November 12, 1945, Toronto, Canada).
However, it would be a gross oversight to view the group as merely a footnote to Rick James and Neil Young's careers. Not only did the Mynah Birds include several notable musicians who later found fame with the likes of Buffalo Springfield and Steppenwolf, but they were also the first largely white outfit to sign to Motown Records. The fact that the group's recordings have gathered dust in the label's vaults for nearly 40 years has merely added to the group's legendary status.
Matthews' earliest musical venture on the Toronto rock scene was an intriguing yet relatively short-lived affair, hatched around August 1964. While the exact details surrounding the group's formation remain sketchy, one story goes that bass player Nick St Nicholas (b. Klaus Karl Kassbaum, September 28, 1943, Hamburg, Germany) was rehearsing his band at the Café El Patio when Matthews walked into the club wearing his navy uniform. Impressed by his verve and charisma, St Nicholas took the young American under his wing and duly employed him as the band's singer, prompting a name change to the Sailorboys. The other original members comprised lead guitarist Ian Gobel and drummer Rick Cameron.
Finding regular work at clubs like Café El Patio and Chez Monique's in Toronto's hip Yorkville district, the Sailorboys played a mixture of R&B and British Invasion covers, most notably songs by the Rolling Stones. Over the next few months however, the band's line up remained extremely fluid and by the end of the year, Frank Arnel had taken over from Ian Gobel on guitar. Arnel's arrival coincided with the addition of a keyboard player, Goldy McJohn (b. John Goadsby, May 2, 1945), who was recruited to 'beef up' the group's sound. McJohn had previously played in Little John & the Friars and was responsible for introducing a new drummer, former band mate, Richie Grand.
The line up changes did not stop there. Around December 1964, a second singer, Jimmy Livingston, joined the Sailorboys after sitting in with the band at a gig. Formerly the lead singer of early 1960s rockabilly outfit, Jimmy Lee & the Countdowns, Livingston was wildly eccentric, and his dynamic on-stage antics when paired with Matthews' Jaggeresque persona greatly enhanced the Sailorboys' local status. Not surprisingly, an interracial band pumping out R&B with attitude, and led by two strong singers (a la Sam and Dave) soon made people sit up and listen. One of the first people to recognise the band's potential was local entrepreneur Colin Kerr. Owner of an intriguing store situated on Bloor Street that sold mynah birds, Kerr offered his services as a manager and quickly renamed the group after his favourite pets.
While Kerr's support may have been welcomed on the music front, his influence over the Mynah Birds' image in the early days was somewhat problematic. Besides the store on Bloor Street, Kerr had his own pet mynah bird called Raja, and according to Nicholas Jennings in his book 'Before the Goldrush', one of his first moves as manager was to get the band to adopt Raja as its mascot. If this wasn't bad enough, Kerr insisted that the group dress up in mynah bird colours, complete with black leather jackets and trousers with yellow Beatle boots and turtlenecks.
Kerr's manipulation of the Mynah Birds' image could have severely dented the band's street cred, but interestingly his 'wacky' ideas soon paid off and the group won a recording deal with Columbia Records. This however, is where events become extremely sketchy. According to Livingston, the Mynah Birds split into two groups around this time and then reformed over a matter of weeks. While it's impossible to account for the various comings and goings, it appears from various members' accounts that a line up comprising James, Arnel and St Nicholas, together with new drummer, Kent Daubney (b. Newark, England) was responsible for recording one track, 'the Mynah Bird Song'. This soul-influenced ballad, which was recorded sometime in December 1964, was not deemed to be strong enough for the prospective single's a-side and by the time work began on a stronger number, the group had undergone further personnel changes.
New drummer Kent Daubney was the first to bail out and joined the Mersey-beat inspired outfit, the Liverpool Set. Around the same time, Jimmy Livingston, Goldy McJohn and Richie Grand returned to the band's ranks, although whether this was at the same time is unclear. Whatever the circumstances, it appears that a line up comprising Livingston and Matthews backed by Arnel, Grand, McJohn and St Nicholas returned to the studios to record a stronger song for the single's a-side. The result was a calypso number entitled 'the Mynah Bird Hop' written by Kerr's brother Ben, a former country singer and future candidate for Toronto mayor. Issued in January 1965, the single made little impact on the local charts and, perhaps not surprisingly, the group continued to shuffle the line up.
