Arts Desk

The Deep Cuts of Mingering Mike

In 1968, Mingering Mike was just a shy kid living on Barnaby Terrace SE, but he was about to become a soul sensation. That was the year he released his debut LP, Sit’tin by the Window, the first among dozens of albums, 45s, and movie soundtracks he’d make over the next 10 years—including 15 in 1972 alone.

Mike’s soul career may have been a figment of his imagination, but the record sleeves he created—made-up albums like Live From the Howard Theater and The Two Sides of Mingering Mike—were beautiful artifacts, works of hand-painted cardboard (containing cardboard vinyl) that corresponded with an elaborate mythology—as well as 4,000 rudimentary a cappella recordings that have mostly been lost. The artwork, too, might’ve remained in obscurity: Mike kept much of it in a storage facility until he fell behind on payments and they were sold off. In 2003, record collector and DJ Dori Hadar found the stash at a flea market outside RFK Stadium and knew he’d stumbled upon something even more special than a rare soul recording.

Mike wasn’t an actual D.C. soul superstar, but he is a great D.C. outsider artist, one whose work has now been seen in several gallery shows, a fine-art book, and articles for NPR and the New York Times (and this paper). Now, more than 100 works by Mingering Mike—under that alias and other pseudonyms, and a handful of made-up record labels—have been acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with an exhibition planned for 2015. (Mike also has work in the show “Mumbo Sauce” at the Contemporary Wing gallery this month.) The American Art Museum’s curator of folk and self-taught art, Leslie Umberger, says a conservation team is currently determining what material can be presented. In the meantime, Mingering Mike chatted with me about some of the rarer entrants in his considerable fictional discography.

Rambling Ralph—In My Corner (Ramit, 1972)
“That’s sort of a comedy singalong kind of thing, and so it was just showing a person that’s selfish about eating,” Mike says. “They don’t want to share with anyone, they wanna have it all themselves, so I just came up with a concept like that.”

Mingering Mike & The Big “D”—3 Footsteps Away From the Altar
(Nations Capitol, 1969)
“Being a writer you think of different scenarios. That particular scenario, that guy was friends with a lady, and they hit it off well and they were just being friends … then the next thing you know, all of a sudden, out of a nightmare, he’s three feet away from the altar. So he’s wondering how did he get here? What happened? What did he miss?”

Mingering Mike—Get’tin to the Roots of All Evils (Minger, 1971)
“It was like telling a story of what is wrong and what should be righted. ... Back then, as in now, there was the drug situation and thievery and civil injustice and things like that,” Mike says. Rather than use the figures he painted on most of his albums, Mike painted something closer to a landscape. “It was just to try and come up with something different. To show some versatility.”

Mingering Mike—The Drug Store (Minger, 1972)
An album concerned with narcotics. “It was showing the symbols I had picked up with people on drugs,” Mike says. “Even though it was just in the mind, I was doing things that would be like, if it ever got out to reality, you’re trying to show what’s happening.” So what’s in the Good & Plenty jar? “Sometimes I leave it up to the imagination of the person. To a person who doesn’t do drugs, that would just be candy. To someone that’s doing drugs, they would think that’s amphetamines.”

Mingering Mike—Original Soundtrack to Hott Rodd (Takes Revenge) (Ramit, 1973)
One of Mike’s soundtrack commissions. “It’s the old basic story of somebody, he’s coming back out to get the people who put him in jail.” Like Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road, Mike would both star in the film and sing the theme. “At the time I was thinking of myself,” Mike says, asked who would play Hott Rodd. “But it could be anyone now.”

Images courtesy Dori Hadar and Mingering Mike

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