~Every week from the vaults… a vinyl rarity which crackles, grinds, moves, grooves, hurts, or just awfully tickles…
Smasher of the week # 11
In 1966 James Timothy Shaw aka The Mighty Hannibal (born August 9, 1939) writes one of the first, black anti-Vietnam and anti-war songs, Hymn No. 5. Anyone who has followed his career up to that point would not expect such a socially engaged song from this merry breed entertainer. Grown up in the Doowop and Rock & Roll and dressed in a turban and in a pink, lilac or orange robe, the singer from Atlanta, Georgia, is mainly attracted by the glamor and showbiz of the music world. And above all, he just wanna have fun!
The daily, disturbing news about the Vietnam war and the increasing number of socially critical songs by white singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan (Blowing in the Wind, 1963) and Phil Ochs (What Are You Fighting For, 1963) and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come “(1963) make The Mighty Hannibal realize that music does not have to be just for entertainment. And that with socially conscious tunes one could even earn money! Hannibal is receptive to the radical message of the nation of Islam from Elijah Muhammed and Malcolm X and gets involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Hymn no 5 is a fictional letter from a black soldier in the jungle to his girlfriend at home, in which he writes that he misses her terribly and wants to see her, but knows that he is gonna die: “There is no tomorrow – they’ll bury me” . Hymn no 5 is banned from the national American white radio stations because of the dark and desolate lyrics. The single nevertheless reaches the war front, even in Saigon it’s pressed on vinyl!
With Hymn no 5 The Mighty Hannibal’s place in the annals of R&B and soul is forever sealed. Without that hit, Hannibal would most likely have remained a largely unknown or forgotten singer. His voice and performances are reminiscent of Don Covay and Joe Tex, two much more famous contemporaries. On stage he has a drive like James Brown, his dedication and commitment never stop. But Hannibal struggles to keep his personal life on track, neglecting the business side of being a musician.
Jimmy’s life as an artist comes to the fore for the first time in the 1950s in Los Angeles at the R&B Revue by Johnny Otis (https://www.mijngroeve.nl/music/the-smasher-of-the-week-6-that-lucky-old-sun_big-mama-thornton/). In the late 1950s, Jimmy decides to go solo. Since there are too many Jimmy’s in the music scene, he adopts the name Hannibal per friend’s advice in 1959. The ambitious Jimmy Shaw is ready to conquer the music world like the Carthaginian general and statesman, no mountain will be too high, no river too wide, no road too long for him. He parades on an elephant on Broadway to alert the public to his attack on the charts. Through his exotic act and image, he hopes to leave a lasting impression with the public. He races through the country like a tornado, reaching every remote corner. Yet a big national hit eludes him. Life on the road does not bring Hannibal the glamor and fame he has dreamed of: the record contract with King records and the resulting singles are not sufficient to provide a livelihood.
Hannibal takes his life in a different direction: he starts earning money as a pimp in LA. Once his record label finds out, he is fired immediately in 1964. Destitute, he returns to Atlanta where the local record label Shurfine offers him a new chance. Hannibal has not yet lost his appetite for fame: he wants to continue as “The Mighty Hannibal”. His first backing band, Dennis St. John (the later drummer of Neil Diamond) and the Cardinals, consists of white musicians: Hannibal has one of the first interracial soulacts in the mid-’60s. He first issues some danceable, cheerful m.o.r. songs before suddenly coming up with Hymn no 5. This single hits the black audience like a bomb. The subsequent success and relentess touring take their toll on Hannibal. He is losing his way, becomes addicted to heroin and even ends up in jail for tax fraud. The singer is unable to cash in on his single success with an album and risks being written off as an one-hit wonder. Even his funky songs in the style of the Godfather of Soul can’t turn the tide in 1968.
Hannibal the sinner manages to make a come-back with help from his wife, singer Delia Gartrell, and “the Almighty”. Having kicked off his drug habit, he does finally record an album in 1973 entitled “Truth” that includes new versions of his earlier singles (for example, a 7-minute Hymn No. 5). It’s a very good record: Hannibal no longer seems interested in fame and glory. He wants to tell the truth, he claims to have learned from his sins at last … Jimmy now prefers to call himself “King Hannibal” and preaches frankly about love, life, drugs and dreams. His gospel “The Truth Shall Make You Free” is so funky that it would almost spontaneously turn you into a believer. Very different from the gospel stuff served by the Christian radio channels NCRV & EO in the Netherlands….
