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Mingering Mike’s family knew when he was getting down to business. The door to the bathroom would be shut tight. Taped to it would be a sign on lined paper scrawled in pencil:
The bathroom was what you’d expect. White tiles, a small sink, bathtub. But it worked just fine.
In his makeshift studio, Mike hewed to routine. He’d set down a tape recorder on the floor. He’d sit on the edge of the tub and drape a microphone over its lip. He’d take a deep breath, scan the lyric sheet or run through the words bouncing around his head, and turn the microphone on.
Then he’d hit record.
“When you go to the bathroom, do you feel peace, at ease, the quietness?” Mike asks. “You can gather your thoughts there. Isn’t that one of the reasons they call it a restroom?”
It was 1968. Mike was an 18-year-old loner. A couple years earlier, he tried high school for a month then dropped out. He looked at the world through the front window of his ground-floor apartment at 1036 Barnaby Terrace SE. He would wonder about the people passing by, what they were up to, where they were going, but was content to let his neighbors be mysteries.
Mike didn’t so much blend in as fade in and out of view, just another kid with a short side-part haircut and a weary smile.
Mike was too shy for girls and dancing. But he was capable of conjuring forests of notes, lines, and melodies. The themes—(just the L’s: love, loneliness, lust) came to him as a compulsion.
He could be washing dishes, watching TV, sitting on the bus. And a new song would strike. He’d write stuff on walls. He kept a pencil in the bathroom for non-recording epiphanies. If he was out on his bike when a melody hit, he’d repeat the hook over and over, prayerlike, until he got home. Mike could never get to the bathroom fast enough.
When he played back his creations, Mike believed, the bathroom’s echoey acoustics gave his words a resonance. Sometimes, he’d be in there for an hour and a half recording and playing back. He needed to be able to hear his feet keeping time on tile.
Once satisfied, Mike set about memorializing his songs. He built them album jackets out of cardboard and felt-tip. He gave them labels and catalog numbers. He made them look legit.
From 1968 through 1977 he produced a massive catalog of singles and albums: burners, ballads, novelties, message songs, breakup songs, faux operas, kung fu movie scores. For decades, none of these records ever made it much farther than an apartment shelf.
Mike decided that the dream of fame beats fame itself. He could keep writing songs because he never got booed, never had to play some club in Buffalo, never had to sell his soul for a three-minute pop hit. He could just dream.
But secrets have a way of being discovered. In 2003, Mike missed some payments on a storage unit that housed his albums and reel-to-reel recordings. The storage company—without notifying Mike—auctioned off his stuff. His possessions ended up at a flea market outside RFK Stadium. It was there that a local DJ found his felt-tip tributes and stash of recordings.
The album covers made it to the one place where anonymity is prized: the Internet. It was inevitable that Mike would become a mini-celebrity among crate-diggers. He had stumped them all. Here were holy-grail albums—unlike even the rarest soul 45 or Hungarian breakbeat—that you could never find.
Few local artists have had more of a career. Last year, a fine art book called Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar was published. Mike now has real fans, some of them famous (just the D’s: DJ Shadow, David Mills, David Byrne).
This past year, Mike released a batch of songs on eMusic. He has discussed his album art in Amsterdam and sat in on negotiations for a possible movie deal. We won’t get into the subject of a comeback album.
None of these developments have encouraged Mike to use his real name in print. He lives in a rough neighborhood and doesn’t want anyone thinking he has money. All the same, he guards his privacy fiercely. Some of his best friends don’t know his alter ego. Not even his girlfriend knows.
For nearly 40 years, he has been content to write for himself. He moved around. He changed jobs. But day or night, he always kept writing songs—thousands and thousands of songs—that would never chart.
“I had that creativity, but I didn’t have that driving force,” he says. “I can’t tell you why. People have their moment. My moment was the writing and the recording. It wasn’t followed by the pursuit of fame.”
Lots of famous people disavow ever having sought out their exalted status. In Mike’s case, however, the claim isn’t just true, it’s more than true. Not only did Mike decline to seek fame, he actively turned away any time it got too close.
Your kids are watching
Your kids are watching
I mean, ‘Everything!’
You say or do
For they are like little magnets
Drawing up everything
—“Be a Parent,” written, according to Mike’s records, on May 25, 2001, between 4:15 and 4:48 a.m.
Mingering Mike learned from an early age that personal attachments have their underside. He was five when his mother died of lupus. His father disappeared around that time. His brothers and sisters—Roland and Carl and Catherine and LaDosca and Janet—scattered.
It was into this vacuum that Earl Irving stepped. Earl was the husband of Mike’s older sister Cathy, and the two of them eventually became the guardians of Mike and his sisters. The family occupied a seven-bedroom row house at 736 11th St. NE. The rent was about $500 a month, and to make ends meet, Earl and Cathy worked nearly around the clock.
