courtesy of Nick Warburton
Ambitious, charismatic and dripping in raw talent, Ricky James Matthews (b. James Ambrose Johnson, 1 February, 1948, Buffalo, NY, US; d. 6 August, 2004) didn’t take long to capitalise on his sharp looks, soulful voice and US navy uniform after he landed in Toronto in August 1964. Within weeks of his arrival, 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 authorities. His failure to report for active duty with the USS Enterprise and a fear of arrest had prompted the young singer to flee across the border. 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. 12 November, 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, 28 September, 1943, Hamburg, Germany) was jamming with friends (possibly under the name the Swinging Doors) at the Café El Patio when Matthews walked into the club wearing his navy uniform. Invited to sing with the musicians on stage, the friends were suitably impressed and took the young American under their wing, employing him as a singer and prompting an appropriate name for the fledging outfit, the Sailorboys. Finding regular work at the Café El Patio, Matthews and St Nicholas, abetted by guitarist Ian Gobel and drummer Rick Cameron (formerly a member of the Kelly Jay Band), entertained the crowds playing a mixture of R&B and British Invasion covers, most notably songs by the Rolling Stones.
As Jo Anne Marshall, Rick Cameron’s girlfriend at the time explains, the group’s line remained far from settled during its stint at the El Patio with a number of transient musicians coming and going. “During the time Rick Cameron was with them, they weren’t really doing much except hanging out and playing in the El Patio. There were a lot of musicians who
would just drop by and sit in for a while,” he explained. Most of the new members joined in this way and the group was in a constant state of change,” Marshall added. “For a while it was hard to say who were actually members and who just sat in for a bit.”
Marshall’s recollections support those of several other band members and underscore the difficulty in pinning down a definitive line up during these formative months. Nevertheless, it does appear that a new guitarist, Frank Arnel, had joined the core members of Matthews, Cameron and St Nicholas by December 1964. Also on board at this time were former Little John & the Friars keyboard player, Goldy McJohn (b. John Goadsby, 2 May, 1945), who was recruited to “beef up” the group’s sound, and a second singer, Jimmy Livingston. Formerly the lead singer of early 1960s rockabilly outfit, Jimmy Lee & the Countdowns, Livingston was wildly eccentric, and his strong stage presence when paired with Matthews’ charismatic personality and dynamic on-stage antics 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 entrepreneur Colin Kerr, the owner of nightclub on Yorkville Avenue called the Mynah Bird which featured a naked dancer silhouetted from one its windows. Suitably impressed, Kerr offered his services as a manager and quickly renamed the group after his favourite pet.
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 nightclub, 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 a manager was to get the band to adopt Raja as its mascot. Matthews later confided to Canadian music journalist Bill Munson that the worst part of working with the actual mynah bird was having it crap on his shoulder. If this wasn’t bad enough, Kerr insisted that the group dress up in mynah bird colours.
Local guitarist Stan Endersby remembers seeing the group’s early line up at Massey Hall on a bill with local rivals, Jack London & the Sparrows. “Colin Kerr wanted them to have a look, so they had black Beatle boots with Cuban heels dyed yellow, black pants and yellow vests,” he says. “They really smoked that night. It was with the two singers before Ricky was doing his Mick Jagger trip.”
Jo Anne Marshall, however, is more critical of Kerr’s influence and argues that the band was unhappy with his antics. “I didn’t get the impression that any of the guys had too much faith in Colin Kerr and his mynah bird tactics,” she says. “Some of the antics which involved me and other friends and girlfriends were over the wall. Really crazy things done to attract media attention.”
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 soon won a recording deal with the Canadian arm of Columbia Records. This however, is where events again 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 several accounts that a line up comprising Matthews, Arnel, St Nicholas and Cameron (some sources credit English-born drummer Kent Daubney, later a member of the Liverpool Set) was responsible for recording one track, “the Mynah Birds Song”. This soul-influenced ballad, which was recorded sometime in December, was not seen as being 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.