King Hannibal and Delia Gartrell continue releasing socially critical and funky, soulful songs together, though they no longer go through life as a couple. None of those singles has the same impact as Hymn no. 5. Disco engulfs the soul and pop charts. In 1981, Hannibal attempts to take advantage of the disco madness via a single entitled “the Hoedown”, a crazy mix of disco, country and soul. Of course only in the Netherlands such a remarkable potpourri can catch on: in 1983, a flimsy “re-mix” by one Ed Smit from Disconet Holland is warmly received by the listeners of Radio Veronica.
In America, King Hannibal can’t land any more gigs as a singer. He tries his luck as a producer at Venture Records in Hollywood in vain. He gets fired and ultimately the street becomes his new home. In desperation, he goes where the real money is: Hannibal relocates to New York and starts cleaning shoes on Wall Street. He entertains his banker customers with stories and tales about his adventures in the ’50s to ’70s. He lives in the Bronx but has difficulty making ends meet. Crack offers an escape in this hopeless situation. He barely survives.
In 1998 he suddenly re-appears with a new album “Who Told You That?” in which he refreshes his sound with some hip hop beats. A real come-back falters ‘cos of poor health. As his glaucoma has not been treated in time, Hannibal loses sight. He resigns to his fate and calls his permanent blindness a “blessing in disguise”. He has seen enough of the world and never judges anyone by his or her looks anyhow, he has always been color blind after all…
King Hannibal prefers to live in solitude, though sometimes he does make a brief guest appearance on stage here and there. His voice has suffered from his tough life and addictions. Luckily some record labels do release compilations of his earlier singles, he is never completely forgotten. In 2007 a new CD (The Resurrection of The Mighty Hannibal) sees the light, consisting of not entirely convincing re-recordings of old songs. In 2009, Hannibal becomes the subject of a documentary (Showtime by Ezra Bookstein), after which Elton John asks for Hannibal’s permission to turn Hymn no. 5 into a new song on John’s album “The Union” (2010) with the legendary Leon Russell. It results in the austere gospel song “There is no tomorrow”.
With The Union, Elton John produces his best album in years. And for King Hannibal, the Union means his real resurrection. He is suddenly back on track and a younger audience gets familiar with his work. Canadian Arish Ahmad Khan (born January 24, 1977) better known as the garage rocker King Khan (see link at the end of this article) tells all his young fans that Hannibal is a big source of inspiration for him alongside Wilson Pickett. The track “Who did that to you” sung by John Legend in Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained is built around a sample of Hannibal’s old ballad “The Right To Love You”. Life is smiling at Hannibal again, the money is pouring in.
The revived Hannibal is an avid supporter of Obama: in 2012 he records – once again as the Mighty Hannibal – a song in honor of the new president, “The Obama Stomp”. The Mighty Hannibal even finds the energy to work on a new album in the studio of the well-known hip-hop duo Outkast in Atlanta. But before the album is completed, his frail health deteriorates. The remarkable Hannibal breathes his last breath in his sleep at the age of 74 on January 30, 2014: the truth has finally set him free.
Lyrics: Hymn No 5, 1966
I wrote my baby from Vietnam
and this is what I said,
“I want to see you
(You know that)
I want to see you
I want to see you
(Yes I do, now)
Yes, I do.
“Sleeping in these foxholes
Hungry and cold
I had a dream last night
I dreamed I saw you
(You know that I)
I dreamed I saw you
(Yes, I did, yeah)
I dreamed I saw you
(Yeah, I want to say that I)
(I dreamed, a dream)
Yes, I did.”
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,
but one thing that I know:
There’s no tomorrow,
There’s no tomorrow,
There’s no tomorrow —
they’ll bury me.
I want everybody
in the sound of my voice this evening
to help me sing this hymn number five.
I want you to moan one time.
Sometimes I wonder,
I wonder what was it that I did?
I tried to be a good father,
I did the best that I could.
And I wonder, who’s going to take care of my kids?
I’m a long way from home, children.
But I want the world to know
the one thing that I did.
I’m gone for good.
In 2002, Norton Records releases a compilation of Hannibal’s singles, entitled Hannibalism. And in 2007, Hannibal, sponsored by Starbucks Coffee, re-records some of his old songs, resulting in the CD “The Resurrection of the Mighty Hannibal,” which does not cause a stir.
For King Khan and the Shrines refer http://kingkhanmusic.com and