Earl found steady money as a mechanic and truck driver. Cathy worked two nursing jobs at a health clinic and at a home for seniors. She’d have just enough time to make Mike breakfast in the morning and supper in the evening, between jobs.
“It seemed like I was basically by myself,” says Mike.
Alone, Mike was at least safe. Company was dangerous. Earl had developed a drinking habit that included almost nightly binges. A stubby, muscular guy, he’d lord over the living room from a chair, bellowing wild conspiracy theories or worse. He could turn the house into something genuinely frightening. If the mood struck, he’d mess with Mike.
Mike got no help from his older brothers, Carl and Roland—they had both enlisted, leaving Earl as the man of the house. “Sometimes he’d joke and seem like he’d want to play but he be playing rough and everything,” Mike recalls. “I guess you don’t know your strength when you’re drunk. It was very unpredictable. What would you do? Would you run up to someone who wants to play with you?”
Earl and Cathy would fight. Mike would get nervous. “Gee, I wonder what they going to do this time,” he recalls thinking. “You would just start shaking all over,”
The shakes got bad enough that Cathy took him to a doctor. Mike says he was prescribed what he remembers as “tranquilizers.” “The doctor said when you feel like you’re going to be upset, then take them,” he remembers. “It was just based around [Earl]….It was a traumatic time and everything, not knowing what was going to happen next.”
What usually happened next was a change of address. An influx of rats precipitated a move from the 11th Street home. Several more moves within the District followed. By the early ’60s, however, Cathy purchased her own place—a four bedroom house at 5856 Eastern Ave. NE.
Their new address had all the makings of a stable environment. It looked onto dense forest. Neighbors had time for kids.
Mike got a job tending to his neighbor’s garden and idled away his afternoons inside the garage of another neighbor, Capt. Coleman, where he marveled at the military man’s expertise with a table saw, hammer, and nails. He was particularly impressed by the captain’s handmade speakers. They were huge. Mike recalls: “The way he did it—it looked like they were store-bought. He had his so perfect; his had volume control.”
The first thing Mike learned to build were speakers of his own. In one of Earl’s rare fatherly gestures, he supplied Mike the scraps of plywood for his project. It did not matter that the finished product had all the fidelity of a public school P.A. To Mike, the speakers still sounded sweet.
Mike thrived on Eastern Avenue. He sold TV Guides, flower seeds, and “all occasion” cards. He joined the Cub Scouts. And he found a best friend, Charles, to ride bikes with. It was “terrific,” Mike says, “because then you really have someone to talk to instead of playing Army by yourself, playing cowboys by yourself.”
At LaSalle Elementary, Mike took to drawing. His little creations, he discovered, could win him friends. “I remember I was in the third grade, being the new kid to the school, nobody wanted to deal with you or talk to you,” he says. “But when they saw I could draw, then it’s like everybody wants to come around and look at you. After that, things started turning. They started to like me. I was accepted.”
Mike remembers first drawing a replica of a dollar bill. “I wanted something to copy,” he explains. “Kids don’t have money.” From currency, Mike graduated to nature scenes and to copying Archie, Superman, and Little Lulu out of his comic books.
He’d gotten the drawing bug from his mother, Mary. He remembered very little of her beyond her brushing gum from his hair and sitting him on the ironing board to dry him off after a bath. But he had one thing of hers, a drawing since lost. “It was a chopping block and a butcher knife and ham,” Mike says. “It was in color. It looked real to me.”
Earl threatened the idyll that Mike had found along Eastern Avenue. Mike worried his neighbors would see Earl stumbling home drunk at night. “It was pins and needles wondering if everything was all right while you were asleep,” Mike explains.
Inside the house, there was no escape from Earl’s rampages. “I used to say, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to board up every liquor store out there.’ It just brought up bad news,” Mike says. “He was a hard-working person; his downfall was just the drinking.”
Toward the end of their marriage—in 1964—Cathy says Earl swung at her. “He tried and I knocked him down,” she recalls, “and sat on top of him and took the gun [from a drawer; they had three] and put it in his mouth.”
“I was going to pull the trigger,” Cathy says. But Mike was standing right over them. He was maybe 13. “Mike started going into spasms as if he were having a seizure. It scared him nearly to death. I promised him, You will never have to go through this again.”
Mike confirms the incident: “It happened. I was young. Some things you store in the memory banks and some things you forget or blank out. I guess I might have through the years just blanked it out.”
Cathy and Earl split for good when Earl totaled Cathy’s red Chevy Impala. Earl’s mistress, riding shotgun, died in the crash. Cathy didn’t put two and two together until she went to say goodbye to her car and found strands of the woman’s red hair on rollers and one bedroom slipper inside.
As Earl recuperated in the hospital he only got more enraged at his fate. His mother called Cathy to warn her to leave her son. “Get up, get the kids, and get out the house,” Cathy recalls Earl’s mother telling her. “He’s coming home to kill you.”
