For decades, Jackie Shane was a musical mystery: a riveting black transgender soul singer who packed out nightclubs in Toronto in the 1960s, but then disappeared after 1971.
Some speculated she had died, but her legacy lived on among music historians and R&B collectors who paid big money for her vinyl records. But in 2010, the Canadian Broadcasting Company produced an audio documentary about her, awakening a wider interest in the pioneering singer. Today her face is painted on a massive 20-story musical mural in Toronto with other influential musicians like Muddy Waters.
In 2014, Doug Mcgowan, an A&R scout for archival record label Numero Group, finally reached her via phone in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was born in 1940. After much effort, Mcgowan got her agree to work with them on a remarkable two-CD set of her live and studio recordings that was released in 2017 called “Any Other Way,” which has been nominated for best historical album at this year’s Grammy Awards.
A very private life
Shane, now 78, has lived a very private life since she stopped performing. In fact, no one involved in the album has yet to meet her in person as she only agrees to talk on the phone. But she realized after the CBC documentary that she could no longer hide. News outlets began calling and her photos started appearing in newspapers and magazines after the release of the album. RuPaul and Laverne Cox have tweeted stories about Shane.
“I had been discovered,” Shane told The Associated Press in a recent phone interview. “It wasn’t what I wanted, but I felt good about it. After such a long time, people still cared. And now those people who are just discovering me, it’s just overwhelming.”
Grammy-winning music journalist Rob Bowman spent dozens of hours on the phone with Shane interviewing her for the liner notes in the album. Her story, Bowman says, is so remarkable that even Hollywood couldn’t dream it up.
Born in the Jim Crow era and raised during the heyday of Nashville’s small but influential R&B scene, Shane was confident in herself and musically inclined since she was a child. She learned how to sing in Southern churches and gospel groups, but she learned about right and wrong from watching a con artist posing as a minister selling healing waters to the faithful.
Mother offers early support
From an early age, she knew who she was and never tried to hide it.
“I started dressing (as a female) when I was five,” Shane said. “And they wondered how I could keep the high heels on with my feet so much smaller than the shoe. I would press forward and would, just like Mae West, throw myself from side to side. What I am simply saying is I could be no one else.”
By the time she was 13, she considered herself a woman in a man’s body and her mother unconditionally supported her.
“Even in school, I never had any problems,” Shane said. “People have accepted me.”
She played drums and became a regular session player for Nashville R&B and gospel record labels and went out on tour with artists like Jackie Wilson. She’s known Little Richard since she was a teenager and later in the `60s met Jimi Hendrix, who spent time gigging on Nashville’s Jefferson Street.
To this day, Shane playfully scoffs at Little Richard’s antics and knows more than a few wild stories about him. “I grew up with Little Richard. Richard is crazy, don’t even go there,” Shane said with a laugh.
But soon the South’s Jim Crow laws became too harsh for her to live with.
“I can come into your home. I can clean your house. I can raise your children. Cook your food. Take care of you,” Shane said. “But I can’t sit beside you in a public place? Something is wrong here.”
One day in Nashville she had been playing with acclaimed soul singer Joe Tex when he encouraged her to leave the South and pursue her musical career elsewhere.
She began playing gigs in Boston, Montreal and eventually Toronto, which despite being a majority white city at the time still had a budding R&B musical scene, according to Bowman. She performed with Frank Motley, who was known for playing two trumpets at once.
“Jackie was a revelation,” Bowman said. “Quite quickly the black audience in Toronto embraced her. Within a couple of years, Jackie’s audiences were 50-50 white and black.”
Bowman said that in the early `60s, the term transgender wasn’t widely known at all and being anything but straight was often feared by people. Most audiences perceived Shane as a gay male, Bowman said. In the pictures included in the album’s liner notes, her onstage outfits were often very feminine pantsuits and her face is adorned with cat eyes and dramatic eyebrows.
‘I’m the show’
For Shane, her look onstage was as important as the music.
“I would travel with about 20 trunks,” Shane said. “Show business is glamour. When you walk out there, people should say, `Whoa! I like that!’ When I walk out onstage, I’m the show.”
She put out singles and a live album, covering songs like “Money (That’s What I Want),” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Any Other Way,” which was regionally popular in Boston and Toronto in 1963. Her live songs are populated with extended monologues in which Shane takes on the role of a preacher, sermonizing on her life, sexual politics and much more.
“I humble myself before my audience,” Shane explained. “I am going to sing to you and talk to you and do all the things I can so when you leave here, you’ll be back here again.”
She was beloved in Toronto and still considers it her home.
“You cannot choose where you are born, but you can choose where you call home,” Shane said. “And Toronto is my home.”
But her connection to her mother was so strong that ultimately it led Shane to leave show business in 1971. Her mother’s husband died and Shane didn’t want to leave her mother living alone. But she also felt a bit exhausted by the pace.
“I needed to step back from it,” Shane said. “Every night, two or three shows and concerts. I just felt I needed a break from it.”
Return to stage?
Since the release of “Any Other Way,” Shane often gets the question about whether she would ever perform again now that so many more people are discovering her music.
“I don’t know,” Shane said. “Because it takes a lot out of you. I give all I can. You are really worn out when you walk off that stage.”
She wavered on an answer, saying she’s thinking about it. Her record’s nomination in the best historical album category only go to producers and engineers, not the artists, so Shane is not nominated herself. But Mcgowan, who is nominated as a producer, said he has invited her to come with him to the ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 10 as his guest.
“It’s like my grandmamma would say, `Good things come to those who wait,”’ Shane said. “All of the sudden it’s like people are saying, `Thank you, Jackie, for being out there and speaking when no one else did.’ No matter whether I initiated it or not, and I did not, this was the way that fate wanted it to be.”