All the World’s a Fantastical Stage for the Artist Mingering Mike

‘Re:Frame’ delves into a work of one of Washington D.C.’s most imaginative artists and his fascination with the historic Howard Theatre

Mingering Mike
A new episode of the web series “Re:Frame” from the Smithsonian American Art Museum explores the story and artworks of Mingering Mike. SAAM

Mingering Mike may be one of the most prolific soul singers in American history, but he never played a live show and you won’t find his recordings online. That’s because Mike, and his musical career, were invented in the 1960s by a Washington, D.C.-based artist known only by the alliterative alias, “Mingering Mike.”

As a young man, Mike fabricated a vivid and fantastical world of live performances, studio albums and soundtracks for which he created his own hand-painted facsimiles of LP album covers. Some of his works were even designed with shrink wrap and liner notes, further blending reality and fiction.

Mike’s imagined discography explores pressing cultural issues like the Vietnam War, poverty, and drug abuse, as well as more traditional subjects like love and relationships. More than anything, his work is a celebration of the music he loved. Between 1968 and 1977, Mingering Mike wrote more than 4,000 songs, created dozens of real recordings using acetate, reel to reel and cassette players, and drew hundreds of labels and album covers. Four years ago, his early fantasy-life creations were on display in the popular exhibition "Mingering Mike's Supersonic Greatest Hits" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

A new episode of the museum’s web series “Re:Frame” explores one of Mike’s pieces, The Mingering Mike Show Live From the Howard Theatre, and its connection to the historic Washington, D.C. venue.

The Re:Frame team recently sat down with the artist Mingering Mike to chat about the world he constructed and what it feels like to look back on his work 50 years after it was created. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you start making artwork?

Mike: I started making artwork back in 1968. My first album cover was Sit'tin By The Window.

And what inspired you to start?

What inspired me to start was the various TV shows and movies back in that era. I was just saying to myself: "Hey, I could do that." Or if I went to a movie, and the music wasn't all that good, I'd say: "Hey, I could do a better theme song than that." And so that's how it started with the music. At first all I could think of were titles, and so I would write down that title and then eventually something would come in my head.

Mingering Mike
The Mingering Mike Show Live From the Howard Theatre 1969 SAAM, © Mingering Mike, 2013.8.28

Who were some of your favorite musicians at that time?

My favorite musicians at the time were Jimmy Walker, Otis Redding, Bobby Darin, Julius Larosa, Stevie Wonder, a lot of them. My all-time favorite song would be “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones. Then after that, it would be James Brown with “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag.” And it goes on and on.

Did you ever take any art classes?

Well it was a requirement back then, like third, fourth, fifth, sixth grade. I recall drawing a dollar bill on a construction paper—I think I might have been nine—and it looked pretty good. It looked so good, I thought about taking it to the store!

Is that how you got interested in art?

Not really. While I was there in the school, I wasn't thinking of anything but just getting out there at recess time, until the bell ring for you to come back. But you know, some things just linger with you. It just stuck in the back of my head, until the music part started coming out. Then when I started writing songs, I wanted to have something to go with the songs, so I started creating albums.

How many works do you think you've created, in total?

I've probably made over 60 albums.

What materials did you use?

The material that I'd use were acquired from, it's CVS now, but it used to be called People's Drug. I used to go in there and get the poster board, and then I would go down to the local store, that sells paint and purchase various paints, and I would get markers, and then I would start on the project, whatever I was thinking about. Sometimes someone could be saying something, and I'd think: "Oh, that's a good lyric to a song, that I could start something with that." Then I can imagine different things and I would just put it on the paper and work it onto the cardboard.

Most of [the records] would take maybe like, a month. Or, if I was really interested in it, it might take maybe like, two and a half weeks, or so. The thing is, you've got to be perfect with those album covers there, because you make a mistake, then you have to start all over. And if you start all over, you might not have the dynamics of how you had it.

Do you have any special connection to the Howard Theatre?

The connection I have with the Howard Theatre is when I was going there, seeing all the various groups. Jimmy Walker, James Brown, Motown Revue—and it was fantastic to me.

My two older brothers, they used to work there, so I used to be able to get in sometimes for free. Matter of fact, my oldest brother used to be the one that ran the district theaters, at the time. So I can go to any theater, if he was working there, and watch a movie. So that was great for a kid growing up and didn't have too much money.

Did you ever expect anyone to see this work that's now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection?

I never expected anyone to be witness to some of the stuff that I've done, and I find it so fantastic that people come to see. And they will leave comments, and most of them are great comments.

How does it feel to look back at your work, 50 years after you made it?

It makes me feel like I'm an old fella. I said: "Good gosh, 50 years! My gracious!" And it's amazing that it still holds up.

Mingering Mike's works are held in the collections of the Smithsonian Art Museum. The artwork The Mingering Mike Show Live From the Howard Theatre is currently not on view.

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