Cathy, now 80, didn’t think of fleeing. “I wasn’t scared of him,” she explains. “I’m not the scared type.” She simply collected all three guns, including a shotgun and a pistol hidden in a clock. She took a seat in the living room and waited for Earl. It was 1 a.m. Mike and Janet were in bed.
Earl came home and made a beeline for where the guns would be. It was dark. He didn’t notice Cathy. “Right here,” she said. “Where do you want it?” Earl retreated.
Two weeks later, Cathy went to stay with friends. Mike went to stay with his grandmother and then with his sister LaDosca. He’d never talk to Earl again.
Nor did Mike ever hang out again with Charles or visit Capt. Coleman in his garage. His world suddenly shrunk. “It was like me, myself, and I again,” Mike says. “I started out as a loner. So here I am again as a loner. It was just something that you had to get accustomed to. Familiar territory. You just deal with it.”
“Behind these shades, lies a broken heart
If I take them off, then the water will start
I thought you were mines and I yours
But I guess like the hoolahoop & eight track
It’s done run it’s course
Behind these shades…
Lies a puzzled young man
For I thought that I was
The only drummer, In your band”
—“Behind These Shades Lies a Broken Heart,” written, according to Mike’s records, on June 14, 1993, between 5:02 and 5:52 p.m.
Mike would move 13 times. With the exception of Eastern Avenue, he does not remember boyhood friends or any teachers who might have taken an interest in him. He did not play on sports teams. He did not attend school dances or endure the melodrama of puppy love. But he does remember when WOL became a soul station.
Mike can recall where he was when he first watched Hit Parade (second floor of a neighbor’s apartment, Gales Street NE) and caught Dinah Shore beaming innocence and happy vibes.
And Mike can still motor through the instant he realized Cathy could sing and play the piano. In the basement of their 11th Street house, they had an old player piano. One day, he found Cathy letting loose with some boogie-woogie. Hers was a voice that did not need rabbit ears or a tuner. It was big and loud and kind of scary like standing next to a train passing at full steam. “It got you kind of misty,” Mike says. “Like an emotion that overcomes you, that you didn’t know existed in you.…It sprung something in me.”
From his stoop, Mike could hear music from the speakers positioned outside Circle Music a few yards away at the corner of 11th and H Streets. He still remembers the day he bought his first Impressions single, “Never Could You Be.”
He lived in the bargain bins. He collected 45s and cutout LPs. The Flamingos. Bob Newhart. Johnny Cash. Little Anthony. Marty Robbins. James Brown. And all of Motown. He had just enough money to pick up the previous year’s No. 1s.
Mike studied little else and would drop out of McKinley Tech after a month. “It was like a fairy tale gone bad,” he explains. “Imagine Alice In Wonderland then picture Alice in the ghetto.”
There were days when he was living with LaDosca that he heard very few voices other than his records. He baby-sat during the day and watched TV at night. In his free time, he’d walk downtown by himself and hang out at the Soul Shack.
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When they moved to Barnaby Terrace SE, around 1968, he took night classes at Spingarn and worked during the day as a gopher in the Justice Department.
Mike thought of himself as the Silent Observer. And like any observer, he needed an outlet for what he saw. He started writing soul songs. “People used to say, ‘I better not say nothing around you because you might make a song out of it.’ And I would if the topic was good,” Mike says. “It just got to be like human nature, second nature, breathe out, breathe in.”
Mike may have been a natural lyricist, but he could not read music. He tried drums and guitar. But he could get no rhythm from his kit. The guitar’s frets felt foreign and difficult. Instead, Mike developed a way to coax melody by just using his mouth. His gift for replicating sounds extended to other performing arts—for example, he could do a spot-on impression of Red Skelton. Through trial and error, he learned to conjure guitar, bass, drums, trombone, and trumpet.
Those sounds wound up on a tape recorder in his bathroom studio.
Only the songs that withstood Mike’s scrutiny were allowed to leave the bathroom. He’d take them to his bedroom. There, he would set down his recorder and play them back, listening for ways to build on them. He would then play the songs into a reel-to-reel machine and, as a teenager’s workaround, sing background vocals over top.
Mike wanted his recordings to be released. But he didn’t network at local clubs. He didn’t establish a local following by playing in a cover band. He didn’t study up on publishing rights or seek out a manager. And he didn’t make a demo tape of his five best songs and send it to New York.
Instead, Mike walked to a nearby People’s Drug and purchased some cardboard. He then took out his pencils and felt-tip markers and drew his own cover.
His debut album, “released” in 1968, would become a Mingering Mike trademark. For the cover, he drew a self-portrait in a green shirt, black pants, matching green socks, and black shoes looking out past a set of windows with metal grates and hand cranks. He drew an expression that’s virtually indecipherable—perhaps angry, or sad, or thoughtful. “I wanted a puzzle on the face,” Mike says.