Rick Cameron was the first to bail out and joined forces with former Kelly Jay Band guitarist Roger Plomish in a new group, which later recorded as the Magic Bubble, although Cameron had moved on by then. “I think Rick just thought it was all too crazy and set out to find something more in tune to what he was used to,” says Jo Anne Marshall. “Playing the circuit and touring. Playing the bigger clubs in town, that sort of thing. He also wasn’t too happy about the Colin Kerr antics. [It wasn’t] something he had ever experienced in his career before.”
With Cameron gone, Jimmy Livingston and Goldy McJohn returned to the group’s ranks with McJohn’s former band mate from Little John & the Friars, drummer Richie Grand. The new line up then returned to the studios to record a stronger song for the single’s a-side. The result was a calypso-flavoured number entitled “the Mynah Bird Hop” written by Kerr’s brother Ben, a country singer turned street busker and a future candidate for Toronto mayor. (Ben sadly died in June 2005). Issued in January 1965, the single made little impact on the local charts as Jo Anne Marshall recalls. “I was there when it came out and remember the excitement about it but nothing ever came of it. If I remember correctly in the end they thought that side two would be a better choice for the title song. Somehow as the band continued to evolve that recording just got lost in the shuffle.”
In what essentially was an exchange of bass players, St Nicholas was next to leave, traded to Jack London & the Sparrows for Bruce Palmer (b. 9 September, 1946, Toronto, Canada; d. 1 October, 2004), a fabulous musician whose R&B influences brought the group a depth it had previously lacked. With Palmer on board, the band appeared 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 and performed instead as the Swinging Doors. Jimmy Livingston bowed out at this point and joined the Just Us, a popular Toronto outfit that featured several musicians who would later work with Matthews in his late 1960s and early 1970s projects.
Things were starting to get crazy and as Kerr dreamt up ever more outrageous stunts, the band decided to dispense with his services. According to Palmer, it was when Kerr asked the musicians to shave their heads so that they looked 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 later earned notoriety for featuring topless dancers, body painting, porno films and nude chef!
The split with Kerr appears to have coincided with a major reshuffle in the Mynah Birds’ line up with Arnel, Grand and McJohn all departing sometime in March 1965. Only McJohn maintained a significant profile, hooking up with the Sparrows after a brief stint the Diplomats alongside Grand (later a member of Montreal band, the Stormy Clovers). 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 stumbled across a Brantford, Ontario band, the Bunkies playing at a Toronto hall. Determined the continue with the Mynah Birds’ name, they poached three of the group’s members lead guitarist Tom Morgan (b. Tom Catherwood, 4 July, 1944, Brantford, Canada), rhythm guitarist John Taylor (b. John Yachamec, Brantford, Canada) and drummer Rickman Mason (b. 2 December, 1945, Brantford, Canada). “I think Ricky and Bruce said they had just broken up their band because Colin Kerr wanted them to wear feathers and yellow boots and they said they weren’t going to do that,” laughs Mason on the chance encounter.
Eschewing the “Kerr-imposed wardrobe”, the group assumed a fresh set of clothes to match their idols, the Rolling Stones. Matthews even began to incorporate Mick Jagger moves into his performance. Peter Hodgson, bass player with local group, Jon and Lee and the Checkmates, remembers Matthews well. “Ricky hadn’t come into his own identity then. He was actually very much like Mick Jagger. He was very influenced by him, which was a funny thing to see because he was a black guy imitating a white guy.” Matthews even began to don a black bean cap, which apparently never left his head. “He didn’t like the hair,” chuckles Tom Morgan. “The kinky hair, so he put the hat on and that’s where it stayed.” Both Mason and Morgan remember Ricky being a lot of fun, but they also remember his more mischievous side. One incident that has passed into Toronto folklore is the time when Matthews stole microphones from a famous music instrument shop. “We were at Long and McQuade’s in the afternoon and unbeknown to everyone, he was apparently slipping mics in his jacket,” says Morgan. “So, we’re playing at the El Patio that night and Jack Long comes in and wants his mics back. There’s these three stands and there’s Ricky unscrewing the mics and giving them back.”
