Starting a Movement heard overseas, Delia Gartrell's Atlanta soul hits home

Merely a mention of the Mighty Hannibal evokes both reactions of fear and excitement from anyone who has crossed paths with the 1960s Atlanta soul man, and with good reason. He's a handful, to say the least. Over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., he barks with a cool and gravelly voice, "I may be blind, and I may be turning the big 7-0 come August, but I'm still the baddest mutha I know!"

That declaration comes at the end of two weeks of persistent phone calls, during which he's left me upward of 20 voicemails graciously demanding, "Please call me back, son!" The old man still has a belly full of fire that can be quite contagious, and at his age he doesn't have anything to worry about but taking care of business.

The reason for his calls wasn't to hype up a show or talk about a new song he's finishing. He called to talk about his wife and longtime musical cohort, Delia Gartrell. After watching her songs languish in obscurity for years, Hannibal's label, My Record Kompany, has issued a stirring collection of Gartrell's singles, titled Starting a Movement. The CD is the first full-length that gathers all but two songs from a recording career that spanned the late 1950s through the '70s.

Though her songs carry the political weight of a singer who witnessed the darkest hours of the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam War, and the plague of drug addiction that black soldiers brought back from the jungles, there's a sweetness to her sound that gives a poignant touch to all she's seen.

Sitting at Aurora Coffee in Virginia-Highland on a Saturday night, Gartrell recalls a lifetime of stories that carry her from Atlanta to Los Angeles to Harlem and back. Her presence stands in calm contrast to her husband, and when the conversation turns to Hannibal's reputation as a human tornado, she breaks into a hearty laugh. "Oh, I can handle him," she says. "When he gets riled up I say, 'James T. Shaw!' and he straightens up."

While the two are separated by the distance between Gartrell's Union City home base and Brooklyn – which Hannibal says he won't leave even to go to heaven – she says they still talk like a married couple.

Gartrell was born in 1940, and as a child her mother would not allow her to listen to R&B music. Instead, she developed her voice by singing her way through a steady diet of gospel and jazz tunes, and declares an undying love for everyone from Dinah Washington to Luther Vandross. Her recollections are hazy, but she remembers that her first professional singing gig was at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, where she sang with R&B hit maker Jackie Wilson. "I was so nervous," Gartrell admits. "But I have been singing pretty much my whole life, so it was all right."

Much time has passed since most of the material on Starting a Movement was recorded. Yet the songs resonate as powerfully today as they did when they were written. "See What You Done Done (Hymn No. 9)" and "Fight Fire With Fire" ring with the trials and tribulations of a woman caught in the crossfire of America's turbulent '60s and '70s. The title track, "Starting a Movement," is a slinky double-entendre charged with equal parts political and sexual swagger.

But nothing speaks louder than the disc's closing number, her 1970 rendition of L.A. singer Young Jessie's song "Beautiful Day." "After so many years at last I'm free," Gartrell sings. "I once was a queen but you made a slave out of me/My mom and daddy are gone but they said before they left/Girl sometimes the world will help you but you've just got to help yourself."

Her rendering of the song paints an empowering portrait of a day in the life of black America at the end of the 1960s. But it takes on a brand new significance in the here and now.

At the time she recorded it nearly 40 years ago, the song was too controversial for radio. "I put so much into that song and people got so upset," she recalls. "They said, 'Why do you want to start trouble by singing something like that?' People were worried about our safety, but we were always outspoken and we had something to say! I put so much into the song and it hurt that people didn't hear it."

Fast forward to 2007. Gartrell received a phone call from Atlanta DJ and music archivist Brian Proust, better known as Agent 45. Proust, who writes for the blog Georgia Soul!, tracked her down to document her story. During their conversation, he informed her that "Beautiful Day" appeared on a compilation released in the U.K. titled Holding the Losing Hand: Hotlanta Soul, Vol. 3. As it turns out, the original single released on Aware Records is considered something of a holy grail for record collectors. It seemed the song was finally receiving the attention that Gartrell had hoped for. After looking into it further, she discovered more of her songs were garnering play throughout Europe.

"I had no idea that these songs were a big deal, but 'Starting a Movement' had started a whole new movement," she says.

Now, with the compilation's release, the movement is coming back to the States. And Hannibal, for one, couldn't be happier. "Dee Dee never had the international acclaim that I had because she never put together an album until now," he says. "This one is really gonna be a big one for us."