Soul legend the Mighty Hannibal's day of reckoning

Shortly before James Shaw, better known as the Mighty Hannibal, performed at the Earl on a Saturday night in January 2007, an entourage of Civil Rights activists gathered around him.

Shortly before James Shaw, better known as the Mighty Hannibal, performed at the Earl on a Saturday night in January 2007, an entourage of Civil Rights activists gathered around him. The packed audience of mostly white twentysomethings stood in rapt attention. It was the first time that the blind Bronx resident had returned to his hometown to play a show in nearly 25 years. Those in the crowd didn't want to miss a chance to honor an unsung hero, one who played an essential role in breaking down the racial barrier in Atlanta's music scene more than 40 years ago.

Sixties activist Willie Ricks, aka Mukasa Dada, best known for coining the slogan "Black Power," took the stage to read an official proclamation that made Jan. 12 Mighty Hannibal Day in Atlanta, because of the musician's work in furthering human and civil rights.

As the show started, the four fidgety members of Atlanta rock phenom the Black Lips stood as his backing band, sweating bullets and trying hard to hold the music together long enough for the hot-tempered soul man to make it through his politically and spiritually charged set. When most of the songs were penned, society referred to them as "race records." It was an era when blacks and whites in the South rarely intermingled.

The rest of the country saw change coming when black and white teenagers started dancing together on "American Bandstand." Closer to home, venues such as the Atlanta City Auditorium were divided down the middle by a rope. Blacks stood on one side, whites on the other. When Hannibal and the members of a band of white musicians called Dennis St. John and the Cardinals joined forces, the city took notice.

"Back then, we had more guts than a hog!" Hannibal laughs. "They were college kids, and when they'd see a big black buck wearing overalls staring them down they'd get scared," he says. "Just like when I played in white clubs and I saw someone in the audience chewing tobacco, I got scared. But we looked out for each other and we always made out OK."

St. John remembers those years well. "Hannibal was a real pioneer," he says.

Even though he was busy making history, Hannibal was far from a household name. But the legend's rabble-rousing spirit resonates with today's crop of rockers in a way that has earned him a new fan base – at a point in his career when most musicians would have already thrown in their turban.

At 69 years old, Hannibal has the energy of a teenager. He lost his sight around 2002 because, as he puts it, he "caught the glaucoma" from his father. In recent years, his hearing has started to slip as well. Despite his ailments, Hannibal is filled with allegories and one-liners he fires at will. In mid-sentence he bursts into songs he wrote in the '60s to underscore his points, and he holds a tune with the same fortitude he did as a young man.

He reels through stories about hanging out with James Brown, Little Richard, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, and talks about copping drugs with Ray Charles and being addicted to crack for more than 20 years. He's seen more than his share, but his spirit shows no sign of breaking.

The only decorations on the walls of his one-bedroom apartment on the downtrodden east side of the Bronx are the framed Hannibal Day proclamation from the '07 show at the Earl and a clock made from a tattered photo of a young Hannibal mugging it up with four other men. "You see the brother on the left with the funky afro?" he asks. "That's H. Rap Brown."

After gobbling down a plate of salmon steak and rutabaga, he dances around the apartment playing one CD-R after another of songs he's recorded over the years. Some are unreleased. Others made it out into the world, such as "Hoedown Disco," which he says was a "big hit in the Netherlands."

The third time he plays "Hoedown Disco," he sings the words with absolute elation before telling the story of sitting in the studio with Neil Diamond and St. John, who later played drums for Diamond. "This was back when Donna Summer was on the radio," he says. "I remember they told me that I could never mix disco and country music, but I knew I could. Neil was running around saying, 'Hannibal's crazy!' I recorded the song and when he heard it, he said, 'Hannibal please let me use that!' I said, 'Get the hell away from me you damn midget! You Camel-smoking motherfucker!'"

