Washington DC, dawn 2003. “Record digger” Dori Hadar was hunting for rare vinyl at a local fleamarket, when he discovered boxes containing 38 albums by an unknown soul singer named Mingering Mike. “Can Minger Mike Stevens Really Sing?” screamed a hand-painted cover in bold capitals. “The Outsiders are Back” proclaimed another. The collection was comprehensive, including several greatest hits albums, free single giveaways, a Bruce Lee tribute album and collaborations.
But why was Mingering Mike such an unknown, when he had a huge body of work behind him, recorded under numerous labels such as Mother Goose and Fake Records? As Hadar began to delve deeper into the boxes, he realised that the discs, far from being in poor condition and scratched, were actually pristine – and made of cardboard. Whoever had made them had taken enormous care to paint the cardboard black, draw on grooves, and create an entire recording career, all in their imagination.
“Hadar always knows, when he rifles through records, that he’s probably rifling through someone’s personal tragedy. ‘Somehow these possessions end up here on the ground with people rummaging through them,’ he says. ‘Are they dead? Are they homeless?’ Usually he’d put those dark thoughts to the back of his mind. But not this time. This time he knew he had to try and find Mingering Mike”.
Intrigued, Hadar posted some of the album covers to an online forum for soul fans, hoping someone might be able to shed some light. Nobody could, but so many people wanted to find out more that the website crashed. Frank Beylotte, another local record digger, posted that he’d seen more Mingering Mike records at the flea market, and the two men hurried back to buy the rest, which included letters with names and addresses. “They were blowing away,” Hadar later told Guardian journalist Jon Ronson. “I was having a really hard time keeping them together, chasing things down …”
A few days later Hadar tracked Mike down – but rather than being thrilled, Mike acted with suspicion, and did not want to get back in touch, so Hadar posted Mike some copies of the album artwork. As Mike later recalled to Ronson: “My babies!” “He’s got my babies!” Yet when Hadar confessed to Mike, ‘We’ve shown your artwork to thousands of people on the internet and they love you!’” Mike again had difficulty processing the news, later saying he felt “violated”. This prompted Hadar to remove Mike’s artwork from the internet. “It occurred to me for the first time that this was someone’s life. And he’d had no say in the matter.”
However, by this point, the cat was out of the bag, and word started to spread in the media and amongst fellow musicians and artists. Mike stopped feeling suspicious and began to feel excited. From then on, interest in the Mingering Mike story snowballed, and Hadar quit his job to look after Mike’s legacy full-time. Mike was becoming a cult sensation, and Hadar connected him with art dealer and curator George Hemphill, who arranged Mike’s first exhibitions. In 2013, over 150 of Mike’s albums were acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, which is currently staging an exhibition entitled “Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits” until August 2nd 2015.
“I ask Mike how all this has changed his life and he says not at all. This is because nobody knows who he is. ‘None of my friends know I’m Mingering Mike. Not even my girlfriend.’ He’s going to attend the opening of the show in disguise”.
Mike recalls that, back in the ’60’s when he first started created the albums, he concentrated on the cover artwork, later adding cardboard discs to make them less flimsy, drawing the groove lines on with a pencil and compass and even checking that the number of grooves matched the number of song titles on the cover.
“Vinyl discs tended to hold ’38 to 43 minutes of music’, Mike says, so he’d estimate how long his imaginary songs would last, and made sure they stayed within that limit. ‘I just wanted to be as real as possible,’ he says”.
Sometimes he’d sing his imaginary songs into a tape recorder, such as the haunting “But All I can Do Is Cry“.
Shortly after Mike “released” his double album “The Mingering Mike Show: Live From The Howard Theatre” he received a letter from the army. Mike had been drafted to Vietnam – and his world fell apart. Terrified, he became a deserter. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t take this trip.’ So I went underground.” Afraid of being arrested, Mike spent a lot of time hiding in his room, releasing 15 LPs and more than 20 singles in 1972 alone.
“From his window Mike saw his neighbours returning from Vietnam with limbs missing, their personalities changed – everything Mike had feared would happen to him. Some turned to drugs, and then to crime to pay for the drugs. The neighbourhood became much more dangerous. Mingering Mike’s albums turned darker. The Drug Store was dedicated to “the one that deserve to be noticed – the junkie”. His cover art for records like The Shooting Gallery was no longer of soul singers dancing on stage, but skulls and guns and drugs”.
In 1977, President Carter pardoned the draft dodgers,which meant that Mike could finally get a job as a security guard. He put the albums into storage, but 11 years later, he missed a payment and the owner ended up selling them to a record dealer, which was where Hadar found them.
Me, I like to imagine that Mingering Mike’s earlier, upbeat period would’ve sounded like Parliament:
Whilst his turbulent desertion period would probably be more Sly Stone:
“Mike,” I say as I turn off my recorder and we stand up to say our goodbyes. “I don’t even know if your real first name IS Mike.” “It isn’t,” Mike says. He smiles. Then he goes home”. Jon Ronson, 2015.
Sources: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/feb/11/-sp-mystery-of-mingering-mike-the-soul-legend-who-never-existed-jon-ronson; http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2015/mingering_mike; http://www.mingeringmike.com/