Though the new line up never recorded professionally, Rickman Mason remembers the group cutting a crude recording in a barn in Toronto’s east side. “We went to some place in Cabbagetown. They just put up some boards and walls and the guy recorded us and he gave us the slate right then and there. That’s what we had to carry with us to get work.” More tantalising is his recollection of the Canadian Broadcasting Company filming the band playing at the Devil’s Den club for a documentary. “CBC came down the stairs and filmed the whole night of us. Somewhere in their archives they have the footage of us,” he says.
Around June 1965, the band landed an important residency at the Sapphire Tavern where they performed on and off for the next six months and also ventured outside Toronto to play several tours, including one in northern Ontario. Later that winter, the Mynah Birds’ luck changed when businessman John Craig Eaton, heir to the Eaton dynasty, became the band’s financial benefactor. Eaton was eager to get a foot in the fledging Canadian rock market and one of his first moves was to buy the group new equipment and to set up an expense account. The band also acquired a new manager, a shady character known as Morley Shelman, who the musicians suspected was pocketing most of the money Eaton forwarded them.
“John didn’t want anyone knowing his involvement with the band at the time, so he used Morley as a go between,” says Mason. “His dad was a friend of John Eaton’s and lived down the street in a castle-style home on the Bridle Path. Morley basically stole the money. All the money that John Eaton said we owed him, we didn’t.” Nevertheless, it was Morley who used his connections with Sal Mineo to pique the interest of Motown Records, which was suitably impressed by the band’s unique brand of folk-rock flavoured soul music. In January 1966, an awe struck band drove down to Detroit to audition personally for Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. Tom Morgan remembers the auspicious occasion clearly but came away with a bitter taste in his mouth. “I could see what was coming down the road,” he says. “Soon as [Motown] got [Ricky James Matthews] back over there, you knew where he’d end up and where everybody else would end up. Nowhere. Just by the way Motown treated people. They were only ever interested in Ricky.” Mason agrees. “That would make sense. They signed us separately, not as a band.”
The audition proved a turning point for Morgan. Refusing to sign the contract, he walked from the band. Rescue came in the form of an unlikely figure struggling 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 Young 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.
Mason, who says he never got along with the band’s new guitarist, remembers Young’s first job with the band the Inferno, a club on Toronto’s east side. “They put rubber gym mats out for us to play on! The first song we go to do, Neil goes up to do his lead and unplugs his guitar. He plays the whole lead without his guitar plugged in. Didn’t even know what he was doing.” Within weeks of Young joining, the Mynah Birds flew down to Motown to begin sessions for the label under Smokey Robinson’s supervision. Since the musicians were all minors, their parents had to accompany them to Detroit to sign the contracts. Details surrounding the group’s weeklong sessions that February are sketchy. Nevertheless, Mason remembers the label being a hard taskmaster. “Twenty-four seven, day and night until we dropped,” is how he describes the workload. “They would take us into the studio individually I bet you I did maybe 30 tracks by myself. I still listen to Motown songs and wonder if that’s me playing on them.” As for the Mynah Birds’ own recordings, “Neil used a 12-string a lot,” Mason continues. “But we never did anything as a band. It was all done in parts and they put it together. Then everybody would drop in and do songs with us, like Smokey Robinson and Tammi Terrell. They made R Dean Taylor our look after guy because he was white and Canadian too.”
Several track titles are listed under the BMI records. Somewhat surprisingly, only one track is credited to Neil Young: “I’ll Wait Forever” which is a co-write with Matthews and Motown staff writers Mike Valvano and R Dean Taylor. Both writers joined forces with Matthews and John Taylor to compose another song for the sessions “Go On and Cry”.
