Between 1968 and 1977, Mingering Mike released around 50 albums, each with its own hand-drawn album art, and played sold-out shows around the world. Yet if you haven’t heard of the prolific soul and funk singer, it’s because he was entirely fictional, but the art was real and has just been acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Mingering Mike Collection includes more than 100 items of “musical ephemera,” all created between 1965 and 1979 by a self-taught artist based in Washington, DC who continues to maintain secrecy as to his real identity. The LPs and 45s, all completely made of cardboard, are incredibly detailed with created logos, liner notes, lyrics, price tags, and reviews by the likes of James Brown cited on the covers. There are soundtracks to fictional movies, a tribute to Bruce Lee, and even compilations of his greatest hits. Although the vinyl in the record sleeves is also all cardboard, the materials are accompanied by casette tapes that have a real kid singing rhythmic songs, and, lacking instruments, singing the accompaniment parts as well. Sometimes he was joined by his collaborators Joseph War (an uncle) and The Big “D” (a cousin). The actual music makes it all exist in this pseudoreality, a place of fame and fortune for Mingering Mike that was entirely in the head of his resourceless, but talented, creator.
When the artist fell behind on payments on a storage unit where he held the collection in the 1980s, the work was auctioned with the unit’s entire contents. Remarkably, the fragile relics of youthful aspiration weren’t lost forever, and were recovered in 2004 at a flea market by record collector Dori Hadar, who had been looking for real vinyl, but who saw the significance of the boxes of the meticulously constructed music dream world. With some intense research, Mingering Mike was tracked down, the refernences to Washington, DC on the album art indicating he had probably lived in the area. They found a man who said he’d been too shy to try for an actual music career, but had been inspired by the progressing world of music around him in the 1960s and 70s where local acts like Marvin Gaye were stepping into the national spotlight.
The story of Mingering Mike and the lost cardboard albums caught on, and he even got his first actual vinyl release in 2007 when Vanguard Records issued a 45 of the 1969 single “There’s Nothing Wrong With You Baby“ (you can listen to it online). There was also a book published that same year, written by Dori Hadar, called Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar, and in 2008 he performed at South by Southwest. Suddenly, Mingering Mike wasn’t just famous, he was real.
On Eye Level, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s blog, Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art, discussed why the story of Mingering Mike was important to the museum: “It was an intense time for the country. Kids in some of DC’s inner-city neighborhoods were witness to protests and passionate conflicts. Mingering Mike’s work does indeed mirror the times: he ruminates on the challenges of his generation, in his city, and aspires to a creative plane that will rise above it all.”
Folk and self-taught art has been acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum for decades, including the work of the janitor James Hampton who built intricate religious art that was a secret until his death, including “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly“; Mr. Imagination who used bottlecaps to make astoundingly elaborate sculpture; and Malcah Zeldis whose vibrant urban paintings depicted life in the streets of New York City. There’s also the collection of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., and art by Felipe Archuletta, James Castle, Henry Darger, Thornton Dial, Sr., Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Martin Ramirez, Charlie Willeto, and Purvis Young. As Laura Baptiste at the Smithsonian American Art Museum explained:
The Smithsonian American Art Museum was one of the first to recognize the importance of folk art and to display it, more than 40 years ago. [...] The museum’s permanent collection includes more than 1000 works by folk and self-taught artists.
In 2015, the Smithsonian American Art Museum plans to exhibit the documentation of the lost soul legend Mingering Mike, likely the highest level of fame a fictional singer has ever reached.