Eccentric Soul: Mighty Mike Lenaburg
he story, in which our young protagonist erects a musical legacy in the American Southwest amongst largely overlooked African and Latin-American populations, is unlikely, silly even. Mike Lenaburg was a white kid from suburban California. While still in high school, he sowed the seeds for one of America’s quaintest soul institutions; before he was finished, Lenaburg had managed dozens of artists, booked shows, worked as a producer and label owner, and, perhaps most impressively, wrote much of the music on Eccentric Soul: Mighty Mike Lenaburg.
Mighty Mike’s liner notes praise Lenaburg for remaining true to the local Phoenix scene, rather than taking his act national. And while Lenaburg had pipe dreams of Phoenix growing into a soul hub a la Detroit or Memphis, it’s hard to imagine him actually doing it—a nice way of saying that there are no “near-misses” here. Rather, Lenaburg’s output seems appropriately obscure in light of the vast amount of soul music produced in the 60s and 70s. Complicating matters further, Mighty Mike’s most enduring tracks are its least commercially palatable. Michael Liggins & the Super Souls’ “Loaded Back” and We the People’s “Function Underground” bump amps with Jimi and Miles, psychedelic funk jams that outstrip the rest of Mighty Mike Motown and Stax sketches.
In contrast to many of the 60s calculating soul moguls, Lenaburg had a nose for off-the-cuff brilliance. Lenaburg’s undying faith in Phoenix locals was often rewarded: slapdash backing bands swung and strutted, sax players sang with abandon, teenagers wailed like pop stars. “Function Underground” was recorded by a gaggle of musicians because Lenaburg had a b-side to fill. “The Quarrel,” a hilarious, one-take skit recorded by the Newlyweds, became a local hit. Lenaburg’s greatest find was Ronnie Whitehead, the 14-year old son of two gospel singers who had never sung himself. Whitehead is the star of Mighty Mike, contributing two passable James Brown imitations as well as “Begging You,” a sweet, sock-hop goodnight on which Whitehead emotes like a much older lover. Lenaburg rolled the dice like this for almost 20 years, and while Mighty Mike has the benefit of some kind editing, he comes off like Midas.
Lenaburg’s most fruitful collaborator was Michael Liggins, an up-and-coming saxophonist who Lenaburg modeled into a lead singer. Liggins was capable of everything from the vivacious “Black and Beautiful” to the outstanding youth-pop of “Standing on the Corner.” Another Liggins track, “Loaded to the Gills” comes as advertised, with backing band the Super Souls flipping a blues guitar lick under a smoove flute lead and a hardy swing, Liggins chanting the title over all of it.
Mighty Mike runs the gamut of 60s and 70s soul emotion, emulating Sam Cooke, James Brown, Sly Stone, and anything else that Lenaburg could conjure out of his charges. As such, Mighty Mike can sound scattered, roughshod, and overly ambitious—all apt descriptions of Lenaburg as well. Way down in the desert, it took that sort of over-the-top devotion and vision to squeeze the soul out of Phoenix’s dry heat.