Jackie Shane is another of those artists I knew next to nothing about before I started writing David Bowie MadeMe Gay. Jackie retired from the stage in 1971 but her career was resurrected shortly after the book came out, thanks to the Chicago-based Numero Group, who issued a double LP/2CD collection of her work in October 2017.
Jackie Shane is a pioneering transgender singer but, to my eternal shame, there was very little reliable information available about her when I was researching the book. In fact everything I read lead me to believe that Jackie identified as male, which lead to the most flagrant episode of ‘deadnaming’ in the book.
Deadnaming, put simply, is referring to a trans person by their birth name (and, by default, sex). In the book I called Jackie ‘he’ because I did not know any better. Jackie was certainly born male, but she performed as a woman at a time when to do so was unthinkable, and since her reappearance, after almost half a century away from the spotlight, she has made it clear that she always identified as a woman. So, for anyone still questioning my choice of pronoun, I’m sorry but I’m happy to be able to put that right for once and for all.
Born in Nashville in the early 1940s, Jackie knew from the age of five that she was different, but says that, growing up in Nashville she never had a problem with people struggling to accept her sexuality. Shane always knew she was a woman, though others didn’t always identify her as such. ‘At five years old, I would dress in a dress, hat, purse and high heels and go up and down the block – and enjoy it.’
Jackie was a talented singer who sang like James Brown or Otis Redding but whose look would put both Richard and Esquerita to shame. Her mother and grandparents accepted her, and her schoolmates and even her church seem to have had little problem with someone whose birth certificate said ‘male’ but who knew better. It was racism that drove her north, to Canada, where she became a star, working the clubs, appearing on TV, making records and so on.
Around 1960 she joined saxophone player Frank Motley’s touring band before moving north of the border. A regular performer at Toronto’s Saphire Tavern, part of the city’s infamous Yonge Street strip, Jackie made no bones about her sexuality. She covered the William Bell song Any Other Way, and when she sang the line ‘Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay/Tell her that I wouldn’t have it any other way’, the inference was clear.
When Cash Box magazine reviewed Any Other Way, in January 1963, the reviewer made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, Ms. Shane was all woman. Labelling the disc a sure-fire hit, he wrote that “Jackie Shane… puts her heart into her delivery of a touching slow beat cha cha.” Billboard awarded the single four stars. Cash Box also loved the follow up, In My Tenement, claiming that “Shane… can make the national scene with this one. It’s a steady driving romancer with a social awareness theme that the songster delivers in emotion-packed manner.” [Cash Box, 6 July 1963]
In April and May 1964 she appeared at the Californian Club in Los Angeles, with Little Richard’s backing band, the Upsetters, just a few months before Jimi Hendrix joined their ranks. Jackie and Jimi already knew each other, performing together when Jimi was a member of the house band at Nashville’s New Era club. The Varsity, in a piece on Toronto’s nightclub scene, wrote that at the city’s Brass Rail club on Younge Street “upstairs Frank Motley and his crew perform, with little Jackie Shane doing the vocal. Is he or isn't she? Only its mother knows for sure…”
Although Any Other Way was a massive local hit, reaching Number Two on Toronto’s radio charts in early 1963, it failed to score nationally. Shane recorded just six 45s and one album (taped live at the Saphire and released in October 1967) before she left the city for good. Unusually, the sleeve notes to Jackie Shane Live made knowing reference to her sexuality: ‘the only problem is when Jackie suggests “let’s go out and get some chicken after the show”, you can’t be sure what he has in mind’; ‘people who deserve your friendship will accept you for yourself’.
She was approached by Motown and Atlantic records; George Clinton wanted her to join Parliament… but after ten years of playing the game she disappeared, tired of touring and of being harassed by other band members. From the early 70s until last year no one heard from her. Rumours were that she had died. Then last year, Numero collected the majority of her recordings together and re-issued them as a double LP and she resurfaced. She’s 77 years old and thinking about going out on the road again. As she says: ‘People have come up to me and said, “Jackie thank you. You made it possible for me to have a life.” That’s why I was there.’
The Numero album, Any Other Way, collects almost all of her recordings, including every studio side and all of the tracks from Jackie Shane Live. However, Jackie also recorded two tracks in the early 1960s that found their way on to the album The Original Blues Sound of Charles Brown & Amos Milburn, issued by budget label Pickwick around 1965. Slave For You Baby and Chickadee have been unavailable for decades, and do not appear to be on YouTube currently either. So here they are: grab ‘em while you can!
You can find Jackie’s full discography, and read more about her incredible career, at http://www.queermusicheritage.com/drag-shane.html
Download Slave For You Baby HERE
Download Chickadee HERE
All images copyright The Numero Group/Jackie Shane