Pride Week: Jackie Shane – The Trans Trailblazer of Soul

Moving out of the city, Planet Slop continues Pride Week with a look at the life and career of Jackie Shane – the pioneering transgender soul singer. 

By Shaun Ponsonby
Tue 23 July, 2019

Tell her that I’m happy

Tell her that I’m gay

Tell her I wouldn’t have it

Any other way

So goes Any Other Way, the signature 1962 tune by American soul singer Jackie Shane. In those days, the word “gay” wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows for a mainstream audience; “Where the people are so gay,” Sam Cooke sang in Twisting The Night Away. The Flinstones were always having a “gay old time”. But for those who knew Shane, this line arguably came loaded with entendre.

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Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1940, Jackie Shane was assigned male at birth, but from at least the age of 13, knew that she was transgender woman. “I could not be anyone else if I tried,” she told Rob Bowman in an essay. “It would be the most ridiculous thing in the world for me to try to be a male”.

Surprisingly for the time period, Jackie’s mother Jessie was unwaveringly supportive of her daughter, and was fine with her wearing her make-up and jewellery to school. It was difficult enough as a black man in the deep south, as a black trans woman, Jackie’s mere existence was pretty much outlawed.

Like most young performers of the time – especially in R&B – Jackie’s music career began singing on the gospel highway, regularly sharing stages with the likes of Etta James, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard.

There is some significance with the latter. There were flourishes of flamboyance in some R&B circles at that time. Little Richard had even performed under the drag persona Princess LaVonne.  There was also Bobby Marchan, who today would probably be considered gender fluid.

The irony of her performing in the church is that she seemed to reject religion, at least the organised kind. Comfortable and confident in whom she was, Jackie Shane would often walk out of the church after her performances, refusing to listen to the preacher who, as far as she was concerned, would often preach hate. It’s hard to comprehend the courage it took to be so unashamedly open in such an unforgiving social climate. In a time where it was not only still illegal to be anything other than straight, but also of racial segregation – and in the deep south as that, where the Christian right still have a stranglehold over half a century later – Jackie lived her life unapologetically.

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Thankfully, her talent helped her shine and she largely found acceptance – she claimed to never have any real problems relating to her identity, not even in school. She quickly came to realise, though, that her friends and peers didn’t understand how she identified. Douglas McGowan, who produced a recent box set of Shane’s material, has stated that he doesn’t believe there was “any terminology to describe what Jackie was doing at the time. And I think it was only possible because of this extraordinary talent.” To give herself an easier life, she was often forced to refer to herself as a gay man for their benefit.

This doesn’t mean life was plain sailing for her. On one occasion, gangsters kidnapped Jackie and her band. On another, a saxophonist in her band threatened to cut her face up after she declined his advances. Jackie shrugged, told him to “make his move” and walked away.

Shane’s talent as a singer was undeniable. You can hear the full extent of her talent in live recordings; as urgent as James Brown, as heartfelt as Otis Redding, as gritty as Etta James.

It was soul legend Joe Tex who encouraged her to leave Nashville and pursue her musical career. Her initial plan to do this, and escape the Jim Crow south, was joining a travelling carnival. She danced and sang with the band, along with a whole post-vaudeville cast of characters; strippers, ventriloquists, trapeze artists. The carnival atmosphere wasn’t uncommon on the Chitlin’ Circuit, where Shane also cut her teeth as a serious singer. People buying tickets to see someone like Fats Domino or Larry Williams wouldn’t get a series of other, similar singers before the headliner. Instead, there would be a variety show of sorts, with comedians, magicians, and – more often than not – what was usually billed as a “female impersonator”. Though Jackie was a trans woman, she still often presented male. This at least allowed her a way in to performing as herself in public.

Indeed, on the occasions where Shane was written about, it wasn’t uncommon for her to be referred to as a drag queen, or at least as an outrageously addressed man a la Little Richard. She was ambiguous in interviews, preferring to dodge the question all together.

