Historicist: Unknown Legends
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Historicist: Unknown Legends

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Neil Young arrived back in Toronto an unknown, struggling musician, in June 1965. Born in Toronto and raised, in part, in Winnipeg, the teenage Young had been playing in a band in Fort William (Thunder Bay) for quite some time. When his treasured hearse—Mort—had broken down in Blind River on the trip down to Toronto, Young and a friend were forced to hitchhike the rest of the way. Upon arrival, the long-haired, dishevelled musician crashed at his father’s Rosedale residence, but each night he’d venture down to Yorkville. As Scott Young would remember of his son in Neil and Me (Revised Edition, McClelland & Stewart, 1997), “Once Neil left our bed and board he and I were in different worlds.”
The two-block neighbourhood between Yonge and Avenue and Bloor to Davenport was packed with coffeehouses in converted old houses, where folk musicians played in the front room and apartments above could be shared communally by itinerant youth. The locus of Canada’s burgeoning music scene in the mid-1960s, Yorkville attracted youth from across the country.
In this atmosphere, Young eventually became lead guitarist for the Mynah Birds. Since their heyday in 1965 and 1966, this band’s legendary status has only grown. In addition to featuring Neil Young and Rick James—then known as Ricky James Matthews—for a time, the group’s genealogy also included founders of Buffalo Springfield and Steppenwolf. Furthermore, since Yorkville bands formed, broke up, and changed members so frequently, any band’s history is riddled with the vagaries of contradictory conjecture and hazy memories where dates conflict and anecdotes differ on fine details. Furthermore, few of the band’s recordings have been heard today, deepening the Mynah Bird legend with imaginative speculation about their sound.

Like Young, countless drifting youth, running away from their pasts or dreaming of bright futures, sought refuge in the artistic environment in Yorkville. Born James Johnson Jr. in Buffalo, Ricky James Matthews was a sharp-looking seventeen-year-old when he arrived in about 1964 or 1965. He didn’t advertise the fact, but he was A.W.O.L. from his service with the U.S. Naval Reserve. Being the nephew of Melvin Franklin of the Temptations, Matthews had soul music in his blood. Within weeks, he found himself the lead singer of a raucous R&B band, the Sailorboys—making a splash with his imitation of Mick Jagger, the lead of his favourite band.
According to the version of the story told by John Goddard in the Toronto Star (August 11, 2004), James’ band was noticed by local entrepreneur Colin Kerr, who owned the Mynah Bird coffeehouse at Yorkville Avenue and Hazelton Avenue, and he offered to back the band financially if they changed their name to the Mynah Birds. Or, the Mynah Birds evolved from an earlier band and Matthews eventually joined. Their origins differ depending on whose version you believe.
In these years, the band’s membership changed so frequently that one band member’s girlfriend recalled: “For a while it was hard to say who were actually members and who just sat in for a bit.” At some point, the band included bassist Nick St. Nicholas and organist Goldy McJohn, both of whom eventually left to help Jack London and the Sparrows—through several name changes—evolve into Steppenwolf. Although only nineteen when he joined the Mynah Birds, Palmer, the Leaside-born bass player—later a co-founder of Buffalo Springfield—was already a Yorkville fixture. Impressed by Matthews’ stage presence, Palmer left his current group to join the band.

Advertisement for the Mynah Bird from the Globe and Mail, January 17, 1970.

Under Kerr’s tutelage, the band was noted for performing in black leather jackets, yellow turtlenecks, and black boots. At some point, the group dispensed with Kerr’s management—apparently when he tried to convince them to shave the letter “V” in the backs of their heads to even better resemble actual mynah birds. Although the band’s composition seems to have stabilized in 1965, they had a rotating cast at lead guitar.
Meanwhile, Neil Young was trying to make it, first by assembling a new rock band—Four to Go—then as a solo folk singer. For the latter enterprise, he sold his old electric guitar and bought a twelve-string Gibson acoustic guitar. He didn’t achieve much success as a folk singer, calling his father on one of the few occasions he actually got paid—a single night fill-in gig for twenty-five dollars. His performances consisted of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs covers, as well as some originals. “Somebody was down there and reviewed me,” Young recalled to Jimmy McDonough in Shakey (Random House, 2002). “It wasn’t a big review. My first review said that my songs were cliché-ridden.” To make ends meet, he got a haircut at his dad’s barbershop and got a job at the Coles bookstore at Yonge and Charles. But working life soon became too cumbersome while staying up all night to make music with friends. It was the last regular job he’d ever hold.
One day—most likely in the fall of 1965, but some say in early 1966—Young was walking down Yorkville Avenue with an amp on his shoulder. As he passed, Palmer struck up a conversation. The Mynah Birds were, once again, without a lead guitarist, so he asked Young to join—despite the fact that Young only owned the twelve-string acoustic. “I had to eat,” Young is quoted in John Einarson’s Neil Young: Don’t Be Denied (Quarry Press, 1992). “I needed a job and it seemed like a good thing to do. I still liked playing and I liked Bruce so I went along. There was no pressure on me. It was the first time that I was in a band where I wasn’t calling the shots.”
At around this time, the Mynah Birds had been taken under the wing of John Craig Eaton, scion of the department store clan. Fancying himself a rock sven gali, he bankrolled the band. He bought them new amps and instruments, including a new Rickenbacker six-string electric guitar for Young. As Palmer described in Shakey: “We used to walk into Eaton’s department store, take the elevator up to John’s office and say, ‘We need about seven hundred dollars for lunch, John. Thanks.'” Eaton also let them practice at his mansion, and booked them gigs at private parties.