Mike spent hours perfecting his self-portrait. “That was the front room,” Mike says of the album cover. “I set up one of those long mirrors, and I looked at the mirror [a long] time to get the right pose.”
At the time, Mike had yet to settle on an alter ego. He went with something very close to his real name: “G.M. Stevens.” He crammed the rest of the space with little details that enhanced the record’s authenticity and intimacy. It begged to be played.
To the side of his self-portrait, Mike gave the album a jokey label—“Mother Goose Enterprizes.” The back cover’s liner notes include an “introduction” by Jack Benny who “wrote” that Mike “is a bright and intelligent young man with a great, exciting future waiting him.”
Below the track listings, Mike left a short unsigned production note to his listeners. “This record was recorded in a dump house this side 5th street,” Mike wrote, “where crowds of drunks hang around quite often.” Mike says he wanted to show “that was like something good coming out of a bad area.”
Across the top of his cover, Mike titled his debut: Sit’tin By The Window.
“I wanted to show the vulnerability,” Mike explains. “Just wanted to express that to the people that feels the same way. You are trying to reach the masses out there. Everybody don’t have an ideal job. But everybody got one thing in common, every once in a while everyone gets down and miserable and they turn to music.”
Mike says his debut did modest sales. “In the fantasy, you got hundreds and thousands of copies,” he adds. “It was a mediocre hit. You just starting out. Nobody knows who you are.”
If Mike was looking to shed his anonymity, to actually make that mediocre hit pop, he had the industry contacts. His brothers, Carl and Roland, worked at the Howard Theater, the hulking brick building that served as a major artery in the soul music system. Before the Apollo rose in Harlem, there was the mecca at 620 T St. NW. And Mike’s brothers had backstage passes to its ascendancy.
Carl had come home from his stint in the Army and landed a job at the Howard in 1959. He would work there for years, first as an usher and later as a manager. Roland—as well as a few cousins—would soon join Carl at the Howard. Mike started going at 14; his first of many shows was Jr. Walker & the All Stars.
Though now a boarded-up brick mausoleum, Howard meant everything to a black community starved for entertainment. Musicians tended to hold court for a week with multiple shows per day. They hung around. They ate at the joint across the street. Sam Cooke, Bailey, etc. stayed local.
During one of Cooke’s D.C. sojourns, Roland was entrusted with parking his Cadillac. “I didn’t know how to drive,” he says. Later that night, he swiped the keys to Cooke’s ride and cruised 14th. “The first car I ever drove was Sam Cooke’s car.”
Cathy and Carl knew Marvin Gaye. And Carl had other star pals. Pearl Bailey wanted Carl to join her on the road. He also spent a lot of time with Jackie Wilson, whom he considered a true friend: “We might go next door, shoot some pool, walk around the block and talk to the girls.”
Once in a while, Carl would sneak Mike into the Howard or have somebody palm his little brother tickets at the door. “I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen,” Mike says, adding that he saw James Brown countless times. “I used to wonder how can [the musicians] keep up, what to play and when to play it?”
But Mike didn’t meet any soul stars, let alone learn how to break into the business. He says he feared they’d be drunk or high when he came face to face with them. “I didn’t want to lose the illusion that I had,” he says. “I would have lost a degree of respect.”
Instead, for his third LP, released in June 1969, Mike produced a live album debuting his permanent persona: The Mingering Mike Show—Live From the Howard Theater. He’d let this new character deal with the stresses of fame, the heat of the spotlight, and all the applause. He made up his stage name from the words mingling and merging; he thought Mingering sounded just right.
“He is flashy, and he’s out there,” Mike says of Mingering Mike. “I’m just in the shadows, just doing my everyday life. I can walk around and do what I want and not have to worry about people noticing me.”
“I dreamed I’ve been to Paris and Rome
Throwin’ shows for people.
I been everywhere
And I ain’t been nowhere.
And every year I’m getting a little older
I want a gold record, you know?
I wanna do movies, musical movies and stuff,
Maybe star in ’em”
—“Stars in the Eyes of Men,” written by Mingering Mike and the Big D, date of recording unknown but presumed to be around 1969–1970.
One person did notice—his second cousin Derrick.
Mike’s main social interactions consisted of family gatherings at an aunt’s house for dinners and games of bingo. Through the gabbing and joking, Mike formed a connection with Derrick. Both being movie nerds, they adored westerns and James Bond.
One day, the two were on the phone, possibly discussing movies. Derrick got around to mentioning he wrote songs. He then sang a few over the phone. They were love ballads.
Derrick didn’t just have songs. He had “violins.” He cut short his vocals to put on his producer’s hat: The violins would play the melody line. He then mimicked the string sound swelling in his head. Even without a studio, recording budget, or seasoned team of violinists, it was still beautiful.
