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."