Can Mike Really Sing?

  • What do musicians, aliases, and the nation’s capital have to do with American art?

    SAAM's Re:Frame explores American art’s many meanings and connections with experts across the Smithsonian.

    MELISSA: Soul singers of the 1960s and ‘70s are some of the most iconic artists in American music history. Marvin Gaye, Arethra Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding – these giants influenced generations of young performers, but what’s the connection between soul superstars, aspiring musicians, and American art? Let’s find out.

    Have you ever thought about the connection between art and… well then, buckle up. Join me and your personal team of Smithsonian experts as we “Re:Frame” American art.

    Though they’re not currently on display, SAAM has a large collection of records from an artist named Mingering Mike, which were all made in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These albums are all the same size and shape as ordinary LP covers, but they look like they were hand painted. This one, in particular, is so intriguing. It’s titled “The Mingering Mike Show Live from the Howard Theater.” I know the Howard Theatre is right here in Washington D.C., but I don’t know much about its history. Dwan Reece, the Curator of Music and Performing Arts at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, may be able to shed some light. What can you tell me about the Howard Theatre?

    DWAN REECE: The Howard Theatre is a theater in the Shaw district of Washington D.C. and was founded in 1910. First, what’s important to know is that it was a black theater for African-American audiences, so it has really a historic importance in the theater world and in the history of African-American entertainment.

    MELISSA: What kind of music is it famous for?

    DR: In the 1910s, in that early period, it did vaudeville. They brought speakers like Booker T. Washington, music, comedy, theater, and drama. As time progressed, as we moved into jazz and the big band period, we had Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald. As you move forward into history, and you get into the ‘50s and ‘60s, it started with blues artists like B.B. King, moved into rock and roll, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and then into rhythm and blues. In the great ‘60s, you have Motown artists. You have Gladys Knight and the Pips, you have Wilson Pickett, you have Otis Redding, so it really, really reflected what was going on in popular culture at the time and supported the music of the time.

    MELISSA: Why is the theater such an important landmark here in D.C.?

    DR: Washington, D.C. was such a foundation for African-American achievement and for artists and entertainers, it was really a way to legitimize their artistry and move them forward in the popular arena.

    MELISSA: But I wonder who Mingering Mike is and if he ever really played at the Howard? I bet Leslie Umberger, SAAM’s Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, will know more. Who is Mingering Mike?

    LESLIE UMBERGER: Mingering Mike is a Washington, D.C. artist. He was born in 1950, and I should start by saying that Mingering Mike isn’t his real name. It kind of goes with his identity constructed around this whole idea of a soul superstar singer. For a lot of kids like Mike, music – soul music – watching people like Marvin Gaye hit the big time right here in his local area, this was the dream. He ended up making this body of work that’s all centered around this idea that he is this famous musician, a singer-songwriter.

    MELISSA: So, he invented this persona, Mingering Mike?

    LU: The musical career that he invented was entirely in his imagination, but the body of work he made was totally real. He’s creating these facsimiles of LP albums, little 45s, cassette tapes, kind of the whole coterie of things that would comprise a real musical career. He comes up with different production companies; he casts all of his friends and relatives in the roles of his backup singers and collaborators, so it’s a very elaborate kind of mingling of fantasy and reality.

    MELISSA: So, did Mike ever actually play at the Howard?

    LU: No, Mike’s brother worked at the Howard, so he got snuck in to see shows sometimes, but Mike doesn’t ever perform in public. He likes to hang back in the shadows and just fantasize about that real superstardom.

    MELISSA: Mingering Mike’s richly-detailed album covers and record labels showcase a lost art form in our present age of streaming songs and digital downloads. While his work was inspired by popular music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, it ultimately reflects the unique vision of the fantasy soul superstar who created it. Though Mike never appeared on stage here at the historic Howard Theatre, his talent is celebrated just a mile down the road at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    Bye, art nerds.
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