These songs should be on the radio, Mike thought. Why can’t they be out there? “They were so fantastic,” Mike says. Not only could he write, but he could sing falsetto and make homemade beats, too.
Derrick was 15 and Mike was 19. It didn’t matter. Mingering had finally found a partner.
Within a few weeks, Mike trekked to Derrick’s apartment in the Valley Green housing project. Derrick took out a reel-to-reel and set it up in his bedroom. The duo made its debut then and there. It was, Mike says, “Heaven. Period.”
Derrick had figured out how to get different drum timbres using a phone book. He’d thwack different points on the cover with his Afro pick, adjust the pages to get the right drum sound he wanted. His rhythms were tighter than what Mike could produce from his mouth, lungs, and diaphragm.
The two developed their own Wall of Sound. With Derrick’s voice and mimicry skills, Mike’s songs could now include flute and even fuzz guitar. Mike thought of him as a genius with those phone books. “He was a technician,” he recalls.
The world of Mingering Mike had to make room for a slew of albums featuring “The Big D.” On the liner notes for 3 Footsteps Away From the Altar, Mike wrote: “The Big ‘D’ is a find, find, talent and I believe if he would further his education, would make him even a better singer and song writer, he’s just about the best, you see, his name the big ‘D’.”
In their early recording sessions, they merely reproduced sounds they heard on the radio. They wrote a response to James Brown’s “Hot Pants,” a song called “Ripcord.” They made up a Ripcord dance, too. The rest, Mike says, were love songs. He remembers one particularly gooey tune, “The 7oo’s of Love.”
As the duo matured, it managed to pull off something uncanny. Mike’s and Big D’s songs shouldn’t have worked. They should have sounded silly and not even like music. But even with the tape hiss and primitive beat-boxing, soul’s DNA is right there on the recordings. The bouncy beat, the plaintive coaxing, the pillowy background vocals. They understood the melodies of Sam Cooke and Motown and the complex arrangements of Curtis Mayfield.
Until the music stopped. Right in the middle of his collaboration with Big D, Mike got a draft notice to ship out to Fort Dix in New Jersey.
When he arrived, in March 1970, a drill sergeant shouted the obvious: “You’re not on the block!”
After basic training, Mike was given a furlough. He had orders to fly to Seattle and then presumably to Vietnam. Instead, he went back to Barnaby Terrace and stayed there. Mike went AWOL—a lifestyle he had trained for all his life.
Going AWOL could have been the end to any other singer’s career. But it did wonders for Mingering, yielding deeper, more complicated songs. The Two Sides of Mingering Mike, produced in July 1970, showed exactly what AWOL life meant. The cover showed two Mingerings: the military Mike with rifles and gear, and the Entertainer Mike. Somewhere on that cardboard LP was the real Mike.
His songs got funky and raw and really sad. In addition to writing about sickle cell and multiple sclerosis, he railed against booze (The Root of All Evils, and the singles “Homecoming/But When You Drink,” “But When You Drink [You Drink Alone]”), loneliness (Sit’tin At Home With the Lowdown Blues, Isolation, “Sittin in the Movies Alone”), and weariness (Mercy The World). All were big hits.
In 1972, according to Mingering Mike, he produced 15 albums and more than 20 singles. New labels stacked up: Spooky, Nations Capitol, Ramit, Minger, Goldpot, Puppy Dogg, Fake, Lord’s House, and, later, Sex Records.
Mingering’s success only encouraged rougher stuff. Mike titled one LP Life Is a Bitch and drew for its cover art a dinner plate of smeared feces and green vomit goop. Mike admits that 1974 album was only a cult hit.
Mike also learned to paint his fake vinyl to make it shine like real vinyl. He figured out the lengths of his songs and how to space them out just right by measuring songs on his store-bought vinyl. He would take off the shrink-wrap from his Motown stuff and shimmy it onto his own handmade work. The transfer could take at least an hour.
Mike worked in all available media: the long-playing LP, the 45 single, and even the lowly eight-track. Of course, there was a drawback to working in cardboard—the grooves didn’t produce any sound.
Big D discovered that you could get a recording made at Union Station for 50 cents. The end result was a one-sided piece of cardboard with a thin vinyl sheet. You could only get one side made. “I’d get two and glue them together,” Mike recalls. “It was exciting. But it was like a stepping stone because I wasn’t satisfied with that little tiny thing there. It was only like a minute.”
Mike hit the yellow pages hunting for local recording spots. He found U.S. Recordings on South Capitol Street (the company later moved to Virginia) which offered to turn his reel-to-reel tapes into acetate with a vinyl coating.
“Less than a week later they’d have a finished product, and they gave you enough labels to put it on yourself,” Mike recalls. “That was great. Just the smell of the vinyl-coated acetate. It was one of those heaven feelings.”
