Mighty Hannibal: The late, great funk showman you’ve never heard of

The singer, whose real name was James Timothy Shaw, broke racial barriers and influenced a generation of musicians

James Timothy Shaw, better known as Mighty Hannibal.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

James Timothy Shaw died on Jan. 30 at 74. He was better known as King Hannibal or the Mighty Hannibal, but if you’ve never heard of him, you’re not alone.

Hannibal was an R&B, funk and gospel singer-songwriter who released only two albums of original material. He occupied the rest of his time as a sometime actor, a staff producer at Venture Records, an entertainment editor at The Atlanta Voice, a drug addict and a pimp. He scored a couple of minor hits but labored primarily in obscurity. His passing is worth mentioning and his work worth celebrating because, when Hannibal was at his best, he was socially ahead of the curve. He fronted an integrated band in Atlanta before Arthur Lee and Love, and wrote songs about addiction with an unsentimental directness, born of experience.

Starting in the late 1950s, Hannibal released a few singles on independent labels, such as 1958’s “Big Chief Hug-Um an’ Kiss-Um” and “The Biggest Cry,” the latter written and arranged by Jack Nitzsche, who went on to work with the Rolling Stones and Neil Young. None of these efforts were chart toppers, but by working with white artists like Nitzsche, Hannibal was already expanding beyond his cultural confines.

In 1964, Atlanta clubs were physically split down the middle by a rope — an actual rope, to keep the races divided. Even the musicians’ unions were segregated. Dennis St. John’s band the Cardinals signed with the black union. Shortly afterward, they secured a plum opening gig but had no lead singer. They did one set of instrumentals. As the second set began, “I looked up,” said St. John, “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!” That guy was Hannibal.

“Back then, we had more guts than a hog,” Hannibal later recalled about his time in the Cardinals. “(The fans) were college kids, and when they’d see a big black buck wearing overalls staring them down they’d get scared. 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.”

“We never planned on it to be a civil rights thing,” St. John said. “It just happened.”

Hannibal first got some attention in 1965 with “Jerkin’ the Dog.” In this television clip from the time, we get a glimpse of his style.

“Jerkin’ the Dog” is a dance number, a pastiche of vocal and musical gestures typical of its time. Hannibal’s flamboyance is much like the sort that Little Richard or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins displayed almost a decade before. Still, “Jerkin’ the Dog” put a dent in the regional charts. It’s easy to assume that Hannibal would have continued working in this direction, honing his moves, releasing regional dance singles. But that’s not what happened.

"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," Hannibal told Creative Loafing in 2007. “Hymn No. 5” was written before day’s end. Hannibal and his wife, soul singer Delia Gartrell, crafted a waltz framed by terror and loss with gospel roots. Unlike most traditional religious music, “Hymn No. 5” contains no redemption. It is simply the last desolate letter of a fictional black soldier, dying in the dirt.

I want somebody to tell my mother

And go down yonder in Georgia and tell my father

That I’m way over here crawling in the trench holes

Covered in blood

But one thing that I know

There’s no tomorrow

They’re burying me

“Somebody had to do it, and I got paid,” Hannibal said. “I was talking about the soldiers who weren’t coming back.”

Even if he had done nothing else in his career — and he came close in terms of a limited output — “Hymn No. 5,” released in 1966, is a singular achievement. One would have to go back to 1959 and the Staple Singers’ “I’m Coming Home (Parts 1 & 2)” to get a comparable minimalist jolt of mortal intensity, and forward another year to the release of “Heroin” on “The Velvet Underground & Nico” to hear such plain talk about addiction. Both aspects are fully present in “Hymn No. 5.”

The song found immediate resistance. “White radio stations wouldn’t play it,” remembered Wendell Parker, owner of the label that released the single. “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 GIs who ate it up.” The truth it told, and the passion with which it delivered it, were deemed unacceptable by white program directors. But because of its grassroots support, the song became a hit, reaching No. 21 on the Billboard R&B chart.

The modest success of “Hymn No. 5” fueled Hannibal’s heroin habit, and soon afterward he was arrested for failing to pay taxes, which eventually landed him in prison. After his incarceration, he got clean and released the album “Truth” in 1973. One of his singles from that year, “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” is more overtly Christian than “Hymn No. 5” but no less stark in its treatment of addiction. “I want to talk to all you addicts out there who got yourself a great big jone [sic], and you done tried all the methadone,” Hannibal begins in the spoken-word introduction, authoritative as a Gospel preacher. Then, over the deep, sanctified and funky groove, he tells it like it is:

Drugs is just a new name for slavery

Lord, I bear witness: I was hooked

And then things began to stall out. He had a hit in the Netherlands a few years later with “Hoedown Disco” (sadly, not available on YouTube). The song is notable mostly because, when Neil Diamond expressed an interest in using it, Hannibal refused, calling him “a midget” and “a Camel-smoking mother---er.” One would normally discount such a tale, except Hannibal didn’t seem to lie. “The stories always seemed too crazy to be real, but they always checked out,” said his friend and Black Lips member Jared Swilley. “They were unbelievable. But the thing is, he led an unbelievable life.” Hannibal’s career was briefly resuscitated in 1998 after some of his music was featured in the glam-rock film “Velvet Goldmine.” Another album, “Who Told You That,” was issued, then more silence — mostly.

Swilley persuaded Hannibal to perform in Atlanta in 2007, for the first time in 30 years. He was surrounded by civil rights activists and young hipsters. An official proclamation was read declaring Jan. 12 “Mighty Hannibal Day.” Once again, he fronted another nervous white band. Once again, he wore pink.

In 2010, Hannibal was credited with co-writing “There’s No Tomorrow” with Elton John, Leon Russell and T Bone Burnett, released on John and Russell’s album “The Union.” His contribution, put another way, was in allowing these statesmen of rock to appropriate the chorus of “Hymn No. 5.”

His protégé King Khan offered this remembrance in Rolling Stone magazine:

“The Mighty Hannibal had an incredible wit and was always a showman. As a publicity stunt, he rode an elephant through midtown Manhattan. He got stuck in the backseat of a car driven by Ray Charles. He learned how to make Molotov cocktails from Stokely Carmichael. His stories could make you laugh the hardest laugh or cry the biggest cry. He inspired the next generation of rock n' roll to carry his torch and bring light to the darkest of places.”

In Hannibal’s own words, “Sometimes people don’t like me because I’m too honest, I speak the truth.”

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter