jackie shane
jackie shane

Jackie Shane Was the World’s First Trans R&B Singer

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If you’re an R&B fan — particularly a Canadian one — you may know Jackie Shane’s name. The Nashville-born singer moved to Montréal in 1960, where she was discovered by fellow ex-pat Frank Motley. Motley invited her to sing, and she blew them away. She joined Motley’s band on lead vocals and moved to Toronto in 1961. It was there that Shane became a huge hit.

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Though at the time Shane still identified publicly as a gay male performing in drag, once she retired she came out as trans. Of course, at the time, very little was known about trans people — Christine Jorgensen was the only trans person most people knew about. But still, Shane was upfront about who she was.

Her biggest hit was “Any Other Way,” written by William Bell and Chuck Jackson. Though the song was a cover, she put an extra spin on the lines “Tell her that I’m happy / Tell her that I’m gay.”

The song came to be Shane’s biggest hit, reaching #2 on the influential CHUM Chart, a list of the top 50 songs on Toronto’s powerhouse radio station, and until 1964, the de facto national record chart for all of Canada.

Sadly, her follow up, “In My Tenement,” didn’t make an impression on the charts, and she took her first hiatus from recording. Thankfully, at this time, she was still performing with Frank Motley and his band, so she was still bringing her immense gifts to the world.

While still based in Canada, Shane did occasionally play in the states. One of these performances led to an appearance on the local Nashville program Night Train in 1965, where she sang “Walking the Dog.”

In 1967, “Any Other Way” was reissued across Canada as a single and again became a hit. This encouraged Shane to go back to recording, and she released a few more singles and the album Jackie Shane Live!

jackie shane
The original sleeve art for Jackie Shane Live!

The sleeve notes for Jackie Shane Live! warn “squares” to stay away from the album, and while most of it is about how talented Shane is, there are a couple references to Shane’s sexuality. One of them is really sweet and quite reaffirming:

Jackie loves and appreciates [her] fans. [Her] feelings for the people who try to knock [her] down are expressed very adequately by something [her] mother taught [her] a long time ago. She said, “Jackie, the mean things people say about you can’t make you feel bad because you can’t miss a friend that you’ve never had. The people who deserve your friendship will accept you for YOURSELF.

The other quote is a subtle, dirty joke, making a pun on the use of “chicken” as a slang term for young gay men:

What are Jackie’s likes and dislikes? Well, you know Jackie likes “chicken.” Even where food is concerned Jackie likes chicken. The only problem is when Jackie suggests, “let’s go out and get some chicken after the show,” you can’t be too sure what [she] has in mind.

Sadly, in the early 1970s, Shane retired from the music industry and disappeared. She turned down an offer from George Clinton to join Funkadelic. Shane even lost contact with most of her bandmates.

When CBC Radio made a documentary about her, I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane in 2010, the documentarians weren’t even sure if she was still alive. Thankfully, she is — she’s living happily in Nashville — though she’s still reclusive.

Thanks to the Numero Group, however, modern R&B fans will be getting a two-CD compilation of her work — including a number of previously unreleased tracks. The set is sure to introduce this brilliantly talented singer to a new audience.

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It’s also the first release since Jackie Shane Live! to involve the artist herself — and Douglas Mcgowan at the Numero group is responsible. Mcgowan said “I spent a lot of time on the phone with Jackie for two years before we got to seriously discussing a project, because I knew that Jackie would not be rushed, and because initially it was unclear where the project would wind up. Once we finally started talking about a deal we sorted it out with ease.”

Mcgowan adds, “Starting in 2015, I started periodically asking Jackie if we could meet, and the answer was always no. One day in August of 2016, when I was in Bloomington, Indiana for a label group meeting, Ken Shipley from Numero Group and I decided to drive to Nashville so that I could make a surprise visit.

“Jackie wouldn’t come to the door or even the window, and I sweated in the heat for two hours while we chatted on the phone. There was however no question about getting the agreement signed, and I was able to pick up a few amazing pictures Jackie left on the doorstep, so it was worth the trip.”

We couldn’t be happier that this release is happening. According to the author of the liner notes for the collection, Shane is even thinking of returning to the Toronto stage. Regardless of whether or not she decides to, she’ll always be a part of Toronto. Figuratively, of course, but also literally: She’s depicted on a 22-story-tall mural overlooking Yonge Street.

Jackie Shane mural
From top to bottom, the icons depicted are: Ronnie Hawkins, Glenn Gould, Diane Brooks, Jackie Shane, Muddy Waters, Shirley Matthews, B.B. King, Gordon Lightfoot, Oscar Peterson

Any Other Way, a 2-CD retrospective of Jackie Shane’s music is out October 20.