Mike and Derrick made possibly 200 recordings. Only 10 ever made it onto acetate. And they didn’t try to sell those.
But Mike and Big D were confident enough to pay a visit to Arrest Records (slogan: “Everybody needs an Arrest record”), located at 1420 K St. NW, in the mid ’70s. They brought their reel-to-reel tapes and played them for the label’s honchos.
Mike remembers Arrest’s personnel complaining that his songs were too rough. “They couldn’t understand the thing,” he says. “I said, ‘Well, back to the drawing board.’ That was my chance.”
“The moment of truth, has finally arrived
My hearts pounding harder and faster
Then the seconds, ‘Whiskin’, Right on by”
And if I do….‘Make the grade’
I guess things, for me, Will be Alright
Alright, Alright, Alright!
And right after that night
The morning came
And it felt as though
The whole darn world and me
The Birds, the Sun and the Sky, ‘Yes’
Every single thing seems new
Waking up and getting dressed
Feels so good and raidant too!
Gosh…I’d hate ta think that
All this only means, something only to me”
—“Opening Night,” written, according to Mike’s records, on Nov. 16, 1976, April 17, 1977, and May 4, 1993, between 2:17 p.m. and 3:05 p.m.
The only way you could actually witness a Mingering Mike performance is if you were a mental patient, a sick child, or a senior citizen.
In the early ’70s, after Mike went AWOL, Roland and Cathy came up with the idea of organizing a variety show. Roland had developed an extensive magic act as the Incredible Steve-a-Reno. Cathy had started a second or third career as part of a touring gospel group called the Spiritual Songs of Joy. They decided to get the rest of the family in on the show.
Mike agreed to join the revue, which included Ralph (cousin, known as “Rambling Ralph” on Mingering LP covers), Warren (cousin, known as “Joseph War” on Mingering LP covers), Andre (cousin, known as “Audio Andre” on Mingering LP covers), and, of course, Big D. They put on shows at D.C. Village, St. Elizabeths, and Children’s Hospital.
There is no real pressure in playing before ailing kids or the medicated elderly in wheelchairs. These are captive audiences that will clap for anything, will dig anything.
Someone forgot to tell Mike. “Naturally, I was scared at every show,” he says. “I kind of warmed up. I got a little bit more confident. It worked out pretty good. I liked the exposure and the response. That’s what gets you going.”
With Audio Andre’s help, Mike figured out a way to play a song so all you heard was the background music. This involved cranking up the reverb to unapproved levels. He’d then sing overtop and do a wacky dance. He was introduced as “Mingering Rubber Legs Mike,” after the performer’s noodle-legged and jittery dancing style.
Roland made audio recordings of each show. They’d play them back to hear which act went over and which did not. “It was pretty entertaining—especially listening to the tapes afterwards,” Mike says.
Those tapes, though, were missing something: Mike’s songs. After endless hours of bathroom recording sessions, painstaking work with the reel-to-reel machine, and an early adulthood spent writing lyrics, Mike never performed his own material before the most receptive of audiences. He did covers, singing along to the J.B.’s and the Impressions. “Move On Up” was a staple.
Mike says there was a reason he didn’t do his own material. “I would prefer to play with a band,” he says.
After the shows petered out, Mike retired his Rubber Legs persona. At least one family member kept going in show business. Warren was part of a club (“The Wolf Pack”) that put on shows at the Psychedelic Room at 10th and Michigan Avenue NE.
Mike would draw the promotional fliers. Warren would hang them up around the post office where he worked. “Mike didn’t go to the shows,” Warren, 63, says. “He might have been once or twice, I’m not sure. I don’t think so. He never said he wanted to go.”
By 1977, Mike stopped collaborating with Derrick and ceased album production.
Mike got a job at the Alabama Avenue branch of Sunny’s Surplus, where he worked his way from clerk to manager. “I was a slave to my work habit,” he explains.
He stuck around the surplus store for more than a decade. When former co-workers would come back to visit, Mike would get depressed. “It seemed like I’m in roller skates. When somebody leaves, they’ve got a skateboard, and I’m still in roller skates,” Mike explains. “They come back again, and they got a 10-speed bike, and I’m in roller skates. They leave and come back again, they got a car, and I’m in roller skates.”
Mike made one last attempt to get his music career going. In the early ’80s, he took lyrics for one of his songs to a Jerry Lee Lewis concert. His idea was to throw his sheet on stage. Lewis would see it, appreciate it, maybe play it, and help him get signed.
As he was about to throw his music sheet on stage, he noticed a woman a few feet away with the same idea. She threw her lyrics at Lewis’ feet before he could. “I figured her being a female and he being into females, why would he take mine?” he says.
Mike kept the lyrics in his pocket.
