The Mighty Hannibal Sees All

The Atlanta soul man has stories to tell, and who cares if they're true?

"I played with James Brown for a couple of shows but I smacked his ass so bad he paid me to get away from him. "

“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 these trench holes covered with blood,” yearns the Mighty Hannibal on his devastating 1966 anti-war anthem. “But one thing that I know … there’s no tomorrow, they’re burying me.” In a just world, “Hymn No. 5” would have made the Mighty Hannibal a household name rather than another obscure footnote in the book of lost soul legends.

Born James Shaw in Atlanta, 1939, Hannibal had the outlandish personality of a superstar and the talent to back it up but his career was often derailed by drug addiction. After breaking the chains of crack and heroin, Hannibal found Jesus and released the only full-length LP of his career in 1972. Titled simply Truth, it’s righteous, defiant, gritty, and funky as hell.

The last time Hannibal was here, in April 2007, TCB had a lively chat with the man before his show at the Scoot Inn. Bump & Hustle catches up this time around, rapping about Barack Obama, upstaging James Brown, and how much he loves Archie Bell’s big, fat butt. Hannibal, Bell, and Barbara Lynn play the Continental Club Saturday.

Bump & Hustle: You were born James Shaw in Atlanta in 1939. How and when did you become Hannibal?

Mighty Hannibal: During the time I started out singing was with the Johnny Otis Orchestra in Los Angeles. I used to Jimmy Shaw but at that time there was a flood of Jimmys. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Clanton, Jimmy McCracken, Jimmy Reed - too many Jimmys. I signed with a guy named Aki Aleong, who was an actor on General Hospital, and he gave me that name Hannibal [in 1959]. At that time there were only three people using a single name: me, Fabian, and Dion.

B&H: You started wearing the turban at that time, too?

MH: Yeah, because Hannibal was a Constantinian general who took the elephants across the Alps with the element of surprise and he conquered that part of the world. That history is studied in academies all over the world, especially West Point, to learn his strategy. I think I’m like that when I get ready to perform; I strategize what I’m going to do.

B&H: You moved to L.A. in the late 1950s and by all accounts had a pretty wild time out there.

MH: I was young and I was like anybody else, wild and crazy. I’m surprised I’m still alive. All my partners out there during those days are all gone. Johnny Watson, Johnny Taylor, all of them.

B&H: Tell me about the time in L.A. driving around with Ray Charles.

MH: Oh, Lord. His manager was sitting in the back seat and he had this technique, he used to put his hand on Ray’s shoulder to help him drive. I was in the front seat and when we got to about 35 miles per hour I jumped out the car! That was when I could see and I’ve been blind coming up on about three-and-a-half years. Ray was a strange blind fellow, though. I never will forget some of the things he would do. He would run up and down the steps like it wasn’t nothing. I’d say, “How did that fool do that and he’s blind?” But since I’ve been blind, now I can understand how he do it [laughs]. It’s not really a curse or anything that you’re blind, it’s really a blessing. I’ve got this song out called “What the Blind Man See.” I’m thankful to the young colorblind generation today because if people stop looking at each other’s skin and start looking at what’s in people then we could really bring about this colorblind generation that Barack Obama is all about. Sometimes sight is a distraction. You might be trying to do something like drive your car and here comes a fine broad and you turn your head and have a wreck. I can’t look at them fine broads and say, “Ooh, booty call!” I have no distractions. If I’m talking to you I can’t see you but I can see inside of you and what you’re thinking. That’s a mixed blessing. The young generation now, the Civil Rights movement impregnated this generation. We’re becoming a colorblind nation, that’s why Barack Obama carried Iowa [laughs]. Ain’t but four-and-a-half black people there! I’m glad to see it come because I worked like hell in the movement for it.

B&H: You were one of the first ones doing message music.

MH: I am the father and creator of it. I’m happy and gratified that I’ve lived long enough to see where this came from. When I broke that barrier in ’66, James Brown came right behind me in ’67 with “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Then it grew from Curtis Mayfield to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and it just grew and grew and grew.

B&H: Did you think there would be a possibility you’d see a black president in your lifetime?

MH: No sir, I never thought that! I’m so grateful for the work that was done in the trenches. I lived in Atlanta. The Friday before Martin Luther King died we were all in a meeting in Atlanta. I’ve known Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, John Lewis the congressman. All of us used to strategize together back in the 60s, Muhammad Ali, all of us. They put H. Rap Brown in jail for some foolishness and wouldn’t let him out but the rest of us are still doing what we do. I ain’t stopped. I’m doing the same damn thing, I’m just doing it on stage. This country has got to change, man. They tried to assassinate that boy [Obama] last week is what they said yesterday. That shit’s got to go, man! I know the young generation – I’m so happy – they don’t want none of that bullshit.

B&H: Were you at the march in Selma in 1965?

MH: I never did no marching except with Martin at his funeral. I was involved with the Nation of Islam. I wasn’t doing no marching. I’ve been involved with the Nation for 50 years. Back in those days they tried to label us as black Muslims. There are Muslims all over the world. It doesn’t have to be black, it doesn’t matter what color he is. I’m a student of the honorable Elijah Muhammad and he said that God would bring about a universal government where we can all live in peace. I don’t care what color you are. They tried to label it “black this” and “black that.” It wasn’t about that.

