In the 60s, her audience read Jackie Shane as “performing” when, in reality, she was living her authentic self.
For every person familiar with the remarkable Jackie Shane, there are hundreds of others unaware of her music, her story, and legacy. When news of her death broke on February 22, 2019, the otherwise obscure and forgotten soul singer was described as a pioneer and an icon whose brief yet dazzling musical career went underappreciated and misunderstood for too many of her seventy-three years.
Jackie Shane was born in Jim Crow-era Nashville, Tennessee, and from a young age knew that who she was inside didn’t match the gender expression of her body. Before she had the word to describe herself, Shane understood she was transgender. Being born black and queer in 1940 meant the odds were stacked against her, but by the time she was twenty, Shane had found her way to Canada and onto the stage. Shane was a major attraction in Toronto’s burgeoning Soul and R&B scene. Her interpretation of the William Bell-penned tune “Any Other Way” became her signature — an unapologetic declaration of love and acceptance of herself that easily translated to her Toronto audience, who always identified the androgynously dressed Shane as male.
By the dawn of the 1970s, Shane effectively disappeared: no touring, no singles, and for many who had been close to her, no more contact. Jackie Shane became a curious footnote in the ongoing story of Canadian popular music, leaving behind few relics and evidence that she existed. It would be another forty years before her star and significance would rise again, thanks to a 2010 CBC Radio documentary for Inside the Music called “I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane” and a feature in director Bruce McDonald’s 2011 documentary series, Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories. Shane’s whereabouts, or whether she was even still alive, were unknown at the time, but as her remarkable story began resonating with new fans and admirers, Jackie Shane re-emerged.
Released in 2017 by Numero Group, Any Other Way was the first time since her run in the 60s that Shane was directly involved in reissuing her music. The double-length compilation brings together all six of her singles and the legendary 1967 live performance recorded at Toronto’s Sapphire Tavern. Any Other Way is a testament to Shane as a consummate performer. “Sticks and Stones”, initially released as the b/w of the stirring title track is a rollicking wonder matched in intensity and fun by Shane’s spirited take on the Motown classic “Money (That’s What I Want)”. “You Are My Sunshine” is a funky, organ-fuelled sashay that highlights Shane’s impressive vocal range. Most striking about Shane’s singles, though, is just how out and proud she was from the get-go. Yes, there’s a subtext to the titles and lyrics of “Stand Up Straight and Tall”, “New Way of Lovin’”, and “Cruel, Cruel World”, but whether she was standing in a studio vocal booth or in front of an adorning and raucous crowd, Shane put on a show unlike any other. “High Heel Sneakers” and “Knock on Wood” knocked ’em dead on the second disc’s live recordings in much the same way the studio takes of “Send Me Some Lovin’” and “Comin’ Down” seduces with its sax and sophistication.
While Any Other Way goes some way towards capturing the mystique and power of Jackie Shane the performer, it will forever be impossible to summarize her legacy and impact in any number of words. In a rare (and now final) communication with the outside world, Jackie Shane told Elaine Banks (responsible for “I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane”) for CBC Radio’s q that “One cannot choose where one is born, but you can choose your home.” She chose Canada, and Toronto specifically as her home: “When they [the people of Toronto] got to know me, we loved one another. We became lovers.” Shane concludes the interview in much the same affectionate way she started it. When Banks asks: “If you want people to know one thing about Jackie Shane, what would you want people to know about you?” She answers plainly and sincerely, inserting an impeccably timed pause to punctuate the sentiment: “I want people to know [pause] that I love them.”
It’s clear in the timbre and tone of Shane’s voice that by “people”, she’s not only referring to her fans, new and old alike, but to society as a whole. I’m not so naive to believe that all of the “people” Jackie Shane has met along the way were generally of good nature and fully embraced the young, black, transgender performer. It takes more than a series of fortunate and fortuitous acquaintances for someone like Jackie Shane to claim her space and agency in the world. It takes a special kind of person, someone whose soul vibrates at a frequency beyond hatred, self-doubt, and fear to step out on the stage and radiate love and acceptance in an era where LGBTQ2 and POC were routinely segregated and marginalized. No doubt the stage itself helped. While her audience read Jackie Shane as “performing”, we now know she was living her authentic self: a pioneer, an icon, and now in death, a legend.