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The Mighty Hannibal 1939-2014

R&B singer and socially conscious rabble-rouser dies at 74

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Sad news came Jan. 30 when word spread that the Mighty Hannibal (James Shaw) had passed away in his Bronx apartment. The Georgia-born R&B rabble-rouser was best known for penning such songs as "Jerkin' the Dog," "The Right to Love You," and the Vietnam War protest song "Hymn No. 5" in the 1960s. Black Lips singer and bassist Jared Swilley reflects on Hannibal's influence and the friendship they shared until the day he died.

"TWILLEY!" That was the sound I woke up to almost every day for the past nine years. It was like clockwork, usually around 8 a.m. Hungover at times, it could be a little annoying, but it became a comfort, and something I came to expect and look forward to. I'd ask him about James Brown and Little Richard. He'd tell me stories about the Nation of Islam and his misadventures with Larry Williams, or how he used to cop dope with Ray Charles. The stories seemed too crazy to be real, but they always checked out. They were unbelievable, but he led an unbelievable life. He was larger than life. He was the Mighty Hannibal.

The first time I met him was New Year's Eve at Union Pool in Brooklyn. He was the emcee for an A-Bones, Bloodshot Bill, and Black Lips show that night. I had been a fan for a while and was excited to meet him. We'd both been drinking a little. I introduced myself as a fellow Atlantan, and we immediately hit it off. After a few drinks I asked when he had last been to Atlanta. When he told me it had been a few decades, I said he should come back, that I was the guy to do it, and my band would back him up. He immediately agreed, and I was honored, excited, shocked, and terrified. I had exactly zero dollars in my bank account at the time and my band sucked. This meant I had to learn his songs, come up with his guarantee, and get plane tickets and a hotel for him.

We spoke every day for the next few weeks to plan it out. I somehow came up with the money and took a chance. I barely knew him at the time. He kept telling me that the mayor was going to issue some sort of proclamation at the show, and that the city council was doing something for his civil rights work in the past. Again, it seemed unbelievable so I shrugged it off and didn't take it too seriously. I was mostly worried about getting the songs down and paying myself back for what I thought was going to be a total loss and bankruptcy on my end. Turns out, the city did issue a proclamation for his civil rights work and importance in Atlanta, declaring Jan. 12 "Mighty Hannibal Day."

They presented it to him on stage at the Earl, right before we killed it in front of a sold-out crowd. After that we became close friends. He was my mentor, and I was his protégé. We went to church together, he met my family, and I met his. We were an odd pair, for sure, but we were friends. Even being generations apart in age, we still talked to each other like peers. And we talked a whole lot. That's what I'm going to miss the most. I don't know what it's going to be like waking up without Hannibal's calls. He was a true American legend, and I really loved him.

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