Hannibal performing at a record hop, with WAOK’s Burke Johnson, ca. 1966.
Thursday, January 30th, 4:30 pm. Routinely checking Facebook, my stomach made an uncomfortable twisting motion and I felt my cheeks go numb as I read an update from Norton Records’ Billy Miller stating something that I honestly never thought I’d actually have to face. The Mighty Hannibal was gone.
I am not interested in writing any kind of an official obituary, eulogy or summary of the man’s life and career. You’ve read that already. Frankly, I’ve been struggling with how or even if I should deal with this publicly on the Georgia Soul blog. Ultimately, I believe that Hannibal’s passing deserves to be acknowledged on the web site whether I can truly do the man justice or not. It’s not just fodder for social media for me. It’s real. It hurts.
Hannibal and I had our ups and downs. Many people who knew him could tell you the same. James Shaw pulled no punches, went after everything that he wanted – sometimes to extremes – and didn’t cut any slack.
You’ve probably already read accounts from multiple people who received daily phone calls from Hannibal. It’s possible that you’ve read that if he had to leave more than a couple of voice messages, his tone would change from “It’s Hannibal. Give me a call when you get a chance” to a more passive-aggressive “Please give me a call back when you can” and then his infamous “Am I on your totem pole” line. On a couple of occasions, I’m sorry to say that I heard worse from him.
Hannibal had a sharp sense of humor as well, and I loved hearing that laugh of his when he became too tickled to contain himself. I can’t describe the sound, but it’s forever burned into my brain, and I’m a better man for it. A number of years ago, I was in Rabun County, Georgia in some road-side vegetable stand when Hannibal called. When I told him where I was, he laughed so hard and told me “Well you just have a good time up there. Ain’t no way you’d ever see no brother up in the mountains!” I looked over at the African-American couple picking out cucumbers a few feet away from me, smiled and told him that one day I’d have to bring him up there with me.
We spoke on the phone countless times, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly. I wasn’t unique though. This is just what Hannibal did as an elderly man who spent his youth as a hustler. His mind was still as active as ever, his body was slowing down, his eyesight gone. Hannibal loved staying on people’s radar but he also loved keeping his mind as sharp as he could, so he let his fingers do the walking and cycled through a list of contacts that spanned the last 50 years of his life. I wasn’t always able to keep pace. Once, the first time we ever had a falling out, I told Hannibal that I was talking to him more than I talk to my own mother. This was unfair, and he didn’t react to it well. But in time, I apologized, he forgave me and that was that.
Last summer, Hannibal was in Atlanta to record a new song, a cover version of Lattimore’s “Let’s Straighten It Out”. Hannibal was excited, as he always was when he had a new project on the horizon. He called, and asked if I would put it up on my blog. He had somebody email me the mp3. I slacked, Hannibal got angry with me and we finally had a rather terse phone conversation in early December, the last time I ever received a phone call from him. I always figured that he never held a grudge against me before, and that in time, we’d figure out our differences and go back to complaining about who was winning Grammy awards, how his plans to move back to Atlanta were progressing, how many tens of thousands of dollars and what kind of guns Michael Thevis kept in his desk at the Sound Pit, and what that next movie would be to feature one of his songs. Oh, and could I write something on my web site about that for him? Time ran out on Thursday.
Part of me hopes that I can be as hard-nosed, cantankerous, insightful and focused in my old age as he was. Mostly though, I just want to somehow adopt his carefree laugh and hope to know half as much about the world as he did. As long as I’ve researched soul music, as many singers and musicians as I’ve met over the years, everyone – every last person – could tell you any number of stories about Hannibal. Mention his name to anyone who knew him and more often than not you’d get a good laugh and a head shake out of that person before they’d launch into their favorite tale about the man. He was infectious and he was loved.
The man had a way of living life like I’ve never encountered in anyone else I’ve ever met, and I’m so very grateful for having known him. Those records will never get old.
Much too late to earn Hannibal’s forgiveness, I’m finally getting around to posting his version of “Let’s Straighten It Out”, his final recording, and yeah. I’m really going to miss those phone calls, even as difficult as they could be sometimes.
Listen to “Let’s Straighten It Out” (2013).