CAN YOU JUDGE AN ALBUM BY ITS COVER?: You could if it was a Mingering Mike production
|Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career Of An Imaginary Soul Superstar | Dori Hadar | Princeton Architectural Press | 192 pages | $24.95|
To any true vinyl obsessive, a rare musical artifact — and the story behind it — is often as compelling as the sound in its grooves. The Beatles’ quickly withdrawn “Butcher Cover” is a far more interesting, and valuable, find than the version on the American release of Yesterday and Today.
In the case of the ’70s soul artist named “Mingering Mike” Stevens — whose album covers have come to be regarded as prized pieces of folk art, and who is the subject of the new book Mingering Mike — there exists little actual audio at all. Here was a mastermind behind some 50 albums, as many singles, and 35 record labels — but almost nothing that could have been played on a stereo system.
Still, albums can connect with people in more ways than one. And sometimes the sound an LP produces is just one of those ways. Shared obsession is another. That’s what connects Mingering Mike, who had vanished for decades, with a private detective from DC. Dori Hadar found Mingering Mike, and his journey led to a poignant book by this first-time author.
It all began on a cold December morning in 2003. Hadar, a criminal investigator by day and a DJ by night, was wading through bins of old LPs at a DC flea market. As a long-time crate digger addicted to the thrill of the hunt and the buzz of discovery, he had amassed tons of rare titles over the years. “For me, it’s all about finding the weirdest record,” he says now over the phone from DC.
What he stumbled on that day was a bizarre treasure trove. The first LP in the stack was The Mingering Mike Show — Live from the Howard Theater, and it was just one of dozens with the Mingering Mike moniker. Hand-drawn and colored, these LP covers depicted an assortment of African-American artists besides Mike: “Audio Andre,” “Joseph War,” “The Big D,” “Rambling Ralph.” To Hadar’s further bafflement, the LPs themselves were made of cardboard, with hand-drawn and painted grooves circling an array of homemade labels he’d never heard of: Tip of the Hat, Mother Goose, Hypnotic, Sex, and, yes, Fake Records.
“I’m pulling out these records and there’s one called Brother of the Dragon, and it’s like a kung fu soundtrack, but the record is made out of cardboard,” Hadar recalls. “My initial thought was that it must have been some high-school art project, but there were too many of them. And then I thought, maybe these are sketches or prototypes for albums that were in the works. I didn’t understand at all, but they were so detailed and so cool, there was no way I was going to pass on them. No way.”
Stumped, Hadar posted scans of the LP covers on the on-line record-collecting site www.soulstrut.com and soon began receiving responses from equally intrigued vinyl junkies. One came from Frank Beylotte, an acquaintance from DC who had been to the same flea market and had picked up a stack of cardboard 45s by Mingering Mike. Beylotte and Hadar later found out that the stash had come from the storage unit of one Mike Stevens, whose “LPs” and other valuables had been auctioned off after he’d fallen behind in his rent.