“I’m fed up
enough is enough
is enough is enough
I’m fed up
Of all your lies
And alibis and
I’m fed up
With money in hand
Never to see you again.”
—Untitled and unfinished work, written according to Mike’s records, in May 2008.
Mike sees little daylight. For almost a decade, he has held down two night jobs. He sweeps the floors of a downtown government office building on weekday evenings; three nights a week he does the graveyard shift as a security guard in a senior building.
By 9 a.m., Mike hits the Metro and then walks four long blocks home. An old Tower Records bag serves as his briefcase. Sleep is an hour here, an hour there—nothing restful. “Sometimes I don’t get to sleep at all,” he says.
Dark-blue janitor pants, white undershirt, and a skull cap make up Mike’s uniform. He is in his late 50s, his hairline is receding and going gray. He has bony shoulders and a fast-food gut. Mike doesn’t look like a soul star.
Mike thinks that Mingering’s chart success would have earned him a comfortable home in a gated community or country estate obscured by trees and an intimidating fence. Reality is far more modest—a two-bedroom apartment off Benning Road, a loner’s nest walled with half-priced vinyl and old tapes of television shows.
There are 17 crates of vinyl in the entrance. To the left of those are another 20 crates of vinyl, and so on. He has more than a few broken double–tape deck stereos now, relics from the early ’90s. A sealed Connect Four game—swag from a show he hosted at Austin’s South-by-Southwest music festival in March—appears to have found a permanent home on the kitchen floor.
In a back room, he has boxes of CDs and cassettes, all stacked and categorized: male singers, female singers, groups, etc. The walls of Mike’s place speak to obsessions. Taped up in the back room are 10-year-old notes for a Lionel Richie-themed mix tape. Alongside of that sheet? A rough draft of those notes.
Unfinished Mingering lyrics are scattered all over his apartment. Mike still gets inspired in the bathroom. On the wall behind the toilet, he wrote out lyrics for two songs. On a mid-August afternoon, he unearths an incomplete song he started writing in May. He got as far as scrawling the lyrics above. “It’s far from done,” Mike says. “Just like a good story, it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m at the beginning and I’m going through the middle. I have to find the ending.”
The majority of his songs did not have happy endings. Mike estimates that he has lost 4,000 songs during his career. In the early ’80s, 2,000 were destroyed in a flood at a cousin’s condo. He didn’t know what had happened to the other half, the ones in the storage facility, once he got behind on the payments.
Mike particularly hurts over the first 2,000. “It was terrible,” he says. “It’s a part of you that you’ve been carrying around for years and it’s not there no more.”
The next best thing happened. He got discovered in the RFK stadium parking lot in 2003.
Dori Hadar, a local DJ and private investigator, found 15 to 20 boxes of Mike’s LPs. The handmade records had been crammed alongside a stash of real vinyl. The dealer priced them at $2 a piece, an almost respectable price for cardboard vinyl.
Hadar bought as many as he could. He then posted his finds on the Web site, Soul Strut. “People went apeshit,” he remembers. “People were just freaking out over the whole thing.”
Determined to hunt down this mysterious artist, Hadar went back to the flea market and found some of Mike’s personal effects, including an old bill with Warren’s address. When he knocked on the door, Audio Andre answered.
Weeks later, a rendezvous at the Denny’s near Mike’s apartment marked the start of an unlikely collaboration. Mingering Mike, if not the name of his creator, would soon be out in the open. The New York Times broke Mike’s story.
Last year, Mike’s work was shown at Hemphill Fine Arts, Hadar’s Mingering Mike book was published, and a New York City label issued another Mingering Mike first—a playable 45. The New Yorker, the Washington Post, Studio 360, and Entertainment Weekly have all helped turn Mike into something of a phenom.
Soul nerds do not get this kind of attention. Their province is the record store, the obscure DJ set, the Web pages of places like Soul Strut and Soul Sides. What made Mingering Mike successful was the fact that there were other Mingerings out there— maybe not as lonely but just as obsessed.
“I can only assume most music nerds had that same fantasy,” Wire writer David Mills explains in an e-mail. “I know I did. I never drew any album covers, but I did write up fantasy liner notes, with P-Funk musicians performing my non-existent songs….You have to respect Mike’s attention to detail. The various make-believe record labels, the catalogue numbers. I mean, good Lord. That’s commitment to a vision.”
The one detail not quite completely drawn in is where Mike fits into the world of a now-famous Mingering Mike, the Mingering Mike of the Internet, trips to festivals, and art symposia in Amsterdam and, at the end of this month, a lecture in Liverpool.
For most of his public outings, Mike has worn a wig, fake goatee, and sunglasses. In one instance, his costume included a cardboard 45 swinging from a fake gold chain draped around his neck.
In June, a local band had expressed interest in performing with Mike at a District venue. At least one practice was scheduled. But nothing came of it and Mike did not press it.