Photo of Neil Young in Concert (2008) by Chromewaves from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Yorkville was evolving beyond its folksy roots, influenced by the heavier R&B-influenced rock of the Yonge Street scene. Bands like Luke and the Apostles and the Mynah Birds, now including Young, seem to have captured the moment perfectly. Yet little remains known of their sound, with Matthews’ self-conscious Mick Jagger–pose and Young’s amped-up twelve-string acoustic. One observer reminisced to McDonough that Young “had just the acoustic twelve-string with a D’Armond pickup on it, stuffed with newspaper to kill the feedback.” Palmer called them “a big-beat rock ‘n’ roll band with the country sound of Neil’s twelve-string coming through loud and clear.”
More memorable were the band’s hopped-up live performances. The lead singer had turned the guitarist on to amyl nitrates and concerts reflected this influence. Young told Einarson: “I remember at a high-school gig, I was so high that I jumped off the stage and pulled my guitar jack out in the middle of a song.” McDonough recounted another’s reminisce: “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.” Young told McDonough: “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.”
Young and Matthews appear to have become something of friends. For a time, Matthews shared Young’s furniture-less apartment at 88 Charles Street, near Jarvis. In a foreshadowing of future troubles with the law, Matthews pinched early-morning bakery deliveries so they’d have food—as well as mics from Long and McQuade. The pair also wrote music together. Their song “I’ll Wait Forever” was copyrighted, but Young also remembers co-writing “It’s My Time.”
The Mynah Birds were hot. And within weeks of Young joining, the band was the first predominantly white act signed by Motown (to a seven-year contract) and brought down to Detroit to record. Holed up at a local motel, the band spent about a week in the studio in the winter of 1966.
Young recalled the label’s well-known professionalism in the studio in a 1982 Musician magazine interview with Cameron Crowe:

We went in and recorded five or six nights, and if we needed something, or if they thought we weren’t strong enough, a couple of Motown singers would just walk right in. And they’d Motown us! A couple of ’em would be right there, and they’d sing the part. They’d just appear and we’d all do it together. If somebody wasn’t confident or didn’t have it, they didn’t say, ‘Well, let’s work on this.’ Some guy would just come in who had it. Then everybody was grooving. And an amazing thing happened—we sounded hot. And all of a sudden it was Motown. That’s why all those records sounded like that.

The Mynah Birds recorded an album’s worth of material, but—apart from “It’s My Time” and “Go On And Cry,” released on The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 6 (2007)—none of the songs have seen the light of day. Nor did any other songs turn up as rumoured on Neil Young’s Archives Vol. 1, 1963-1972 (2009). Some claim the recordings remain, mislabeled, in Motown’s vaults, or they were lost in the label’s move to L.A. One person, who claimed to Einarson that they’d heard them, judged that Young’s guitar was mixed so low as to be indistinguishable and only Matthews’ vocals could be recognized.

“I’ve Got You In My Soul” was to be the band’s first single, according to the Billboard magazine for March 5, 1966. But, on the cusp of success, it was discovered—or someone snitched—that Matthews had been A.W.O.L. from the U.S. Navy the entire time. With the Vietnam War escalating, this was no small matter. Motown shelved the album, cancelled the band’s contract, and Matthews was arrested (or turned himself in). Matthews later noted that he and Young were by then good friends, and spent a final tearful afternoon together. “I had really gotten close to the cat,” he told David Downing in A Dreamer of Pictures (Bloomsbury, 1994). They promised to work together again.
The band’s return to Toronto was made worse because their manager, Morley Shelman—who had a heroin problem—OD’ed on the band’s entire $25,000 advance from Motown. “He had bombed as a folksinger,” McDonough summarized the situation, “he owed everybody in town money and he was tied to a band whose leader was now in jail. Things weren’t exactly looking up.”
Young and Palmer decided that with nothing going on in Toronto, they ought to head to L.A. to find Stephen Stills, whom Young had met once in Fort William. Over a couple of winter days, the pair lugged the Mynah Birds’ equipment—originally purchased by Eaton—around town, selling it to raise seed money for their relocation. Young found another ramshackle hearse—Mort Two—and the pair steered it southbound. Neil Young and Bruce Palmer succeeded, forming Buffalo Springfield with Stills and Richie Furay. After doing his time, Ricky Matthews continued to work as a producer at Motown before skyrocketing to fame in the late 1970s as Rick James with his distinctive funk fusion.
As a denouement to the Mynah Birds’ storied career, when Young returned to Toronto in the early 1970s, Eaton put a lien on Young’s concert proceeds by court order until the singer paid Eaton back for the equipment he and Palmer had sold to get to L.A. By then, Young was successful enough to happily oblige.