Just after dawn at a flea market in 2003, Dori Hadar, a Washington-based criminal investigator and soul record aficionado, was digging through crates in search for rare finds to add to his 10,000 piece record collection when he came across an assortment of over 100 records by a soul superstar he had never heard of: Mingering Mike. Among his albums were greatest hits compilations, collaborations with other artists such as Big D, and live recordings from performances at famous Washington theaters. They carried endorsements from the likes of Marvin Gaye and James Brown and were produced by labels such as Minger Records, Nation’s Capital Records, and Sex Records.
Hadar was perplexed. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of soul music, yet had somehow never heard of this performer before. When he opened up one of the hand-drawn albums covers, the puzzle started to make sense. The record inside was simply black painted cardboard with hand drawn grooves. The collection of original album art, lyrics, handmade records, and liner notes were all artifacts from an elaborate fantasy, memorabilia of a would-be superstar.
Hadar was intrigued, so he bought the records and posted photos of them in Soul Strut, an online record collecting forum. The photos went viral, becoming an overnight hit in crate-digger communities, eventually even causing the website to crash from heavy traffic. Everyone wanted to find out who this mythical Mingering Mike was. What was his story? And where was he now? Thus began Hadar’s quest to track down Mike.
As it turned out, Mike still lived in Washington and was working as a security guard. When he learned that Hadar had recovered his collection of lost records and album art, Mike was at first skeptical, wary of being taken advantage of. Weeks passed before he decided to see Hadar. What Hadar learned during his visit was that years before Mike had missed a payment for his storage unit and the owner had sold off all its contents. It was the last time that Mike had seen his precious works of art.
Over time, the two men formed a friendship, and their story spread. They were highlighted in the New York Times, and musical artists reached out to them for rights to Mike’s artwork and songs. Mingering Mike had come a long way from a teenager fantasizing about fame from his bedroom.
In 2013, Mike’s collection of ephemera was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Leslie Umberger, Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, explains the significance of the work. “Although Mingering Mike’s body of work is a series of objects that can each be considered individually, his work is related to the continuum of environment builders,” she says. “The artists we think of as environment builders essentially redefine personal spaces or realities, and do so over extended periods of time. Their body of work, whatever form it takes, becomes an active chronicle and time capsule of sorts—it captures an individual and a larger culture at a particular place and moment in time. Mingering Mike didn’t have the luxury of owned land or even a house or yard he lived in for years on end—his family moved thirteen times before he was eighteen and stability was just not part of his childhood. And yet he fabricated an element of his identity that would be creatively transporting. It would in essence redefine his world but it would also come with him wherever he went, more like a suit of armor than an embellished home-space.”
Mike’s imagined world was directly tied to growing up during the turbulent 1960s and 70s. “Mingering Mike’s experience was that of a disenfranchised young African American boy living in the poor urban neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.,” explains Umberger. “Born in 1950, he came of age in the eras of Civil Rights and Black Power. His experience was also the music culture of the day; from his neighborhood church to the urban street corners to the Howard Theatre, African American music was, for the first time, going mainstream and unapologetically celebrating Black culture.” Looking at pieces such as Boogie Down at the White House, it is apparent how Mike drew inspiration from the particular time and context of his surroundings.
“His fantasy was to be a part of that culture and to rise up out of bleak times through artistry and talent. But his reality was also that he went on absence without leave from service in Vietnam, and that he felt trapped by a need to hide out. This part of his reality fed the Mingering Mike fantasy, because he had time on his hands to write music and hand-craft the albums he imagined they belonged to. His reality was also that he could only afford humble materials and that eventually he lost the power to care for the work.”
Umberger stresses how the collection is particularly noteworthy for the Smithsonian Institution. “Bodies of work like Mingering Mike’s dovetail neatly with the American Art Museum’s goal of presenting alternate and underrepresented narratives in American Art. We are all fortunate that Hadar, the man who found this misplaced body of work, understood that it functioned as a comprehensive whole and set about to keep it that way. The individual works are variously humorous, reflective, skillful, and clever, but it is together that they tell an important American story.”
Perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of the Mingering Mike story is that even the name Mike is simply another layer of the fantasy. Throughout his ascent to notoriety, he has insisted on going under the alias so that he doesn’t stand out from his community. He claims that even his girlfriend doesn’t know that he is Mingering Mike.
As Umberger encapsulates, “The aesthetic significance of what Mingering Mike did is embedded in a body of work that is a layered extension of a person: his experience, his fantasy, and his reality. His work is a potent container of both personal artistry and American history.”
Mingering Mike’s work is currently on exhibit in Mingering Mike: Supersonic Greatest Hits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., through August 2, 2015.