Mingering Mike: Searching for a Soul Superstar
This interview has been edited for clarity.
A private investigator turned music enthusiast, a soul superstar that appeared to have vanished from America’s collective memory, and a box of clues, the only evidence that he ever existed at all, left behind. It’s a story that has all the trappings of a mystery novel. You might even say that truth is stranger than fiction, but the real truth here is that there’s nothing strange about Mingering Mike at all. To be clear, this isn’t a story about an eccentric character or outsider artist. This is the story of a kid whose dream lay just beyond their means, who nonetheless dreamt it up anyways.
Mike, whose real name is not publicly known, grew up In Washington D.C. in the 1950’s and 60’s. He remembers as a kid saving his quarters to use on the coin powered televisions when the show Your Hit Parade was on, which played the most popular songs of the week. Later as a teenager, he graduated to collecting his own records, particularly 45’s, because they were more affordable than their 12” vinyl counterparts. As a lover of music, naturally, Mike wanted to try writing his own songs. Without access to traditional instruments or recording equipment, Mike championed a d.i.y. ethos long before it would become a commonly used term. He used whatever he had around him, employing his family members as supporting musicians, using his comb as a drum stick against a telephone book, singing acapella baselines, and quite creatively, tightly rolling a piece of paper to the point that it would mimic the sound of a horn when blown into. There are even a few home recordings, where you can immediately tell that Mike was using his bathroom as a makeshift studio, due to its acoustics.
Mike and his babies, 1969.
Once Mike started writing songs, he couldn’t stop (he claims to have written over 4,000 of them). With such a prolific output, he needed a name to put to the tracks. One day while riding in the backseat of a relative’s car, he looked out the window and saw a sign that read, “Merging Traffic”. He switched out Merging for Mingering, and came up with Mingering Mike as his stage name.
Mike knew that in order to get the record deal needed to reach his dreams of pop stardom, he would eventually need to record his songs in a professional studio. At one point he responded to a magazine advertisement for a company that claimed to be a recording studio and offered extremely low rates. Interested but cautious of a scam, Mike sent them a home recording of a deliberately terrible song, and when they reacted enthusiastically to it, he confirmed his suspicions that it was too good to be true.
This didn’t discourage Mike. While he was waiting for a chance to record his music, he started crafting his own vinyl LP record sleeves for his many albums. Mostly made out of cardboard, Mike hand painted playful artwork on the covers that reflected the theme of record that it was meant to encase. They were meticulously detailed, with liner notes, fictional record label logos, and sticker prices. For the record itself, he would cut a piece of cardboard into the shape of a vinyl record, punch a hole in the center, etch spiraling vinyl grooves, and apply a black paint which made the records appear to be actual vinyl. However these fake records were only meant to be placeholders, as Mike describes his reasons for making the LP covers as quite practical; he wanted to be ready in case he was ever able to record and release his music. When that day arrived, the album covers would be ready and waiting.
Mingering Mike, “Minger’s Gold Supersonic Hits, Vol. 3” (Minger Records) (1971), mixed media on cardboard.
The first of these albums that Mike created was 1968’s Sit’tin BY THE Window by G.M. Stevens, released on the imaginary Mother Goose Records. However, his most prolific period began in 1970, the year that he was drafted into the Vietnam war, and was faced with the difficult choice of fighting a war in a far off place, or dodging the draft and going into hiding. Mike, a self proclaimed pacifist, chose the latter, and spent the ensuing years mostly indoors, as he could not work a legitimate job as a draft dodger, and being in public risked arrest from authorities. To pass the time, Mike dove into his art, and crafted dozens more LP covers. As Mike’s real world became smaller, the universe of Mingering Mike expanded to include several characters, record labels, and stories. There was Mingering Mike’s Channels of a Dream, released on Decision Records, and there was the album Ghetto Prince, performed by a Mingering Mike collaborator named Joseph War. There was a soundtrack to an imaginary film, Brother of the Dragon, and a track called “The Exorcist”, released on Evil Records. While Mingering Mike and his entourage appeared to exist in their own parallel universe, they were also greatly influenced by real world events in Mike’s non-musical life. The name Decision Records, was actually a nod to the choice Mike had to make regarding the Vietnam war, and the cover art depicted two hands, one reaching for a gun, the other, for a microphone. Mike also wrote an album called isolation, which was about the gentrification he saw happening in his neighborhood at time, and the rising rents that were forcing people out of their homes and businesses.
