As obscure R&B legends go, the Mighty Hannibal remains perhaps the most interesting to grace the stage or airwaves of the 1950s and 1960s. A first cousin of maligned Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan and a flamboyant player all his life, Hannibal's music was as exciting as his life. Born James Shaw he started singing doo wop as an Atlanta teenager, and eventually released a string of moderately successful (and generally highly praised) singles for a variety of independent labels. Shaw's first group, the Overalls in 1954, included future Pips Edward Patten and Merald Knight. His first notable single as a solo performer (1958's "Big Chief Hug-Um an' Kiss-Um") was released under the name Jimmy Shaw on Concept. Other early singles of note include "My Name Is Hannibal" for Pan World, the Jack Nitzsche-penned "The Biggest Cry" (it of course featured a lush string arrangement courtesy of the writer), and the bluesy "I Need a Woman ('Cause I'm a Man)." For a time, Hannibal even recorded for his own Sharob label.
But it was his mid-'60s work that put Hannibal (as he was officially known by now) on the map. "Jerkin' the Dog" and "Fishin' Pole" showed the turban-decked one growing measurably in his singing and arranging skills. But it was the prophetic Shurfine hit "Hymn No. 5," a sobering gospel-blues about a black soldier writing home from Vietnam, that Hannibal will perhaps be best known for. Released in 1966, the tune beat the white hippie acts to the punch by at least a year in its anti-war consciousness. But by now, however, Hannibal had developed a serious heroin habit and was spending more time as a pimp than a performer, and wasted much energy trying to sound like the newly funkified James Brown and producing somewhat weaker singles.
By 1972, he had kicked heroin for good and recorded some of the best work of his career to this point. On "I'm Coming Home," Hannibal again visits the Vietnam quagmire, this time (it is now 1970) sending a young black man out of cities torn by drugs and riots into an even worse nightmare (could this be the younger brother of the vet described in "Hymn No. 5" half a decade earlier?). His anti-drug screamer "Truth Shall Set You Free" saw him (now calling himself King Hannibal) finding new direction in gospel, but it marked a low period for his songwriting. Hannibal spent most of the 1970s as a bit actor in films like The Buddy Holly Story and Roots or as a staff producer at Venture Records. He even worked as entertainment editor for a time at Atlanta Voice newspaper. The cult glam film Velvet Goldmine featured some of his music and helped jump-start his career again. ~ John Duffy