“I don’t think it’s really changed his life,” Hadar says. “He made it clear very early
on that ‘I don’t have any real expectations. I’m not going to set myself up for disappointment. I’m going to continue living how I’m living.’”
Girlfriends and close friends, Mike says, do not know about Mingering Mike. He would like very much to keep it that way. “I was hanging out at this guy’s bar, and they just took pictures of me on the turntable,” Mike recalls of his trip in Amsterdam. “It freaked me.”
But Mike may soon have to change his position on secrecy. A famous soul band wants to collaborate on a Mingering Mike comeback album. This time the grooves won’t be drawn on cardboard.
For now, Mike doesn’t mind all the attention being placed on Mingering Mike. It gives him a chance to write songs without the hassle of unwanted attention and pressure. “I haven’t had the chance to fail,” he says. “It’s just art.”
“It seems like yesterday
When you loved me, ‘In every way’
Those were happy days
But now, ‘They’ve all faded away…’”
—“Our Love Has Slipped Away,” written, according to Mike’s records, in 1969 and rewritten on Jan. 18, 2008, between 3 and 4:03 p.m.
Movie producers have been talking to Mike about making a movie based on his life. The negotiations are serious and a deal may be very close. He’s gone to lunch with the film people. They already have ideas about who might play him.
Mike thought the film people were pretty cool. A film would be a fitting tribute—movies and movie soundtracks were the last projects Mike and Big D worked on. Sometimes they remade ones from old movies. Sometimes they made up their own songs and plots. He had transfromed Mingering from a Little Stevie Wonder-type to a P-Funk action hero.
Mingering appeared in a Bruce Lee–inspired epic Brother Of The Dragon (“I was just thinking about what if it was like some kind of connection between America and China like military”), a crime epic they called Hot Rodd (“A good guy is the fall guy who gets put in jail”), and an anti-drug epic called Tight Squeeze (“It had something to do with drugs. Like a person trying to get out of the drug scene”), among others. Of course, all of Mingering Mike’s movies failed to go beyond felt-tip-and-cardboard productions.
Now that someone else is plotting a real movie about him, Mike would like to showcase on the big screen a song that has haunted him for years. It is the one opportunity that could lure him out of hiding.
“Our Love Has Slipped Away” has yet to find a satisfying chord progression, a string-enhanced sweet-and-sour bridge, a proper beat. This teenager’s lament to an ex-girlfriend with memories of “sittin on the couch at her moms” and “smoochin’ in the dark” is just a lyric, 40 lines carefully composed on unlined paper, waiting to be sung.
If it were to find a willing vocalist, the vocalist should know that the first stanza—the hook—and the rest of the song should be done in the deep, puppy-dog mournful style of ’50s chart topper, Katrina-survivor, and famous recluse Fats Domino. In fact, the hook was written expressly for the singer.
Since it was penned in 1969, it remained a thing of promise, unfinished business that might eventually pay off in some way.
Mike held on to it as best he could. When he moved to various apartments in Southeast, the song went with him. But like all good pop music stories, this one is not without tragedy. And so in the early ’80s, “Our Love Has Slipped Away” just disappeared.
Years and years later, a snippet of the song came back to him. He then went crate digging in his head and found a little more of it. Its first stanza played across his mind in stereo. It was a beautiful hook and it cleaved to his brain like the biggest hit of all time.
“It’s was always on my mind for the last 10, 12 years,” Mike says from his couch in mid-August.
In January of this year, Mike decided to write the song fresh. Only the first stanza—that hook—quoted above could be completely recovered from memory. Much of the rest he wrote from scratch. He remembered that his old version had green trees. Now he had them swaying softly in sunlight and warm sand.
“Those were happy days
But now, ‘They’ve all faded away’
If only, only, only I could
Bring back yesterday.
My heart could beat strongly again
Because, ‘You see now’
It seeeeems like somehow
Seeeeems like Some Way
Our love has slipped away.”
After Mike was finished, he still thought about Fats. The song could not be complete without Fats’ good-natured growl.
“It would be popular for him and me,” Mike says, imagining their moment. “I’d be at the piano, white tails. He’d be at the piano with white tails. I was thinking we should both have white tails but maybe he should have pink tails. And he’d have his hair like he used to have it. And I would have my hair copied off of him. It would be at a concert. It would be a dream sequence.”
Mike pitches a little forward, in full creative swing.
“We’re dealing with the world of Mingering Mike,” Mingering Mike explains. “I would like this to be in the movie for that dream sequence. And not just a 30-second cut of the song—the full length of the song. It would be a lot of applause and things like that and fade to black.”
Maybe Fats could get a Grammy in the dream, Mike wonders. Or maybe Fats deserves a greater recognition.
“I just thought of something,” Mike says. Fats could be awarded his own Mingering Mike award: “Another trophy that I made up that looked like a record.”