Neil Young has been twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both as a member of Buffalo Springfield and for a solo career highlighted by the work of his magnificently ramshackle backing band, Crazy Horse. Amazingly, Crosby, Stills & Nash have their own placard in the Hall of Fame that does not include Mr. Young. (C’mon HOF–this is why people don’t like you.)
But I digress. The main point is that Neil Young has collaborated with a lot of heavies, which makes sense, because he’s as heavy as they get. But…is Neil Young funky?
Well, let’s hear it from a guy who would know.
According to one of his first bandmates, “His singing was a little strange, but his facility on the guitar was crazy. He got all over those strings and showed me some shit I’d never seen before. Neil helped reshape the Mynah Birds into the band I’d been hearing inside my head.”
That was future late funk legend Rick James, who recounted his brief and unlikely but consequential partnership with Neil Young.
Rick James and Neil Young? Yup. That was actually a thing. But it’s not your fault for missing it. They were only on a little tiny Detroit label called Motown. Also, as long as we’re name-dropping, the original Mynah Birds lineup also included future Steppenwolf member Nicholas St. Nicholas and Buffalo Springfield drummer Bruce Palmer.
Rick James Funks Up Toronto
According to Neil Young, the superfreak-in-training was also pretty damn awesome. By Young’s own account, James was the Toronto scene’s very own Mick Jagger. The Mynah Birds had a Stonesy swagger that contrasted the folkie predilections warbling from the coffee shops around them.
In addition to giving the band a flamboyant edge unmatched by the flannel and turtlenecked performers in their midst, James also opened Neil Young up to the wide world of controlled substances. Young recalls (sort of), that “We did some wild things. It’s all very hazy to me now. I’m glad I made it through that stage. It got a little dicey. There were some drugs going on. I remember singing one song for about a day and a half.”
Motor City Mynahs
After generating a healthy local buzz, the Mynah Birds won the attention of Motown talent scouts, secured a contract, and even entered the studio to record their first single–It’s My Time.
They added a B-Side and a few outtakes to the session. That, sadly, would be the sum total of the band’s output.
Go On and Cry
The Mynah Birds earned a modest advance for their efforts. In the great tradition of rock and roll swindlers throughout history, the manager of the Mynah Birds kept the advance all to himself.
The Mynah Birds fired their manager, which proved something of a miscalculation. Unbeknownst to his bandmates at the time, young Rickey James was actually Buffalo-born, and found his way to the Great White North only to evade his obligations to the U.S. Navy Reserves. James felt that his service responsibilities interfered with his music career. The Navy felt that it was the other way around.
Rick James Gets Got
Once terminated, the band’s manager immediately placed a call to the U.S. Navy, indicating exactly where they could find the world’s funkiest military deserter.
Motown didn’t much care for a scandal so they advised James to turn himself in. They shelved the record and cut the Mynahs from their roster. These events would, in fact, be the direct catalyst to Neil Young’s journey south, and into stardom.
One year later, Rick James would be serving time in Buffalo; Neil Young and Bruce Palmer moved to L.A., where they served in Buffalo Springfield.