By Susan Tomaselli
It started with a record bin at a market stall, a vintage collector stumbles on what looked like a treasure trove of recordings by an R&B great from the ’60s and ’70s. Of the artist, Dori Hadar, vinyl junkie and funk/soul/hip hop DJ, writes:
“It was an unprecedented career. His first album, Sit’tin by the Window, like the countless releases that would soon follow, was a chartbuster, catapulting him to unparalleled heights. For ten years, beginning in the late 1960s, he unleashed a storm of albums, hit singles, and motion pictures that would ultimately establish him as one of the era’s most prolific and awe-inspiring artists. By 1977, when he bowed out of the music scene, he had released over fifty LPs and at least as many hit 45s, all on record labels that he founded and managed himself. In 1972 alone he produced fifteen full-length albums and over twenty singles, and his travelling revue performed for sold-out crowds the world over. And if that weren’t enough, he wrote and starred in nine films, all of which he directed.
His name was Mingering Mike . And in his imagination, he was unrivalled. His career was nothing less than legendary – and nothing more than a box of painted cardboard in a Washington, D.C., flea market.”
There’s the rub: the ‘records’ Hadar discovered were not real. Rather, they were cardboard fashioned to look like vinyl and homed in handmade sleeves; pure no-fi. So, who was Mingering Mike Stevens? Hadar hit Soul Strut , a site where “a group of record collectors known as diggers – so named for their obsessive habit of digging through record crates wherever secondhand ephemera is sold – gather to discuss obscure funk recordings, recipes for repairing warped vinyl, and other arcane matters.” Like the John Cage maxim, “Be open to whatever comes next,” as Hadar dug deeper, a fascinating story started to emerge. Neil Strauss picks up the thread:
As a teenager, Mingering Mike dreamed of becoming a musician. He claims to have written four thousand songs on everything from matchbooks to diaper boxes, though only a small fraction were recorded. More important than music to Mingering Mike, it seemed, was packaging. Like Hadar and [Frank] Beylotte, he was an avid digger himself – or a “record-aholic,” as he put it on one album. Except he outdid them by not just collecting but also creating. This is so, he explained, “If it all came together one day, I’d be ready.”
What Hadar has collected, with the help of the man himself (Hadar, a criminal investigator, tracks Mike down and hooks up with him), is an amazing body of work by (considering his career as a musician wasn’t really a career) an outsider artist, the lost minutiae of Mike’s day-to-day experiences, “a diary of sorts – he wrote the date and sometimes even the time of day on each record, and they give an intimate look into what was going on in his life.” As outsider art curator Jane Livingston says, “his experience might stand for the creative impulses of three generations of self-taught artists and musicians in recent American history.
‘Some of the richest visual imagery, to say nothing of popular music, in our culture has poured forth from the private yearnings of just such as Mike – African Americans in the South who turn to art-making in the name of personal survival. Often even the most powerful creators in this vein have been slow to be validated. Mike belongs to a long and rich tradition of artists, such as Bill Traylor, William Edmundson, Sister Gertrude Morgan, David Butler, and James Hampton , whose achievements have taken their place in the pantheon of the great artists of the twentieth century.”
A great artist? To be sure, there’s a naive charm to the work. Taking weeks to design the sleeves, Mike constructed the jackets from posterboard, measuring the dimensions so they’d be exactly the right size, drawing sketches (first in pencil, then pen) even adding fake promotional stickers, lyric sheets, gatefold sleeves and nearly every other detail imaginable, including the cardboard records, an afterthought as the covers were too flimsy: “I thought about putting old beat-up records inside of them and transposing my own labels on top of those, but then that wouldn’t work because the bands on the record wouldn’t correspond to the number of songs I had. So I decided to make my own.”
There’s more, though. Not content with his own (imaginary) career Mike, Hadar tells us, “was truly a jack of all trades – in addition to singer, songwriter, and album designer, he took on the roles of record executive, talent scout, producer, manager and promoter. With a multitude of imaginary acts under his wing, he was the Berry Gordy  of his own musical empire,” which extended to some thirty labels, each with their own logos.
“I looked at Motown, and Motown got a couple different labels. When you see the album or the label, you know who’s on that particular record. So then I said, ‘Well, that’s a thought,’ and I figured, ‘Well, me being all the artists and everything, gee, I’d better star on all the labels.’ Then I said ‘that’s kinda crazy…’ So I said, ‘Well, let me be more realistic and have various artists.'”
Mingering Mike records (and others in the stable) are tuned-in, both politically and socially: from The Drug Store, with its anti-drug sentiment (“young or old the pusher ain’t nobody’s brother”), to Get’tin to the Roots of All Evils, addressing poverty and racism, and the anti-war Two Sides of Mingering Mike. As Livingston says, “What other Motown or pop musician can we think of who would use sickle-cell anemia as a subject for an album? In person, Mike shows himself to be palpably sensitive, a somewhat wary and fragile soul, and his innate compassion shows itself not only in his personality, but in the messages conveyed in much of his work.”
In a nice twist, there is now a 45 available through the Vanguard Squad : Mingering Mike sings ‘There’s Nothing Wrong with You Baby (parts 1 & 2)’. Whole lotta soul. Last words, from Joseph War, (president of Decision Records),
This album is truly a collectors album
One that you don’t mind spending the extra
Pennies that records are now costing
This album is fill [sic] of joys, hopes, love & sorrows
I dig it, and if I know people
They’ll dig it too, there are a few songs that you
May have to have one or two gray hairs to remember
And even they sound just as good as they did
Long, long ago, enough of the small talk
I’ll let you be the judge of whether
It’s good or not, but if you don’t want to chance
A brand new album from a sure to become
Regular artist then put it back down
And go to friends home and hear it
Or wait until you hear some cuts or the 45
On the radio or in this store
If you don’t buy it now then you’re just
Going to be using up more time and money
Coming back down here when the selections
Blow your mind
As it did mines.
Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar by Dori Hadar
Princeton Architectural Press
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli is the editor of Dogmatika and a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine. She lives in Dublin.