Mingering Mike, Superstar

An real singer with imaginary albums takes the stage.

Of the thousands of names on the South by Southwest 2008 band list, one was especially intriguing: Mingering Mike. The intrigue wasn’t just because I have no idea what “mingering” means, but rather that he isn’t a real performer. Or so I thought.

Mingering Mike is the greatest soul singer who never existed. He made more than 50 albums on dozens of record labels between 1968 and 1977, including his legendary 1968 performance Live at the Howard Theatre, political records like Boogie Down at the White House, the soundtrack to the kung-fu classic Brother of the Dragon, and a benefit album for sickle cell anemia.

But the albums were fakes, not pressed in wax but cut from cardboard with hand-painted grooves and intricately drawn homemade covers, the product of the elaborate imagination of a fictitious soul superstar.

Dori Hadar, a 33-year-old criminal investigator and record collector, stumbled across Mike's curious cache at a Washington D.C. flea market five years ago. “So here I am looking at a cardboard album that is supposedly a live show at the Howard Theatre in 1968 and it just made no sense at all but it was so intriguing,” Hadar says. “Then I go through the rest of the box and there are 50 more of them. I was just beside myself going, ‘What the hell are these things?'"

And that’s when Hadar’s life became inextricably intertwined with an imaginary soul singer. Hadar posted pictures of the albums on Soul Strut, an online forum for people whose idea of a good time is digging through dusty boxes of old vinyl at flea markets. The photos created an immediate buzz and Mingering Mike became an instant underground cult hero. This can be partly attributed to his attention to detail – the records all had unique serial numbers and the painted grooves corresponded to each track's listed length. Others were drawn to Mingering Mike’s quirky humor on classic titles like “Sometimes I Get So Hungry I Can Eat a Light Bulb (or a Chair, or Even My Hair).”

Most songs from Mike’s make believe albums actually existed and Hadar later found a capella home recordings of some of the songs at the same flea market. But who was Mingering Mike? Using his criminal investigation skills, Hadar tracked down the man behind the name and has since, with the artist’s cooperation, released a book called Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar.

But an element of mystery remains. Mingering Mike, a 57-year-old Washington D.C. resident with two night jobs, refuses to disclose his real name, though Can Minger Mike Stevens Really Sing, his 1969 cardboard classic on Fake Records, seems to offer a clue. To keep his identity a secret he wears a jheri curl wig, sunglasses, and a fake mustache when appearing in public, and he wore the get-up for an exhibition of his work at the Hemphill Fine Arts Gallery in D.C.

“As soon as he put that disguise on he was no longer just Mike, he was Mingering Mike,” Hadar says. “But if he wasn’t wearing that disguise I think he would have been really shy and not very talkative. It’s great because Mingering Mike is now real. Putting on that costume allows him to be that imaginary figure he always wanted to be.”

In a perfect twist, Vanguard Squad Records released one of Mingering Mike’s a capella recordings as a 7-inch single, complete with artwork that faithfully mirrors the cardboard original. A feature film about his life is in the works and Hadar and Mike traveled to Amsterdam to give a lecture about the artist’s work in what was Mike's first time outside the country.

Mingering Mike is taking it all in stride and seems tickled and humbled by all the attention. “We’re going to Amsterdam because they want Dori for a lecture on Mingering Mike and I find that really amusing but rather amazing at the same time,” Mike says. “It’s on the other side of the world and people want to talk about Mingering Mike. I mean, it’s amazing.”

Further blurring reality and fiction, Mingering Mike takes the stage for the first time in his 40-year career next Saturday, March 15, when he hosts Ubiquity Records' showcase at Club de Ville.

“It’s like a delayed Christmas gift,” he reflects. “It’s like your parents promise you that nice, shiny bike but it might take about 10 years before you get it.”

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SXSW, Mingering Mike, Dori Hadar

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