In what essentially was an exchange of bass players, St Nicholas was traded to Jack London & the Sparrows for Bruce Palmer (b. September 9, 1946, Toronto, Canada), a fabulous musician whose R&B influences brought the group a depth it had previously lacked. With Palmer on board, the band began to plug the single, appearing on CFTO's Hi Time show. Soon afterwards, the group travelled to Montreal to play at the Esquire Show Bar, but for some unknown reason, it was not allowed to use the Mynah Birds name. For these Montreal dates, the group performed instead as the Swinging Doors.
Jimmy Livingston bowed out at this point and returned to Toronto to front Just Us, a popular local band that featured among others, bass player Neil Merryweather, keyboard player Ed Roth and future Maple Oak (Peter Quaife's post Kinks band) guitarist Stan Endersby. The group would subsequently change name to the Tripp before ultimately evolving into the short-lived Livingston's Journey in mid-1967.
Richie Grand jumped ship soon afterwards to play with local group the Diplomats, his place taken by former Sailorboys' drummer Rick Cameron. Things were starting to get crazy and as Kerr dreamt up ever more outrageous stunts, the group decided to dispense with his services. According to Palmer, it was when Kerr asked the musicians to shave their heads so that they looked more like mynah birds that the group decided he was 'out of his mind'. Left to his own devices, Kerr subsequently turned his attention to his own Mynah Bird coffee house, which was most notable for featuring go-go dancers that performed in a second-storey glass booth visible from the street. His new project later earned notoriety for featuring topless dancers, body painting, porno films and a nude chef!
The split with Kerr appears to have coincided with a major shake up in the Mynah Birds' line up with Arnel, Cameron and McJohn all departing sometime around April-May 1965. Only McJohn maintained a significant profile, hooking up with the Sparrows after a brief stint with the Diplomats. By the time McJohn joined, the Sparrows had dispensed with Jack London and were in the process of adding German émigré John Kay. The Sparrows, subsequently shortened to the Sparrow, would ultimately evolve into heavy rock outfit, Steppenwolf in mid-1967.
Matthews and Palmer meanwhile continued to use the band's name and brought in three musicians from Brantford, Ontario band, the Bunkies - lead guitarist Tom Morgan (b. Tom Catherwood, Brantford, Canada), rhythm guitarist John Taylor (b. John Yachamec, Brantford, Canada) and drummer Rickman Mason (b. December 2, 1945, Brantford, Canada). The new line-up proved to be the band's most stable and gained a residency at the Sapphire Tavern where it played for six months. The Mynah Birds also ventured outside Toronto and Mason remembers the group travelling up to Timmins in northern Ontario to play a short tour.
As the Mynah Birds' popularity grew, the band also ventured back into the studios to record several tracks for a prospective single, but the results were subsequently shelved. Around the same time, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recorded the band playing at the Devil's Den for a documentary, although it's uncertain whether the programme was ever aired.
More importantly, the group secured the financial support of businessman John Eaton, heir to the Eaton dynasty, who was eager to get a foot in the fledging Canadian rock market. One of Eaton's first moves was to buy the group new equipment and to set up an expense account. Through Eaton, the band acquired a new manager, Morley Shelman who had important contacts in the music business.
Says Rick Mason of the new set up: "John didn't want anyone knowing his involvement with the band at the time, so he used Morley as a go between. His dad was a friend of John Eaton's and lived down the street in a castle-style home on the Bridle Path." It was through Morley Shelman that the Mynah Birds piqued the interest of Motown Records. The label was suitably impressed by the band's unique brand of folk-rock flavoured soul music and offered the group a contract in January 1966.
With a record deal pending, Tom Morgan left the band abruptly, leaving the others in need of an urgent replacement. Rescue came in the form of an unlikely figure - folkie Neil Young. As Bruce Palmer remembers the fortuitous meeting, he was walking down Yorkville Avenue when he ran into Young, carrying his acoustic guitar and balancing an amp on his head, coming in the opposite direction. After exchanging pleasantries, Palmer invited the struggling singer/songwriter to join the band. It seemed a ridiculous decision introducing an acoustic player into a rhythm and blues outfit. But by combining Young's folk inflected guitar and Matthews' R&B vocals, the Mynah Birds, as noted rock historian John Einarson aptly put it, successfully bridged the two Toronto styles - Yorkville Village's folk and Yonge Street's R&B.
Within weeks of Young's arrival, the band was flown to Detroit to record under Smokey Robinson's supervision. Since the musicians were all still minors, their parents had to accompany them to Detroit to sign the contracts. Little is known about the 16 tracks recorded during the weeklong sessions, although several song titles are listed under the BMI's records.