Of the other recordings listed under the BMI records, “I Got You In My Soul” is a Matthews-Taylor collaboration, while another Ricky James Matthews song called “Out In the Country” is a co-write with a Roderick Harrison and Ronald Madlock, whoever they were. In later years, Neil Young talked about a song he co-wrote with Matthews called “It’s My Time”, which is reportedly among the seven tracks Young bought from Motown for his long awaited and over due box set. Rickman Mason also remembers the group cutting a John Taylor song called “Little Girl”. Neither is listed in the BMI records.
As soon as the recordings were done, however, the group ran into problems with their manager. After signing the Motown deal, the label had given the musicians an advance. The only problem was that the group never saw it Morley Shelman had pocketed it all to fund his growing heroin addiction. When the band fired him over the missing money, Shelman extracted his revenge by informing Motown that Ricky was AWOL. Unaware of his treachery, the group, minus Matthews, returned to Toronto confident that the album would soon be in the shops. But Motown was uneasy about dealing with someone who was wanted by the FBI and convinced the singer to give himself up to the authorities. In one of his last interviews, Matthews told writer Alex Stimmel that Motown had made him a promise that he would still have a home once he had taken care of his responsibilities. Back in Toronto, Matthews broke the devastating news to Young and Palmer, before returning to Buffalo where he was picked up by FBI officers and incarcerated in the Brooklyn Brig for over a year.
With Matthews gone and the album shelved, the remaining members were left to assess 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 equipment John Craig Eaton had bought them to purchase a hearse, and with Palmer in tow, Young embarked on a cross-continent trip to L.A. that resulted in the birth of Buffalo Springfield. It would be three years before Young and Palmer would see Matthews again.
But that’s not the end of the Mynah Birds story. As Rickman Mason points out, the Motown contract stipulated that the group had six-months’ of work to fulfil and pressured to honour these commitments or face being sued, he and John Taylor drafted in former guitarist Tom Morgan and two new musicians singer Mark Smith and former Bunkies bass player John Klasen (b. Brantford, Canada) to perform as the Mynah Birds. The band resumed gigging, but Morgan soon left to be replaced by Robert Benedict. By the spring of 1967, it was all over. Around this time, Mason received an unexpected visit from Matthews, who’d managed to escape from the Brooklyn Brig and make it back to Toronto. It would be the last time he ever saw the charismatic singer.
“We were living in Bay Ridges and Ricky snuck in the house,” says Mason. “He came to me and he said, ‘we’re going to the States and we want you to go with us’. But John [Taylor] said, ‘you’re not taking the drums’ and that was the end of my life.” Searching out new musicians for a reformed Mynah Birds, Matthews walked into Toronto’s Night Owl club one night where his former sparring partner, Jimmy Livingston’s latest band, the Tripp were playing. As the band’s bass player Neil Lillie (b. 27 December, 1945, Winnipeg, Canada) recalls: “After the show, Rick asked me if I wanted to sign to Motown as a member of the ‘Myna Byrds’ that he was reforming. Bill Ross was there and was joining with Al Morrison. Both had recently been members of David Clayton-Thomas’ Bossmen.” The group also recruited a keyboard player, but Lillie can’t remember his name. What he does remember, however, is that he was too young to sign with Motown, “so we flew my Mother-in-law to the signing and she faked being his mom to co-sign the contract!”
After returning to Detroit, the band rehearsed at the recently acquired Gold Star Studio and recorded a new version of the Matthews/Young collaboration, “It’s My Time” and “tracked a few more songs” at Motown’s Hitsville Studio with R Dean Taylor in the producer’s chair. But as Lillie explains, the band soon ran into problems. “Before too long Bill Ross’ personality reared its ugly head during a rehearsal at Gold Star. He had a bad temper and it didn’t take much to set him off. He got into an argument with Rick over a guitar part, shot his big mouth off and used the ‘N’ word. Rick rolled up his sleeves and shoved Ross over Morrison’s drum set.” Morrison quit and Ross was fired.
