The Super Freaky 45-Year Saga of the Mynah Birds
Levon Helm, Rick James, Bruce Palmer

Photos: Getty Images

The Canadian R&B band the Mynah Birds released their second single, “It’s My Time,” this past Saturday for Record Store Day. It’s a very strange little record for a lot of reasons — not least that it was initially supposed to come out more than 45 years ago.

The story starts in the early ’60s with James Johnson, a 15-year-old singer who signed up for the U.S. Naval Reserves. When he was called up for active service, he deserted; instead of turning up for duty on the naval carrier Enterprise, 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 rockabilly guy Ronnie Hawkins‘ band the Hawks; at that point, they’d recently broken away from Hawkins, and started their own band. They went on to record a few singles of their own the next year under various names. The first was one they made as the Canadian Squires, whose highlight was its B-side, “Leave Me Alone.”

In mid-1965, as Levon & the Hawks, Helm and Hudson’s group released another single, “The Stones I Throw” (below) — and, under that name, they were discovered by Bob Dylan, who drafted them as his electric band. A few years later, they’d start recording under the name the Band.

But back to Johnson’s averted fight in 1964. The story is a little too convenient to be entirely believable, but supposedly 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 rename 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. (A single called “The Mynah Bird Hop” got recorded somewhere around this time.)

In early 1966, the Mynah Birds were signed to Motown, and shortly before recording began, their then-current bassist Bruce Palmer invited an acquaintance of his to join the band: local folk musician Neil Young. (Yes, that Neil Young.) An article about the Mynah Birds in Billboard that May indicated that their first single would be an original song called “I’ve Got You In My Soul.”

That didn’t happen, perhaps because somebody noticed that “I’ve Got You In My Soul” was remarkably similar to a Them 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. (Yes, that Rick James.) But the band’s manager apparently misappropriated the band’s advance money from Motown. When they fired him, he told Motown that the band’s singer was AWOL, one thing led to another, and Matthews ended up going to jail for a year.

“It’s My Time” didn’t actually come out, 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, formed Steppenwolf (which Mynah Byrds bassist Nick St. Nicholas later joined); the first track on their first album was a salute to their R&B bar-band days, a cover of Don Covay’s “Sookie Sookie.”

Neil Young and Bruce Palmer bought a hearse, drove to L.A., and formed Buffalo Springfield, whose own tribute to that period of their career was “Mr. Soul.”

After Matthews got out of the pokey, he went back to work for Motown briefly, then played in various rock bands. In 1974, he released his first solo single under the name Rick James, “My Mama.”

“It’s My Time,” though, became one of the great lost Motown singles. It made its first official appearance on a Motown boxed set a few years ago, and finally appeared in its originally intended form this past weekend, with its b-side “Go On and Cry.”

Levon Helm passed away this year, on April 19; both Bruce Palmer and Rick James died in 2004. So here’s to the memory of the Mynah Birds, Canada’s super-freakiest band.

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