The Mighty Hannibal, the politically charged soul and funk singer who inspired garage rock groups such as Black Lips and King Khan and the Shrines, died last Thursday at the age of 74.
In his prime in the 1960s, Hannibal hardly received the mainstream recognition of his soul music peers, but a new generation of musicians were influenced by his stomping soul music and outlandish costumes. Most notably, Hannibal co-wrote Elton John and Leon Russell’s “There’s No Tomorrow,” a track off the duo’s 2010 album The Union built from the singer’s 1966 blues march “Hymn No. 5.”
Rolling Stone spoke to John and King Khan about the singer, with Hannibal’s five essential tracks selected and broken down by soul music expert and New York Night Train DJ Jonathan Toubin.
Dear Mighty Hannibal, it was a pleasure to know you. Thanks for all the great music.
Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, the Mighty Hannibal was an unstoppable force in both the civil rights movement and rhythm and blues music. He called himself the “Father of message music” and enjoyed his first hit with the gospel-driven masterpiece “Hymn No. 5,” a brutally honest anti-war song. He became a renegade, a pimp, a hustler, a junkie and lived every day to its fullest, pumping out some of the greatest R&B that world has ever heard.
The Mighty Hannibal had an incredible wit and was always a showman. As a publicity stunt, he rode an elephant through midtown Manhattan. He got stuck in the backseat of a car driven by Ray Charles. He learned how to make Molotov cocktails from Stokely Carmichael. His stories could make you laugh the hardest laugh or cry the biggest cry. He inspired the next generation of rock n’ roll to carry his torch and bring light to the darkest of places.
Hannibal believed that the truth could set us free and put the message right back into the music where it belonged. His legacy will live on in the music he leaves behind and in the many hearts that he touched so deeply with his incredible soul. “Larry Williams, Johnny Watson, Sam Cooke, Joe Tex…. All my friends are gone. I guess I’ve been left to turn out the lights.”
Long live the Mighty Hannibal!!
From “Big Chief Hug-Um An’ Kiss-Um,” his frantic 1950s rock and roller recorded as Jimmy Shaw, to his 1970s heavy funk under the pseudonym King Hannibal, the vocalist best known as Mighty Hannibal laid down so many killer records that mean so much to so many DJs, it’s impossible to select only five songs to accurately represent the essence of this fine artist.
Norton Records’ excellent compilation Hannibalism, which kicked off his comeback in 2001, is the best place to start your voyage into the recording catalog of one of the most interesting entertainers of the late-twentieth century and essential listening for any soul fan. What follows is a list of five of his best and most notable singles:
1. “Jerkin the Dog” (Shurfine, 1965)
One of the most supreme soul dance songs ever was born from the marriage of two popular dance crazes: “The Jerk” and “The Dog.” Mighty Hannibal and St. John and the Cardinals, the magnificent band on his classic Shurfine recordings, broke barriers together since the early 1960s as one of the earliest integrated bands. Guitarists Paul Goddard and Barry Bailey went on to form the Atlanta Rhythm Section, bassist Emory Gordy wound up with Gram Parsons, Elvis and dozens of others, and Dennis St. John became a prolific studio drummer best known for his work with Neil Diamond. Stomp your feet on the beat!
2. “Hymn No 5” (Shurfine, 1966)
Mighty Hannibal wrote and waxed this very graphic and blistering anti-war gospel ballad before message lyrics were common in soul music. His most popular recording, banned from the airwaves due to its controversial lyrics, “Hymn No 5” is a bleak letter home from Vietnam. When Hannibal’s protagonist yells, “I’m way over here crawling in these trench-holes covered with blood,” he’s answered by a chorus of “There is no tomorrow.” Elton John and Leon Russell borrowed this refrain and melody for their 2010 song “There’s No Tomorrow.”
3. “Fishin’ Pole” (Shurfine, 1966)
The flip side and yang of “Hymn No 5” is a wild thing and all-time stone cold dance floor classic. According to The Mighty Hannibal’s friend/manager Mr. Fine Wine of “Downtown Soulville,” “Fishin’ Pole” wasn’t based on a dance step but another brilliant Hannibal invention. It doesn’t get much better than this! Wind it up tight…
4. “The Right To Love You” (Decca, 1966)
Many of you will recognize this burning love ballad from the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, where it’s looped into John Legend’s “Who Did That To You“.
5. “The Truth Shall Make You Free” (Aware, 1973)
Jimmy Shaw got his act together after years of drug addiction, pimping and prison, and found himself back on the R&B charts under the “King Hannibal” moniker with this thick slab of funky autobiographical social realism. For the lead-in, he testifies, “I wanna talk to all of you addicts out there that’s got yourself a great big jones! And you tried all the methadone and you can’t leave heroin alone. I wonder, have you tried… JESUS?” He then proceeds to slam down three relentless minutes of pure unadulterated heavy gospel groove.