Without a band, Matthews and Lillie returned to Toronto to reform the Mynah Birds with new players. One night, Matthews was out at the Night Owl when the police came in and took him away. “The waitress called the cops and they came and nabbed him and put him in jail,” remembers Lillie. “Apparently, while we were in Detroit, the cops were looking for him in Toronto for a breaking and entering charge. I guess Rick and a few guys broke into a clothes store in the Yorkville Village some months before and one of them got caught and fingered Rick.”
Despite the setback, Lillie held out hopes that Matthews would soon be released. “While Rick was in jail, we talked on the phone and I went on to put a new ‘Myna Byrds’ together to join him at Motown when he was deported back to Buffalo, New York,” he says. Within a matter of weeks, Lillie recruited keyboard player Marty Fisher and drummer Gordon MacBain from Bobby Kris and the Imperials. He then started looking for a guitarist and was soon directed to an up and coming singer/songwriter and guitarist from Ottawa called Bruce Cockburn. “One day John Eaton came to a rehearsal and was impressed with the band,” remembers Lillie. “We just needed Rick.”
Matthews however, remained in custody, pending deportation. As the months passed, the Mynah Birds began to play some Bruce Cockburn tunes and to stay alive, started performing as the Flying Circus. When the singer finally called from Buffalo in early 1968, the Flying Circus had recently acquired a management deal with Ottawa promoter Harvey Glatt, and lined up bookings with Jimi Hendrix and Wilson Pickett. As Lillie laments, “possibly, the best ‘Myna Byrds’ ever never happened.” Left without a band, Matthews returned to Motown’s Hitsville Studio that spring where he worked as a producer and songwriter for a number of artists, including the Spinners and Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. While there he struck up a friendship with a 19-year-old bass player named Greg Reeves.
But what of the other Mynah Birds? Jimmy Livingston continued to front the Tripp, which changed name to Livingston’s Journey in mid-1967 shortly after Lillie took up Matthews’ offer to join the Mynah Birds. During early 1968, he appeared on local group, Mandala’s “Soul Crusade” album and then fronted his own short-lived project, New King Boiler. Later that year, he joined forces with former Tripp members, Neil Lillie and Ed Roth in Heather Merryweather and moved to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, his erratic behaviour, fuelled by drugs resulted in his departure from the band before it recorded for Capitol Records as Merryweather, although he did co-write one song on the group’s debut album. (Neil Merryweather later recorded an album for Kent Records with John Richardson and Robin Boers and dedicated it to Livingston). 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.
Mynah Birds drummer Rickman Mason returned to Brantford and later played in country-rock band, Station Road with former Motherlode member and local, guitarist Kenny Marco. He currently leads his own blues band. John Taylor sadly passed away last year. Tom Morgan works as a security guard in Brantford.
Neil Lillie stayed with the Flying Circus until spring 1968 when he left to form Heather Merryweather. When the band moved to Los Angeles later that year, he adopted the name Neil Merryweather and cut a string of albums with the group Merryweather throughout the late 1960s, before fronting the hard rock outfits, Mama Lion and the Space Rangers. The remaining members of Flying Circus became Olivus but the group was short-lived and in the summer, Cockburn and Lillie’s replacement Dennis Pendrith moved on to join folk-rock group, 3’s a Crowd. Cockburn later established a brilliant solo career, which continues to this day. His colleagues, Marty Fisher and Gordon MacBain meanwhile, moved to England where they recorded with Peter Quaife’s post-Kinks band, Mapleoak alongside another former Tripp member Stan Endersby.
Interest in the Mynah Birds’ Motown recordings has been rekindled with news that Neil Young bought at least seven tracks from the label for his long awaited box set. 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.