Mingering Mike,”Soundtrack From: You Only Know What They Tell You” (Relations Records) (1973), mixed media on cardboard.
Mike’s artistic output slowed down around 1977 after president Jimmy Carter pardoned all draft dodgers, at which point he started working a regular full time job. He had put all his records into storage, but unfortunately fell on hard times in the 1990’s and couldn’t make the storage payment, and his records were auctioned off. He thought that he had lost them forever.
Enter Dori Hadar, who in his own way also had a parallel imaginary persona. Dori was a private investigator for a D.C area law firm by day, but moonlighted as a crate digger, basically a vinyl fanatic, someone who loved to spend their time searching for rare vinyl records. One early morning, after he had just finished working all night, he decided that instead of going home he would head towards a local flea market that he often frequented. He was one of the first people there, and he soon came across boxes of what appeared to be Vinyl LP’s. He started pulling them out one by one, continually seeing the name Mingering Mike. Perplexed at first, he thought, how had he never heard this name before? What does mingering even mean? Dori pulled the records out of their sleeve and realized that they weren’t actually real. Fake as they were, he recognized that they were probably deeply personal for someone out there. He knew what he had to do, and bought all 38 of them for 2$ a piece, drove straight home and posted photos of the records onto soulstrut.com, an early website forum for record collectors. Had anyone else heard of Mingering Mike? One other collector had also seen some more Mingering Mike records at another flea market, but from the same vendor. The two crate diggers joined forces and went back to the vendor together, and convinced him to let them see the storage unit where the records had come from. Putting his investigator hat back on, Dori dug through all of the items in the unit, old mail and such, and was able to identify Mike’s real name and some likely addresses. The clues led him to a house that ended up being a cousin of Mike’s, who was understandably cautious, and would only confirm that Mike was still alive and in the southeast D.C. area. Luckily, Dori was the right man for the task, and was able to further utilize his knowledge as a private investigator to search through public documents, and found a likely address for the elusive superstar. Walking up the stairs of an old apartment building, Dori approached the door that when opened, he hoped would lead him to Mike himself. Dori knocked, and the door cracked open. A man cautiously peered out. Dori immediately recognized him. The man, though now older, closely resembled the drawings of Mingering Mike from the album covers. Dori knew it was him, he had finally found Mingering Mike. Dori told Mike that he had some records that belonged to him, to which Mike responded, “My babies, you found my babies?!”
Mingering Mike, “I Can’t Turn you loose / Sing a Song, Any Kind of Song” (Fake Records Inc) (1969), mixed media on cardboard.
Mike was initially skeptical of Dori, afraid that he would try to extort him for the return of the records. But over a cup of coffee at a local diner, he realized that Dori simply wanted to return the records to their rightful owner. However, It didn’t end there, and the two became fast friends, bonding over their mutual love of music and record collecting. Mike could also be called a crate digger, as he owned over 6,000 vinyl records. Dori eventually pitched to Mike an idea to share his artwork with the world, which would materialize into a traveling art show of Mingering Mike’s albums, and a stint at the Smithsonian art museum in Washington D.C., dedicating 3 entire rooms to exhibit all of Mike’s work, and a publishing deal for a book that would document all of Mike’s cover albums and share his story.
Ultimately, it’s because of this unlikely partnership between a private investigator and an aspiring soul singer that we can share this wonderful story with you today. Mike called in to CKUT’s Tuesday Morning Show to share his story, which you can listen to above, or read below for highlights from the interview.
I want to highlight, that you can purchase a book on Mingering Mike, called Mingering Mike: the Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar. It does a wonderful job of telling his story, and contains images of much of his work. It’s so important to support artists, and this is currently the best way to financially support Mike and his work, so if you enjoyed Mike’s artwork and story, I highly suggest picking up this book. It’s great both as a deep read and as a coffee table book to impress your guests.
Mingering Mike & Big D, “Boogie Down” at the White House (1975) (Relations Records), mixed media on cardboard.
So who is Mingering Mike?
MM: I call myself a silent observer. I’ve always had the creativity, but it rarely came out. But if I heard someone say a certain word or phrase, I would think, that sounds like a good idea for a song, and I would write it down. Eventually this would blossom into a writing career.
How did you come up with the name Mingering Mike?
