A Personal History of Jackie Shane
Dig your way through enough stacks of LP's or through endless hours of online streaming, even, and eventually you will stumble across some truly deep cuts. The incomparable Jackie Shane, until this past Friday, was among the first and foremost of them. A transwoman performer of incredible talent and some renown--somewhat of an anachronism back in the 60's despite (rumored) collaborator Little Richard or James Brown's penchant for theatrics or Liberaci or Elton John's wardrobes. A bold, fearless, strong self-identifying woman belting out some of the best soul of any era and practically flaunting her sexuality and gender identity in the face of a decade still in the deep throes of equality struggles. Jackie Shane was a bit of an anachronism, to say the least.
She was born in Nashville in 1940, still a far cry from Stonewall. She began identifying as "a woman trapped in a man's body" early and, uncharacteristically for the times, was accepted and encouraged by a supportive mother. Her burgeoning talents, rumored to have led her to sing backup for Little Richard, among others, soon took her to Toronto via Montreal. In Canada Ms. Shane built up a following, living and performing as a woman--sequined dresses and tailored suits for the odd TV appearance. A bootleg live show of a 1967 performance, released previously as Jackie Shane Live! captures her jaw-dropping pipes and proclivity for preaching on everything from self-acceptance to hustle.
And that is where it could have ended.
In 1971 Ms. Shane dropped off the map. She became a legend in the truest sense, the mystery surrounding her story and its possible untimely end creating no end of rumors. Thankfully, despite the state of the country and the world that we currently live in, enterprising and dedicated fans have tracked down Ms. Shane, 77, still alive, and have rereleased her entire recorded output in "Any Other Way." Everyone from NPR to the New York Times have run stories on the legendary soul singer, frequently commenting on the same things you read above--her nature as an anachronism strangely accepted in her own time despite the contemporary identity politics. It's one of the many interesting things about her story--how she managed to accrue such success as a black transgender woman in the mid 60's. Hell, that raucous performance was recorded a year before Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis. So what were people thinking about her? What did people know?
Luckily, my dad is as obsessed with music as I am. He introduced me to Jackie Shane two years ago as I became obsessed with the classic soul sound, before I had any knowledge of the gears already in motion working to bring Ms. Shane's story and her transcendent output to greater recognition.
It was early summer of 1963 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I had been living there for three years, my parents having moved there from Northern Virginia when I was a junior in high school. I felt like I had been ripped from my teenage comfort zone into an alien environment where I knew next to no one and had no idea what was expected of me to gain acceptance. There were many friends left behind in Virginia, especially my best buddy Tod with whom I shared disc jockey duties at a Teen Club in my home town. Tod had schooled me in rock and roll music, and with rare prescience had introduced me to a number of obscure (then) rural black blues singers who presented as rhythm and blues in order to gain air time and record sales – thus I had come to Ann Arbor with an already deep appreciation for Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo and others who had yet to gain a foothold in Michigan. But Michigan was deep into something new to me led by Motown records and other local talent like Barbara Lewis and Dion Jackson whom with the aid of Sam Cooke and others came to be called soul music.
So to fit in, and because it all sounded so good to me anyway, I dived into the Motown sound and its adherents and replicants from Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis and New Orleans. My radio tuned to WLAC in Nashville Tennessee at night, and the “urban contemporary” stations from Detroit by day, I followed every new artist and their latest releases in building a very unique record collection for a suburban white boy from Virginia. I could be found at least once a week at the “Bop Shop”, a converted residence in one of the black neighborhoods in Ypsilanti, Michigan combing through the bins for the latest and best in soul and rhythm and blues.
A new record was released around then by an artist I had not heard before by the name of Jackie Shane. It was titled “In My Tenement” and it had an opening verse that just knocked me out – “pillows on the washline never look clean; smoky air turns them grey: sun can’t pass through the dirty windows; but I kind of like it that way”. Who was this guy, and where did he come up with this sound? I motored to the Bop Shop and got my own 45 rpm copy, and I have been listening to this record continuously for the past 55 years and have never tired of it. It now ranks at the top of my all time favorites, along with another Sue Records release from that same summer that is so obscure that not even Discogs lists it (“She’s A Heartbreaker” by the Chandeliers).
So learning more about Jackie Shane and her music became sort of a project for me. I found out that she was living and performing (as a drag queen, or so it was thought) in Toronto. I learned later that she was actually a transplant there from Nashville, and that she was known, fully embraced, and her music proudly featured by WLAC the local clear channel station of choice. It was much later that I also found out that she identifies as a woman; I probably didn’t even know what that really meant back in 1963. But it provides some revelatory insight into Jackie Shane’s unique sound and lyrics, and why In My Tenement, in my view, ranks as one of the most authentic expressions of urban soul music to this day. And why I will continue to treasure this old 45 rpm record until the grooves wear thin.
Any Other Way is as vibratingly important as it is timely. Its a vital piece of soul history and one of the earliest and most successful examples of a black transwoman performer. Its the kind of story that at once makes you feel incredible love for the world and gratefulness for Ms. Shanes output and existence as it does regret that the world that brought her into it not only may have caused her to stop performing, but continues to this day to go through the paroxysms of incremental growth and regress with regards to racial, gender, and sexual equality. That this landmark release will do no small part to get us further down the rigght path, however, is scarecely without doubt.