Music / Role Models

Role Model: Jackie Shane

Cover of Jackie Shane’s “Any Other Way” (all images courtesy Numero Group)

Jackie Shane is reclaiming her time–or more accurately, the times have caught up to Jackie Shane. A Black trans soul singer who captivated Toronto nightclubs in the 1960s, only to disappear from the spotlight in 1971, Shane has reemerged as a fearless icon with this week’s release of a double album Any Other Way that spans her career. Some role models here on Filthy Dreams we’ve held dear for a long time and others arrive unexpectedly like Jackie. Shane is the role model we didn’t know we had until listening to the Numero Group’s release, but now any mention of Shane and her music sends me into a fanatical nervous breakdown, screaming, crying and tearing at my hair like a rabid Beatles groupie.

Just the album cover of Any Other Way was enough to shoot Jackie Shane right to the top of the role model list. Shane sits on a plastic-covered lounge chair in a sea green shift dress, smoking a cigarette. With her long hair, smoky cat-eye makeup and sideways glare, Jackie Shane looks more Diana Ross than Diana ever did. She perfects sultry aloofness in a way that Lana Del Rey could only dream. And I say this as a frenzied fan of Lana. With the hint of a sign behind her emblazoned with her name, Jackie Shane is the queen of that castle–bold, unapologetic, glamorous and daring.

But Jackie Shane is more than just a pretty face. She’s a vocal powerhouse, ranging from seductive purrs to howls that rival James Brown. It’s no mistake that she has frequently been compared, in her energetic vocals and performances, to Little Richard. Any Other Way showcases the variety in Shane’s music–Shane can do gut-wrenching bluesy ballads like “Cruel Cruel World,” which she wrote herself, as well as twist-inducing rock and roll as heard in “Walk The Dog.”

Post-Lavender Scare and pre-Stonewall, Jackie throws a wrench in heteronormative music history, standing out as a trans artist of color at a time that was anything but accepted. While certainly the 1920s and 1930s saw a rise in popularity of drag and trans performers, particularly during the aptly named “Pansy Craze,” the mid-20th century in America brought on a repressive return to institutionalized crackdowns and family values proselytizing. All of which makes Jackie Shane such a significant presence. Before Jackie, the first trans musician I could name in the mid-20th century would be fellow role model Jayne County.

This isn’t to say that soul music wasn’t queer. You can’t deny the screaming queendom of Little Richard, though he’s recently disavowed his–and everyone else’s–homosexuality. Even if singers weren’t gay per se, flamboyance was key in 1960s soul, which is why it’s always remained a favorite of both John Waters and here on Filthy Dreams.

Even within the history of soul, though, Shane’s story stands out. Among several new profiles of the singer, The New York Times’ Reggie Ugwu spoke to Shane, tracing some of her history that is almost closer to myth than reality. Born in Nashville, Ugwu writes that Shane was “black and transgender at a time when either meant a life of constriction and compromise. Before she ever set foot on a stage, Ms. Shane’s existence was itself a tightrope walk, pitched between third rails in the Jim Crow South.”

Moving to Toronto around 1959, she became a local fixture, playing with Frank Motley. As musician Eric Mercury recalls in Now Toronto’s “Is Toronto Finally Ready For Jackie Shane?”: “She was consistently ridiculous. She had a lot of fire…It was like going to see Little Richard. We had never seen anything up close like that in Toronto.”

In 1971, she left her career without explanation. In the subsequent years, rumors have flourished about her whereabouts. Some said she was murdered; others theorized that she killed herself. The mystery of Jackie Shane was captured in a 2014 short video by artists Sonya Reynolds and Lauren Hortie entitled Whatever Happened To Jackie Shane?

The truth, however, is less lurid and perhaps more mundanely tragic. Shane returned to care for her mother in Los Angeles and now, according to the Times, is largely reclusive in Nashville, leaving the house “once a month for supplies (including pet food: her black-and-gold cat is named Sweetie), or for the occasional walk.” But with the increased interest in her music, she seems to be considering a return. As she quipped at Ugwu, “I’m going to have to school these people again.”

But whether she makes a live comeback or not, Jackie Shane has written herself back into both queer and soul history. And it’s not a moment too soon–we need Jackie Shane. Asked about the increased visibility of trans people, as well as gay rights, Shane sneered about this notion of progress perfectly: “We should have been able to do it from the beginning…We’ve had to fight for everything that should have already been on the table.”

As trans women of color continue to be the targets of violence, Shane’s is a voice of strength and belief in your own identity. This pride in her own queerness is palpable in both her recorded music and her live performances. Shane seemed to choose cover songs precisely for the opportunity to make subtle and subversive references to “the life.” For example, in her most famous song “Any Other Way,” a William Bell cover, she croons, “Tell her that I am happy. Tell her that I am gay. Tell her I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

As Sam Riedel writes for VICE, “…listening to Any Other Way as a trans woman is to experience its deeper meaning: the set paints a portrait of a strong, confident trans woman of color living life on her own terms nearly two decades before the Stonewall riots, an idea as radical and indispensable today as it was when the songs were recorded.”

Jackie was also brazen in her dismissal of transphobic and homophobic slurs and jeers she received. In one of her famous monologues in her live cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want), she regales the audience: “When I’m walking down Yonge street, you won’t believe this, but some of those funny people have the nerve to point their finger at me and grin and smile and whisper. But you know that don’t worry Jackie because I know I look good! Every Monday morning I laugh and grin my way to the bank because I got mine. I look good I got money and everything else that I need.” You tell em, Jackie!

Like this fiery monologue, Shane often interrupted her performances with extended sermons, taking the tone of a Southern preacher no doubt drawn from her Nashville upbringing. Jackie is, as she puts it, “the closest to Jesus Christ some of you will ever get!” She mentions, though, that she doesn’t “satisfy nobody that is a square.” Hallelujah! Jackie Shane has risen!

In the Gospel of Jackie, she tells us how to live: “You know what my slogan is? Baby, do what you want, just know what you’re doing!” why? “Because baby when we leave here we don’t know where we’re going. I’m going to live while I’m here. I’m going to enjoy the chicken, the women and everything else I want to enjoy.” Yes, Jackie frequently references “gorgeous chicken”–a perfect 1960s term for twink that I think needs to make a comeback along with Jackie.

It’s these veiled references to queer life that make Jackie Shane’s performances just so transgressive, both in the 1960s and even, now. Steven Maynard explains in his essay “A New Way Of Lovin’: Queer Toronto Gets Schooled By Jackie Shane” in the collection Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer, “Jackie’s Black-fem fabulosity, the winking double entendre, rhapsodizing about chicken, all in nominally straight clubs in Toronto of the 1960s–the brazenness and bravery astound and impress even today. How many in the audience caught Jackie’s references?”

It’s no surprise that for queers both then and now, Jackie Shane’s coded asides and sass was a revelation. In their essay “How Jackie Shane Helped ‘Satisfy My Soul'” in Any Other Way, Elaine Gaber-Katz reveals, “Jackie’s queer, in-your-face presentation expressed that part of me that would never fit well in the straight world. Jackie spoke to a side of me that I didn’t yet understand and that my ‘then’ world wouldn’t have easily accepted.”

They continue, “That night I sensed Jackie Shane represented the future, my future, even though I wouldn’t put those feelings into words until much later.” And Gaber-Katz is right. Jackie would be the future, as she emerges in 2017 as an essential foremother.

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