Stories like that make one wonder if "Hoedown Disco" could have been a bigger hit if Hannibal wasn't so persnickety. Listening to the songs he plays over and over on the portable CD player that sits next to his kitchen table is proof enough that, as a songwriter, Hannibal is a force of nature. Songs like "Jerkin' the Dog," "Shame, Shame" and "Hymn No. 5" are powerful and timeless on the level of universally lauded artists such as James Brown, Sam Cooke and Andre Williams. Yet his catalog remains in relative obscurity. "Sometimes people don't like me because I'm too honest," he offers. "I speak the truth."

In 1964, Dennis St. John and the Cardinals were building steam in Atlanta, but the band didn't have a singer. The city had two musicians' unions, one for whites and one for blacks. Discouraged by the "cranky old men with fat cigars" at the white union, the Cardinals signed instead with the black union. After landing a gig opening for bubblegum rocker Tommy Roe, St. John needed a frontman. Through the black union, he found Hannibal, who had just returned from spending a few years in Los Angeles.

The day of the show came, but there was no sign of the Cardinals' new lead. The group played one set and was about to start a second when a commotion erupted in the audience. "I looked up and saw this guy in a pink turban, pink cape, pink satin outfit and boots run onto the stage and say, 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag,' hit it!'" St. John says. "Back then, Hannibal was a showman."

From that point on, St. John and the Cardinals began to play venues where white musicians hadn't ventured. "It opened doors to some bizarre places, but we never planned it to be a Civil Rights thing. It just happened, but we are all proud of what we accomplished."

After scoring a hit with "Jerkin' the Dog" in '65 and '66, Hannibal adopted more of a political bent. "Me and my wife were watching the news and Walter Cronkite was talking about how all the soldiers were coming back from Vietnam addicted to opium," he says. Hannibal and his wife, soul singer Delia Gartrell, wrote the song "Hymn No. 5" in a matter of minutes. The song became an anti-establishment anthem that painted a picture of drug addiction and the horrors of war. It was a pretty radical move for the times.

"Somebody had to do it, and I got paid," he says. "I was talking about the soldiers who weren't coming back. For them there was no tomorrow."

Wendell Parker, who owned Shurfine Records, released "Hymn No. 5" in 1966. "White radio stations wouldn't play it, but you didn't tell Hannibal what to do," Parker says. "He did things his way. He was hard to deal with, but you have to give him credit for that. You didn't tell him how to sing, you went with his program and that was that."

Despite several factors working against the song, "Hymn No. 5" was a hit. "It sold over 3,000 copies in Columbus, Ga., alone," Parker says – presumably because Fort Benning servicemen were fans. "White radio wouldn't play it. Black people didn't care; they had a harder row to hoe. When you're concerned with survival, you're not interested in social things. It was the G.I.s who ate it up."

Throughout the '80s and '90s, Hannibal languished in obscurity despite releasing a 10-song CD in 1998 called Who Told You That? It wasn't until 2001, when Norton Records released Hannibalism!, a compilation of his songs written between 1958 and 1973, that things started turning around.

On New Year's Eve in 2005, the Black Lips played a Norton Records party in New York that Hannibal emceed. "I had Hannibalism! and liked it, so I was excited to see him," the Black Lips' frontman Jared Swilley says. "I was bullshitting, but I said he should play a show in Atlanta. I figured it would never come up again, but he called a few months later and we got him at the Earl."

Swilley says that playing with Hannibal was the most stressful gig he's ever done. "I stopped being Jared when he yelled at me," he laughs. "I was 'bass player.' Our drummer Joe Bradley almost walked out, and I started having a panic attack. He ended the show early because he wasn't happy with how we played, but what makes him a legend is that he's so committed to getting it right."

This time around, Hannibal will play a show at Eyedrum in honor of Mighty Hannibal Day, and he'll be backed by guitarist Freddie Terrell's five-piece Soul Expedition Band, along with his wife Gartrell. But he isn't content to rest on his laurels. He has plans to release a jazz album in the months ahead. In the meantime, he's also the subject of a documentary film called Showtime! being shot by independent filmmaker Ezra Bookstein.

The newfound interest in Hannibal's music couldn't make him happier. "I thank God every day that I was allowed to live through those times and help plant the seeds for bringing people together," Hannibal says. "And I thank him for people like Jared and the Black Lips for helping me get my propers before I leave the game."