For such a prolific writer, it's perhaps a little surprising that Neil Young contributed so few songs to the sessions. Only one: 'I'll Wait Forever' bears his name and is a co-write with Ricky James Matthews, Mike Valvano and R Dean Taylor. Valvano, a Detroit native and Taylor, an expatriate Canadian who also enjoyed a solo career on Motown Records, were two staff writers that worked closely with the Mynah Birds in the studio. Both joined forces with Matthews and Little Johnny Taylor (more likely the group's rhythm guitarist, John Taylor) to compose another song for the sessions - 'Go On and Cry'.
Of the other Mynah Birds songs listed in the BMI records, "I Got You In My Soul' is a Ricky James Matthews and John Taylor collaboration. Another Ricky Matthews song called 'Out In the Country' is co-credited to a Roderick Harrison and a Ronald Matlock. Not listed in the BMI records, is a John Taylor song called 'Little Girl' that Rick Mason remembers the band recording. Young has also mentioned another song he co-wrote with Matthews called 'It's My Time'. The track was recorded and it's believed that this was going to be the first single off the album.
After the Mynah Birds had completed sessions for the proposed album, the musicians (minus Matthews) returned to Toronto to await its release, but then disaster struck. Matthews' was still technically AWOL from the navy and executives at Motown grew increasingly uneasy about having a felon on the premises. When the label convinced the singer to turn himself over to the authorities, the group's contract with Motown was terminated.
While all this was going on, Billboard magazine reported in its March 5 issue, that 'I've Got You In My Soul' was due for release, but whether any copies ever slipped out is uncertain. With Matthews arrested, the remaining members were left to reassess their futures. For Neil Young, his mind was already made up - the sounds that were emanating from Los Angeles captured perfectly his musical aspirations. Selling the group's equipment, and with Palmer in tow, Young embarked on a cross-continent trip to L.A. that resulted in the birth of Buffalo Springfield. The rest, as they say, is history.
But what of the other Mynah Birds? Following his departure from Livingston's Journey, Jimmy Livingston appeared on local group, Mandala's 'Soul Crusade' album. He also formed his own band, the Boiler Room but the group's potential was never fulfilled, due to the singer's erratic behaviour, which was exacerbated by mental problems. Had his work with the Tripp and Livingston's Journey been exposed to a wider market, it's possible that he would now be spoken about in the same breath as the era's other madcap luminaries, Skip Spence and Syd Barrett. He sadly passed away a few years ago.
Following Matthews' arrest and Young and Palmer's departure for the US, Rickman Mason and John Taylor decided to carry on with a new Mynah Birds line up, comprising singer Mark Smith, guitarist Robert Benedict and bass player John Klasen (b. Brantford, Canada). The band continued to gig for a few years, but never recorded. Mason later played in country-rock group Station Road with former Motherlode guitarist Kenny Marco and currently plays with a blues band in Brantford. John Taylor sadly passed away last year.
Matthews meanwhile later returned to Motown where he worked for a few years as a songwriter/producer for the Spinners and Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, before briefly touring with Mike McKenna's blues band, Mainline in December 1969. Matthews next hooked up with an American bass player, and three Canadians who'd just left Neil Merryweather's group - guitarist Dave Burt, drummer Coffi Hall and keyboard player Ed Roth in a band known as Salt and Pepper. The group proved to be short-lived and soon afterwards, James and Roth travelled to Los Angeles to appear on Bruce Palmer's solo album 'the Cycle Is Complete' in early 1971. Back in Toronto, James and Roth joined forces with another former Jimmy Livingston sideman and future Buffalo Springfield Revisited and Ugly Ducklings member, Stan Endersby, and recorded two excellent singles as Heaven and Earth later that year. After numerous recordings with the likes of Great White Cane, Gorilla, the Hot Lips and the Stone City Band, Matthews eventually found fame and fortune as funk star Rick James.
Interest in the Mynah Birds' Motown recordings has been rekindled with news that Neil Young has bought at least seven tracks from the label with the intention of including them on his long-awaited and overdue box set. 'It's My Time' is reported to be among these tracks. Up to now, the Mynah Birds have remained largely a footnote in Neil Young and Rick James' careers, but perhaps with the release of Young's box set, the true legacy and potential of one of Toronto's most intriguing bands will be fully realised.
PLEASE NOTE – The Mynah Birds' story is convoluted. Band members' recollections of the group's history are often contradictory and incomplete. Also, Canadian newspapers rarely publicised pop concerts or ran features on groups during the 1960s. For this reason, there may be errors and omissions in the story and I would be grateful to hear from anyone that can shed any further light on the group's career. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org