After Decades in Oblivion, Transgender Soul Singer Jackie Shane Gets Her Day in the Sun

A long overdue collection of Jackie Shane's songs introduces a new generation to this dazzling performer

Jackie Shane.

That terrific song was a hit only in the charts around Toronto, Canada. In 1963 it reached second place, behind Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” and ahead of “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons. The songs by Davis and The Chiffons, products of the American pop industry, were played around the world, and still are. In contrast, Jackie Shane’s “Any Other Way,” produced in the vast Canadian backwater, was doomed to oblivion. So, getting to know it 54 years after its release and disappearance, is that much sweeter and amazing.

Early 1960s pop is characterized by the delicate, elegant sound of the wind instruments, and the same goes for the scene described in the song: a man who lets his former lover know, through a third party, that all is (supposedly) well with him. But something in the marvelous voice that sings “Any Other Way” departs from the usual format. It’s located at an illusive, unresolved point on the scale between a masculine and feminine voice.

The story of Jackie Shane, a transgender soul singer who was active in the 1960s, long before identity awareness and LGBT rights arrived on the scene, had no relation to my admiration for the song, and even more for the singing. A wonderful singer is a wonderful singer, irrespective of the context. But the background story probably infused “Any Other Way” with meanings it would not have had under other circumstances.

“Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay, tell her I couldn’t have it” – musical break that mutes the instruments and leaves Shane on her own – “any other way.” In the original version of the song, performed by the soul singer William Bell in 1962, those words had a certain meaning. When Shane sang them in 1963, they had a different meaning, which transcended the romantic realm and took on the existential validity of a person who tells everyone who’s willing to listen (and also those who aren’t): “This is me.”

“Any Other Way” is the title of a two-CD boxed set that for the first time sums up Shane’s career and restores her to public consciousness almost 50 years after she left the musical scene. The album’s production required intensive work by the Numero Group record label, much of which was focused on winning Shane’s trust – her bitter experience with record companies in the 1960s (and possibly also eccentric features in her character) left her extremely suspicious. One of Numero Group’s repertoire people held phone conversations with her for three years. They became friends; she even dubbed him “hot lips.” But when he came to Nashville, where she lives, to meet her in person and sign her to a contract, she refused to leave the house. “I’m not ready,” she told him. Finally he gave up and left, though not before placing the contract on her doorstep. Happily, she signed it, paving the way for the release of the terrific anthology.

Abused in her heart

Jackie Shane was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1940. At five, she went into the streets wearing dresses, she told The Guardian newspaper last month. And by the age of 13, she told The New York Times in a telephone interview, she felt she was a woman in a man’s body. Her close family – mother and grandparents – accepted her and didn’t try to force an alien identity on her. But outside the home it was different. When a boy hit her with a stone in the fourth grade, she whipped him with a skipping rope (and gave the same treatment to a teacher who tried to separate the two). “He wanted to torment me and I would never allow that,” Shane told The Times.

The first song in the collection, “Sticks and Stones,” evokes Shane’s way of coping with these cruel experiences, and the ongoing pain they caused. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but now talk don’t bother me,” Shane sings against a background of super-intensive playing by her band. They’ll say anything to make me feel guilty, she continues, and at the end screams, “I’ve been abused right in my heart.”

In the 1950s, Shane was apparently a pupil of Little Richard, who also departed from rigid gender definitions. Toward the end of the decade, in 1959, she moved to Canada, initially to Montreal and then to Toronto, where she soon gained fame as “Little Jackie Shane.” Throughout her career, which lasted from the end of the 1950s until the beginning of the 1970s, she was treated as a man who presented himself as a woman. The word “transgender” wasn’t yet part of the dialogue.

Canada may have been a more tolerant place than the American South, but she suffered abuse in Toronto, too, including at the hands of the local police. “Those creatures on the force, they were gay but will never come out,” she told The Guardian. “They feel they’ve got to hide, so you should too.” Some musicians also harassed her and even attacked her physically.

As a singer and as a performer, Shane, as the newly released boxed set shows, could walk on the wild side, under the influence of Little Richard and James Brown, or turn to a gentle, elegant expressiveness. Yet even though she was a superb singer, she never recorded a studio album, partly because of her suspiciousness of record companies. She told The Guardian that she received an offer from Berry Gordy, the owner of the Motown label. “They had a whole row of champagne buckets,” the paper quotes her. “They tried to talk to me. But I had been schooled about Berry Gordy taking the entertainers’ money. I wasn’t going to get involved in that.”

A few years later, George Clinton considered hiring her to perform with Parliament-Funkadelic. A punk pioneer, the band’s essence revolved around freedom of consciousness, and it was capable of accommodating a trans singer. But again Shane walked away. “They had a guy with a diaper on. That’s not my thing,” she told The Guardian.

Shane left the music world in 1971. For most of the period since then she lived in Los Angeles, where she moved to be with her mother. Her stepfather died in 1963, she told The Times, and she felt guilty for leaving her mother on her own while she pursued a career. A few years after her mother died, in 1997, she returned to Nashville. During all these years, not even soul music obsessives knew anything about her. Rumors had it that she’d been murdered in Brazil. A radio program about her, broadcast in Canada in 2010, was unable to determine whether she was still alive.

Shane rarely leaves the house. Her Nashville neighbors have probably only seen her “three or four times” since she moved there, she told The Times, adding, “I don’t mingle, [because] down South, gossiping and meddling is like breathing.”

The Numero Group team hopes that Shane’s return to public awareness will prompt her to interact with the outside world a little more, and perhaps even return to the stage. That sounds highly implausible, and Shane made no such promise in her Times interview. However, she did admit that the thought had crossed her mind after scanning the current pop music scene, which is apparently not to her liking. “I’m going to have to school these people again,” she said.