MM: At first I was going to call myself The Big M, but it didn’t sound right. One day as a kid I was riding in the car of a relative, we were on the highway, and I saw a sign that read Merging Traffic. I thought to myself, Merging traffic? And somehow I came up with Mingering Traffic, and then I thought, Mingering Mike, that’s it! That’s the story in a nutshell.
At what point did you fall in love with music?
MM: When I was about 5 or 6 years old, they used to have the T.V.’s that you would put quarters in, and they would run for an hour. At the time they had shows like Dinah Shore, mystery shows and things like that. They also had a Show called The Hit Parade, and the singer Patti Page would sing the popular songs of that time. They also had comedy acts on the show, but it was the music that was calling me. When I was 16 or 17 I started paying a lot of attention to music and would constantly listen to it on the radio. Back then I really didn’t have any money to purchase music, so I would just wait for my favorite songs to come on the radio, at which point i’d go running towards the radio shouting “that’s my song!”. I started getting more interested in the albums of my favorite artists, but to a teenager at the time it felt like albums cost a million dollars, so I concentrated on buying 45’s, because they were cheaper.
Mingering Mike, “Ghetto Prince, Joseph War” (Decision Records) (1972), mixed media on cardboard.
Did you ever try to professionally record your music?
MM: Me and my cousin and collaborator Big D recorded some of our music acapella at home on a recorder. To us everything sounded clear, but to others it sounded garbled. At the time, there were sometimes magazine offers to record your music. I saw one that read “have your songs recorded for $40”. To see if the offer was legit, I wrote the most ridiculous song I could think of and recorded it on my home recorder and sent it to them. They wrote back and said ‘this song is fantastic, we have our musicians ready to record it!’, at which point I realized, okay nope, ‘I’m not going this route!’ I did eventually get convert some of my home recorded tapes onto acetate records, which are now at the Smithsonian museum.
Is your work still on view at the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C.?
MM: They are now in storage at the museum, but maybe one day they can put them out again if enough people ask. For my exhibition in 2015, there were 3 full rooms dedicated to showcasing the albums. They put out a book for visitors to sign during the show, and I think there were over 25,000 signatures and so many positive comments, and that was so nice to see.
Even though you didn’t have recorded music to accompany the album LP’s, the album artworks all tell a story. Can you tell us about the album, isolation?
MM: Most of the ideas for the songs on that album came from life itself, and how it is fortunate for some and unfortunate for others. For the album art, I did a conglomerate of drawings of various people in life. I called the album isolation, becasue if you’re a panhandler, you’re like a hidden person. Most people don’t pay attention to them, they just walk on by. So the panhandler is isolated in the environment that they are in.
Mingering Mike, “Isolation” (Minger Records) (1975), mixed media on cardboard.
Were all your albums based off things you saw in your life?
MM: Sometimes. Some albums came from stories that I would hear, or things I saw on T.V. For example when Isaac Hayes came out with the soundtrack for Shaft, or Curits Mayfield came out with Superfly, I wondered if I could do something similar. Sometimes when I would go to the movies, I saw films that I felt like the soundtrack didn’t match the film, so I thought, maybe I can come up with music that would better accompany it.
Mingering Mike, “Evil Records: The Exorcist” (Decision Records) (1974), mixed media on cardboard.
Do you have a favorite album that your wrote?
MM: Of course, I will always love Brother of the Dragon.
Mingering Mike, “Original Music From Brother of the Dragon” (Decision Records) (1974), mixed media on cardboard.
When did you stop making these records?
Did it feel shocking to have a stranger knock on your door decades later, saying they have the records you made, that you thought were lost?
MM: Oh yes, when Dori showed up and said ‘Are you Mingering Mike? We have your records’, I said ‘My babies, you have my babies?!’
And it’s so great that you and Dori formed a friendship, and your work received a second life.
MM: When I was at the Smithsonian, and heard peoples’ kind words, and then I got to go to the Netherlands, and Liverpool, and the SXSW festival in Texas. It’s so nice to hear that people like your work.
You’ve also started making album artwork again, this time for other bands.
MM: yeah, I got to do album artwork for the band The Ar-kaiks, and appeared in the music video. I also did cover art for the band Kings Go Forth, and for Peter Buck of R.E.M., which was pretty fantastic.
To see more work by Mingering Mike, head over to his website
CKUT Arts & Culture Dept