Sixty-seven-year-old soul singer The Mighty Hannibal is an irascible character who's already in a fighting mood when I catch him. Hannibal, aka James Shaw, was a close friend and contemporary of James Brown, sharing not only the same label (King Records) in the early 1960s, but a similar passion for gospel-tinged, bluesy funk.
Shaw is frustrated by the timing of Brown's funeral, scheduled a day ahead of New Year's Eve, which is always a big night for musicians. "Little Richard can't walk away from $35,000 a night at the casinos on the Mississippi because they booked him ahead of time and if he does, they're going to sue him," he says. "So who did that dumb shit to plan a funeral like that wasn't thinking in the best interests of James Brown. You could have it on Monday or Tuesday, it'd be proper and everybody could come."
Shaw's high-minded willingness to speak his mind has always rattled some people. Back in 1966, when many were still consumed with Beatlemania, he wrote one of the first Vietnam protest songs, the dark "Hymn No. 5" -- with its evocative phrase, "I'm over here, crying in this trench hole covered in blood/But there's one thing I know, there's no tomorrow."
At the time, Shaw and his white backing band, St. John and the Cardinals (featuring Atlanta Rhythm Section bassist Paul Goddard on guitar) were also helping to integrate Atlanta-area clubs. For Shaw, it was just bringing the music to those who appreciated it.
"Black folk criticize me: 'Why you don't have anyone black in your band?' I don't have anybody black in my audience," he says, matter-of-factly. "I support those who support me."
Shaw grew up in Atlanta singing doo-wop with future Pip Edward Patton. Their fathers used to play house parties hosted by people with pianos, and so the two were always around music. While in their teens, they formed a group, the Overalls, before Shaw joined the army and eventually headed to Los Angeles.
Early on, he hustled for prize money at open-mic talent shows with singers such as Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. In the late '50s and early '60s, he scored his first few hits -- "My Name is Hannibal," "I Need a Woman ('Cause I'm a Man)," "The Biggest Cry" -- and simultaneously began to indulge in a flamboyant lifestyle that included "women of leisure," handmade alligator shoes and a big Cadillac.
But don't call him a pimp.
"A pimp is a dog," Shaw says, turning surprisingly serious for a moment. "You have to take them to shit and he won't even wipe his own ass. ... A dog ain't going to do nothing for himself. That's a pimp. I was a player. A player is a master advisor and maintainer of woman affairs. Somebody had to do it, and I got picked. Women liked me, and I just charged them."
While "Hymn No. 5" -- which told the story of a black soldier's impressions through a letter home -- was a lightning rod for controversy, it also sold more than a million records. Yet his lifestyle and brash ways rubbed many in the industry the wrong way. This, and a growing heroin habit that was followed by a stint in the pokey for tax evasion, briefly short-circuited Shaw's career in the late '60s.
But it never stopped him.
"I have never been the type of person to let something defeat me," he says. "When it's rough for everybody else, it's just right for me. And come on with it."
Hannibal found new financial backing and released more music in the '70s. When interest in rare grooves and forgotten funk bubbled up again in the late '90s, Hannibal experienced another resurgence. He's always been savvy to the business end, sometimes releasing albums himself, and never relinquishing his publishing rights. That has afforded him the luxury of playing now more out of desire than need.
"I love this game. I ain't never going to give up. I'd rather die onstage than with my hand out," he says. "I'm not bitter about anything, and I damn sure did it my way."
Besides his upcoming show backed by the Black Lips ("When I heard them, I said 'I got to play with y'all'"), he has a new album out in February titled Let Us Make Love and Not War. It features "Hymn No. 911," which replicates his old hit, substituting Baghdad for Vietnam.
While he's grateful to the young people who've reenergized his career, he's not impressed with their music. He calls out 50 Cent in particular for the rapper's suggestive comments about Oprah's generosity toward her friend Gail. He notes how the talk-show host opened her checkbook after Hurricane Katrina: "What da hell did 50 Cent do? And if he thinks I dissed him, he can come fuck with me and I'll dis him for real, because I don't appreciate anyone taking our icons and belittling them."
Don't tell this old man to calm down; he might kick your ass.
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