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The Mynah Birds

The Mynah Birds - It's My Time / Go On and Cry - 7

It's My Time / Go On and Cry - 7"
V.I.P. - 1966

Michael Panontin
Though they were never actually released at the time, these obscure Mynah Birds sides are probably two of the most important unreleased songs in the entire history of pop music. And if that sounds like hyperbole, then read on.

The story begins in August 1964 when 16-year-old Ricky James Matthews landed in Toronto. Like many Americans in Canada in the sixties, the Buffalo native had arrived as a draft dodger, having failed to report for active naval duty aboard the USS Enterprise. It was in the burgeoning Yorkville neighbourhood that the young Matthews happened upon local wheeler and dealer Colin Kerr, who was looking for a way to promote his Bloor Street shop, which sold then-trendy mynah birds...and not much else. When the gutsy entrepreneur caught wind of the talented Matthews, who was busy belting out r'n'b covers in a band called the Sailorboys, he offered to manage the singer in a new band he would christen the Mynah Birds, at least in part as a ploy to promote his eccentric shop.

By early 1965, however, that gimmicky act was starting to gel into an impressive band of musicians, taut enough in fact to draw the attention of Columbia Records, which issued a single, 'The Mynah Bird Hop' b/w 'The Mynah Bird Song', in February that year. The band's membership was always a revolving door of musicians (with at least one NHL-style trade taking place when future Steppenwolf bassist Nick St. Nicholas was sent to Jack London and the Sparrows for Bruce Palmer, who would later pluck strings out in California with the Buffalo Springfield). But when a 20-year-old folkie named Neil Young entered the scene, the band upped their talent level immeasurably.

In an interview on Toronto radio station CHUM-AM, singer Bobbi Lee Justice (whose Bobbi Lee Justice and the Scepters were the house band at Kerr's other financial concern, a club also dubbed The Mynah Bird, just around the corner on Yorkville Avenue) recalled that fortuitous hook-up. "(Sportswriter) Scott Young used to come down to the club...and he brought his son Neil down there. I ended up giving a copy of my demo (of 'The Mynah Bird Hop'), the only copy I had, to Scott and Scott passed it on to Neil," he said. "And then Neil started coming down, and (he) would fill in for us." When Palmer later ran into Young on that same bustling Yorkville street, he convinced the struggling folk singer, who was carrying his guitar and schlepping an amp on top of his head, to join the band.

Of course, by then all the financial stars were starting to line up for the guys as well, specifically in the names of John Craig Eaton, scion of Canada's wealthy department store dynasty, who bought new equipment for them, and a shady new manager named Morley Shelman, who used his connections with the actor Sal Mineo to score the band some studio time at Barry Gordy's Motown Records in Detroit. The lads (who were too young to sign a contract without their parents' presence) inked a long-term deal with Gordy. After a gig at the El Patio club, they flew down to Detroit to record under the watchful supervision of Smokey Robinson. Motown worked the boys hard. "Twenty-four seven, day and night until we dropped," is how drummer Rickman Mason described the sessions to writer Nick Warburton.

But that Detroit work ethic, and the melding of Young's crisp acoustic guitar with Matthews' soulful bellows, proved just the thing for the group. Though Motown ultimately shelved the whole project when they caught light of Matthews' legal issues, two tracks issued in 2006 as part of The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 6: 1966 box set show that things may have ended differently had the record been released. The jangly and totally infectious 'It's My Time' would almost certainly have been a hit, especially with the pull of AM juggernaut CKLW across the river in Windsor, Ontario. And who knows, Matthews' convincing Mick Jagger vocal and those mellifluous background harmonies could have even topped the charts in early 1966.

What's more, the hypothetical ramifications are almost too numerous to count. Young told Mojo in 1996, "I could never get anything going in Toronto...I just couldn't break into that scene. So I moved instead towards acoustic music and immediately became very introspective and musically inward." Now consider this: would Young and Palmer have driven that hearse out to California with a hit record and a hefty contract with Motown under their belts? Whither the Buffalo Springfield without the two? And CSNY or even Harvest for that matter? What about Matthews and his later incarnation as that superfreak Rick James? Or even the future direction of Motown Records with a rock and roll song topping the pop charts?

(For the vinyl dweebs out there, a beautifully picture-sleeved seven-inch of 'It's My Time' b/w 'Go On and Cry' was issued for Record Store Day 2012.)

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