James “The Mighty Hannibal” Shaw, 74: “His music had vision”

James “The Mighty Hannibal” Shaw was excited about his impending return to Atlanta, the place of his physical and musical birth.

When asked about doing a show in New York, where he has lived since the 1980s, Shaw recently told his friend he wouldn’t be able to commit to the April date.

“He said he’d be in Atlanta by then,” said Miriam Linna, co-founder of Norton Records. “He had a master plan to get back to Atlanta he’d been working on for a while, but nobody thought it would happen like this.”

James Timothy Shaw died Jan. 30 at St. Barnabas Hospital after experiencing breathing problems at his New York home. He was 74.

He will be buried in Atlanta during a private service. A public memorial is planned for 1 p.m. Thursday at Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home, West End Chapel, which is in charge of arrangements.

Linna said she spoke to Shaw the day before he died and he was “his usual upbeat self.” Shaw’s wife, Delia Gartrell, said her husband didn’t dwell on his health problems, but he had his fair share. Though he lost his sight several years ago, that didn’t stop him from making music.

“He told me recently that he wanted to get in touch with CeeLo (Green) and a couple of others for some ideas he had,” said Jared Swilley of the Black Lips. “He was just here in the studio with a few guys in September. He was so active all of the time.”

Shaw’s singing career began when he was a teen and sung with a local group, The Overalls. He left Atlanta to pursue his singing career and landed in Los Angeles, said his wife of more than 40 years. While he was in L.A., his strong personality and unabashed self-confidence led friend and actor Aki Aleong to suggest Shaw start calling himself Hannibal, and the name stuck, she said.

In the early 1950s and ’60s Shaw recorded “the kinds of songs you’d expect an R&B singer to record,” Gartrell said. “But he was always very aware of the times and the political situation.”

Shaw’s early music included “Baby Please Change Your Mind,” “Jerkin’ The Dog” and “Fishin’ Pole,” all recorded on various independent labels. But in the late ’60s Shaw’s music changed, and he began to write and record more “message music,” Gartrell and Linna said.

In 1967 Shaw saw his music as a way to point out some of the wrongs and ills of society, and he started with the Vietnam War. That year he recorded “Hymn No. 5,” a slow, soulful song about a soldier in Vietnam. He also recorded “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” a bluesy, religious-themed song about drug abuse.

“He gave a voice to everyone who had concerns, troubles and anger about the world they lived in,” said Linna, who had worked with Shaw since the 1980s. “His music had vision.”

Swilley said Shaw’s message and sound was distinctive.

“His music was raw and his voice was powerful and gritty,” Swilley said. “He didn’t play anybody else’s game. He (recorded) what he wanted and he never gave up.”

Other survivors include Shaw’s daughter, step-children and grandchildren.