Jackie Shane, Dead This Week at 78, Was the World’s First Trans R&B Singer
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If you’re an R&B fan — particularly a Canadian R&B fan — you may know Jackie Shane’s name. Sadly, this week, Shane passed away at her Nashville home. She was 78 years old and leaves behind a legacy of brilliant R&B music.
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 Jackie Shane became a huge hit.
Though at the time Jackie Shane still identified publicly as a gay man 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, Jackie 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 Jackie 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, though she continued performing with Frank Motley and his band.
While still based in Canada, Shane did occasionally play the States. One of these performances led to an appearance on 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!
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. Though reclusive, she was living happily in Nashville.
In 2017, the Numero Group released the first sanctioned reissue of her music, Any Other Way, an extensive box set including a number of previously unreleased tracks that was actually nominated for a Grammy this year for Best Historical Album.
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.”