Skip to main content

Despite the many years that have passed, Shane has said she is in the midst of planning a comeback concert in Toronto to commemorate her new record.

Numero Group

It's been more than 45 years since African-American soul singer Jackie Shane chose to follow in the footsteps of heroes such as Marlene Dietrich and Maria Callas and live life as a recluse.

At the height of Shane's popularity in 1971, the American-born R&B star – who had a successful recording and performance career and remains largely uncredited for paving the way for such artists as David Bowie, Grace Jones, Sylvester and Janelle Monáe – decided to leave Toronto. The city, which offered consistent gigs and countless fans, was not given a farewell tour of any kind. Instead, Shane moved back to the United States and vanished from sight.

Yet, with the rise of the internet came a fresh wave of fans who were intent on uncovering Shane's soulful, superheated repertoire from the 1960s by way of YouTube and SoundCloud playlists which included songs such as Any Other Way and New Way of Loving. The titles and lyrics of these tracks hinted slightly at Shane's world view.

Story continues below advertisement

From as early as the age of 12, Shane saw herself as a woman, despite being born in a man's body. On and off stage, Shane brazenly wore women's clothing during a time when homosexuality was still illegal.

Since 2010, a slew of Shane homages has framed her place in history: A film created with shadow-puppet animation titled Whatever Happened to Jackie Shane?, an acclaimed CBC radio documentary by Elaine Banks called I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane, a giant Toronto building mural by artist Adrian Hayles (with Shane as focal point) and a book on Toronto's early LGBTQ roots called Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer have all positioned Shane as a cross-cultural pioneer.

Nothing, however, compares to the intrigue Numero Group stirred when the Chicago-based record company announced this spring that it would be releasing a two-disc retrospective of Shane's best recordings, titled Any Other Way. The 25-track undertaking, which is available on Oct. 20 and includes live recordings from Toronto's own Sapphire Tavern, can be counted as the first album that Shane has had an active and creative hand in.

Packed with covers and a few original songs, this new musical project has also inspired the near-impossible: It has persuaded Shane, now 77, to come out of hiding after 4 1/2 decades of self-imposed seclusion and speak to the media for the first time in 50 years. One of the rules she set out for Numero was that she could open up to someone she considered a fellow Canadian.

"Although I was born in and now live in the USA, I do not recognize the United States as my country," Shane says via phone from Nashville, where she was born and now lives.

"There's a reason I will always say Toronto is my hometown, you see. I came from the South during a time where Jim Crow was happening," she says, referring to the state laws that enforced racial segregation in the southern United States. "It was a place where an African person couldn't sit beside a white person in public. You have no idea what it's like to have people constantly trying to humiliate you. Having two different fountains or two different bathrooms – there are things that happened that I saw that chills the blood in your veins."

As with many African-Americans, Shane found that crossing the border was a way to escape the hate she encountered daily. "From the first time I stepped on the stage in Toronto, I knew that those who came and heard me through the grapevine – and rooted for me – they were mine. It was because they knew I gave them the truth."

Story continues below advertisement

Academics such as Rinaldo Walcott, director of the University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute, feels Shane's return couldn't have come at a better time.

"Recovering her offers us a way of looking at trans history as longer and deeper than what has been presented," Walcott says, noting that this isn't a mere trend, since books such as C. Riley Snorton's coming tome on transgender people in the 19th century, Black on Both Sides, will further elevate the conversation.

"Jackie Shane disrupts the narrative of the masculinity that was happening before her in sixties rock 'n' roll and R&B. She eclipsed contemporaries like Little Richard in many ways since we think of him as androgynous for that period. Shane was not ambiguous at all."

In fact, Shane worked with Little Richard both as a singer and in his band for a spell after sharing the bill on various tours. What made Shane most uncomfortable was the way her fellow musician presented himself.

"Richard played by all kinds of rules but for me, there are no rules other than mine," she says, noting that she said no to joining the band Funkadelic ("When I met them, one of them had a diaper on – I knew we didn't have the same thing going on"). Shane also famously turned down an invitation to The Ed Sullivan Show when producers insisted she remove her makeup.

"Nobody was going to buy me or change me for a dollar," she says of the offers and trappings sent to her. "But [Little Richard] would sit there on stage and say things like, 'Some people think I'm gay but I'm not.' I would always be thinking, 'If you're not, Lord help us, there's no such thing as gay.'"

Story continues below advertisement

Walcott says Shane's way of critical thinking managed to make it onto some of her recordings. "If you listen to the live extended recording that was made of Money (That's What I Want), you can hear that Jackie offered a send-up of capitalism, queerness, gender performance and sexual desire 40 years before we started discussing such things. Her music opens up the archives of trans life in a different way. It gives listeners a second take on what it means to be trans."

For Shane, the freedom to live in what she calls "her natural state" was non-negotiable, even as a child. "I remember walking down my neighbourhood streets with my hat, my dress, my pocketbook and my gloves on when I was 5," she says. "I couldn't have cared less about anybody. I was doing my thing! Still am!"

On stage, her defiance amplified as she would regularly invite more than one lover – usually young men she dubbed "chicken" – to watch her perform. "Each chicken had its own place in the crowd, honey. I often sang to many jewels," Shane says before explaining her thoughts on romance. "It's better to be real about these things than to be phony. I truly believe you can care for more than one person in this life and that weddings were created to enslave the woman."

For long-time music aficionados such as 71-year-old Allen Bergman – who frequently saw Shane perform in Toronto in the late sixties and early seventies with Frank Motley and his Motley Crew – Shane's attitudes on love were always front and centre. "Every time I went to see Jackie Shane at the Town Tavern or Sapphire Tavern in Toronto, it was like watching a character out of a Martin Scorsese film. Jackie would rile the straight girls in the crowd and tell them she would take their men away," he says. "Jackie was a great singer – no question – but also edgy and cool and brought people together because her crowd was completely integrated with blacks, whites, gays and straight people," Bergman says. "I think people kept coming back because Jackie was right on the margins of what you could and couldn't say."

Shane's current opinion on the state of the world is just as caustic as her views on nuptials. When asked about Donald Trump's recent ban on transgender people in the U.S. military, Shane raises her voice while answering. "Please don't talk about that demented clown," she says. "I believe that the Antichrist is in the White House and when you put the devil, the demons and the hellhounds in the spotlight, you should know that everything that looks human is not."

What Shane does hope for is that music can play a bigger part in enlightening a new era. "I would like for people to wake up, wise up and start taking notice of their country," she says. "My life and work has been all about these things. People have been trying to destroy me for my views for years. You can't let evil take over and dominate your life. If you haven't found something worth dying for, what are you living for?"

So the question remains: Why did such a passionate artist leave her public when they – and her art – clearly meant so much? "One of the reasons I left show business: to be with my mother. I didn't want her to be alone," she says.

Other clues can be found in the liner notes to Any Other Way, which are written by Grammy Award-winning Toronto musicologist Rob Bowman. Bowman's essay outlines a slew of Shane's mobster encounters, sharing stages with alcoholic musicians and her challenges with the music industry's ethics system. Despite the many years that have passed, Shane says that she is currently in the midst of planning a comeback concert in Toronto to commemorate her new record.

"Everyone seems to think it would be a beautiful evening if I came and did a concert in my hometown," she says. "So we are thinking it could be a two-night thing." Before hanging up the phone, Shane gives specific instructions on how she would like this story to end: "Tell everyone Jackie's coming home and tell them to not let any of my work fade away!"

Video: Country artist Jade Mya still getting used to discussing transgender issues (The Canadian Press)
Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