[The call gets disconnected. We’re back on the line in a couple minutes.]

MH: [Laughs] The conversation gets heavy and they do it like this, brother.

B&H: Maybe that was the feds cutting us off.

MH: Nah, I ain’t worried about that. First of all I’m not saying anything other than the truth. I’ve been saying this for 50 years. Ain’t no secret to the way I think and I’m proud of it! I just had my 69th birthday this month and God is good and I don’t worry about nobody bothering me cause he’s gonna protect me.

B&H: Alright, so obviously you were very politically engaged but when did you go from doing dance tunes like “Fishin’ Pole” or “Jerkin’ the Dog” to the more political songs?

MH: “Jerkin’ the Dog” was in 1965 and “Hymn No. 5,” when I went to the message music, was in 1966. Then I had “Fishin’ Pole” in 1967 I believe it was. I had “The Truth Shall Make You Free” in 1970 but between then I had “Get in the Groove” and “Somebody in the World for You.” I always put dance stuff out because you have to work, man. You have to eat. You have to compromise sometimes to make it. I had to make sacrifices and I had to raise my children.

B&H: Let’s talk a bit more about “Hymn No. 5.”

MH: That was a story about a soldier going over to Vietnam and he’s thinking about his girlfriend because he misses her and wants to see her. In the end he had to tell her that he was not coming back because they was burying him. I’ve had people like Bobby Roberston, who discovered Gladys Knight and the Pips, who wanted to release the masters from me but when I started talking about, “There’s no tomorrow and they buried me,” they asked me to take that out. They said you’re taking the hope out of the people. But a lot of them aren’t coming back and I’m not gonna tell no lie. I was blessed at that time to meet John Richburg at WLAC [in Nashville]. Man, that record was played on there every 15 minutes. The powers that be tried to stop it but they couldn’t. Matter of fact, a cat brought me back a copy from Saigon on a Saigon label.

B&H: And it was being played on the radio in Vietnam?

MH: They were playing it over in Saigon as propaganda.

B&H: I hear you’ve reworked it as "Hymn No. 9/11."

MH: Yeah, I just changed two words from Vietnam to Baghdad. It serves the same purpose.

B&H: I didn’t realize until I was doing some background research that Lee Moses plays guitar on your 1972 LP, Truth.

MH: Oh, I saw Lee when he first played the guitar when he was 13 years old. He used to drive me crazy but he played one song so much he could play it perfect. His name is Vincent Lee Moses, I used to call him Vincent.

B&H: He’s one of those Atlanta guys that never really gets the credit they deserve.

MH: Yeah, they don’t, man. Tommy Brown is one of the greatest blues singers ever, who wrote “Honky Tonk.” Man, he was one of the first cats out of Georgia to get the kind of hits we used to dream of. He had a record that was No. 1 on the charts for a year on Billboard. Now he’s in Atlanta struggling because he watched the city of Atlanta administration – that’s not from Atlanta – come in and destroy all the heritage of Atlanta and they call the blues “jazz” and all this foolishness. It’s pitiful the way they abuse our music. Atlanta has a rich history: Chuck Willis, myself, Grover Mitchell, Billy Wright, Fat Jackson, Freddie Terrell, Tee Fletcher. But I wouldn’t leave New York to go to heaven.

B&H: Tell me about some of your experiences playing with the biggest names in soul music, like James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding.

MH: Well, I played with James Brown for a couple of shows but I smacked his ass so bad he paid me to get away from him. I am a very dynamic performer. I can be your best friend but when I go out on stage I’m fittin’ to kick your ass. It’s just business, it ain’t nothing personal and I’m known for that. He paid me to get away from him. He didn’t want nobody on the show that could outshine him but I don’t blame him. That’s why a lot of the big acts like Wilson Pickett wouldn’t work with me. Joe Tex was the only one that would work with me and we were really tight.

B&H: So did you play a lot of shows here in Texas back in the day?

MH: I didn’t play Texas that much but Joe Tex booked me at the Apollo, the first time I ever played the Apollo. I smacked him on the show real good but he didn’t get mad. I was opening the show and I had never played the Apollo. The first show I destroyed him so bad he sent his valet up to my room and told me I ain’t opening the show no more, I was going to co-star with him. And we had a real nice show.

B&H: Is it true you tried to cut James Brown’s processed hair one time before he sang “I’m Black and I’m Proud”?

MH: No sir, that is not the truth. It was H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. From what I understand they told him, before he goes on stage and says, “I’m black and I’m proud,” he was not gonna rep with no conkalean, so they made him cut it off before he went on stage. I didn’t have nothing to do with it, I just know about it. What does it say to those black kids when you say you’re black and you’re proud and your hair is creased the way a comb is? You should be happy with your hair nappy. I don’t know what the problem is.

B&H: On Saturday you’re going to be playing with Archie Bell and Barbara Lynn. Did you play with either of them back in the day?

MH: I knew Archie when he was 100 pounds lighter [laughs]. I call him Big Archie, a walking McDonald’s. We worked together in Brooklyn and the last time I saw him he had gotten so big I had to hug both sides. When he reads this he’s gonna be mad. But yeah Archie, I love your big, fat butt! He told me once, “I’m a seafood eater, I eat all the food I see!” That’s my buddy. He’s responsible for me coming down there and I’m gonna be his house guest in Houston. Archie and I are very close friends.

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