It was while touring with the Cetlin & Wilson carnival that Jackie found herself in Montreal, watching a performance by Frank Motley and his Motley Crew. Invited on stage by Motley, her performance of Ray Charles and Bobby Bland classics was so electric that Crew hired her as the band’s vocalist, leading her to relocate to the band’s base in Toronto.

As it happens, Toronto had a budding R&B scene at the time, with groups such as Luke & The Apostles, The Mid-Knights and The Mynah Birds, which was, bizarrely enough, an early collaboration by two young, unsigned musicians called Rick James and Neil Young (yes, THAT Rick James and THAT Neil Young).  She was soon packing night clubs as a solo act, and appearing on local music television show Night Train.

Her charisma as a performer was palpable. She wasn’t a powerhouse like Jackie Wilson or Tina Turner, her moves were more nuanced, offsetting the vivacious vamp of her music. Nobody had really seen or heard anything quite like her – sharply dressed in suits (some early shots of Shane bring to mind the early Cyndi Mayweather persona of Janelle Monae), yet seemingly made up in drag.

She began to release singles locally. The first of these was a version of Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), in a style that lends itself much more to Little Richard than Motown’s smoothed out surfaces. That is, unless you hear it live, and we reach the extended midsection that culminates in a startling sermon that seems to be a cathartic affirmation of her obvious otherness; “You know what my slogan is? Baby, do what you want, just know what you’re doing. As long as you don’t force your will and your way on anybody else, live your life because ain’t nobody sanctified and holy.”

But it was 1963’s Any Other Way where she truly made her mark. Originally written and performed by Stax artist William Bell a year earlier, knowledge of Shane’s background gives the song a whole new meaning and depth, and a song with which she had particular affinity. Though on the surface, merely a standard broken hearted love song, Shane roaring “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay” gives it a freeing edge through pain of the narrative, and makes it an anthem along the lines of I’m Coming Out or I Am What I Am. Though a regional hit in Canada, the song only reached #124 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under the Hot 100 list. It is not only a superior vocal to Bell’s original, but a far more pleasing arrangement.

Though not producing bona fide, national hit, her reputation as live performer was getting the attention of talent scouts, especially from television shows. However, she wasn’t always in a position to accept.

The Ed Sullivan Show was the primary variety show in America. A ratings behemoth throughout its run, it featured a number of now iconic performances, from introducing America to The Beatles, The Jackson 5 and Bob Dylan, to career defining appearances by The Supremes, The Doors and Elvis Presley. Shane received an invitation to appear in around 1965, but in her words told them to “stuff it” when told she would have to present as male, continuing in 2017; “Ed Sullivan looks like something Dr. Frankenstein had a hand in. He’s going to tell me what to do?

Her final single, Cruel Cruel World, was released in 1969. After that, Jackie Shane vanished.

There was little record of her – in fact, there was no real proof that she was even still alive. It perhaps wouldn’t be surprising that a trans woman working in the music industry in the 1960s might eventually grow weary. She even turned down an offer to join George Clinton in Parliament-Funkadelic in the early 70s. She also turned down solo deals from pioneering soul labels Motown and Atlantic.

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When she was finally convinced by Douglas MacGowan to assist with the Grammy nominated Any Other Way box set he put out in 2017, she explained in her first interviews in nearly 50 years that she had retired from music to return to Nashville and care for her mother, who had shown her so much support early in her life. She told Canadian arts programme Q that she regretted instead not bringing her mother to Toronto in order to continue career.

Even though she never recorded a full studio album, a cult fandom had grown around her during her period in the wilderness. Some of those fans would try to track her down. If they happened to call her home, she wouldn’t respond kindly. Call once, and she would quickly hang up if she didn’t recognise the voice. Call back again, and she blew a loud whistle down the phone.

She had never publicly come out as transgender during her time as a performer, but did when she returned to the spotlight in 2017. On being embraced as both an artist and a forgotten LGBTQ+ icon so late in life, she said “After such a long time, people still cared. And now those people who are just discovering me, it’s just overwhelming.”

She had wanted to perform again, but was concerned about getting it right. Sadly, she never had the opportunity. She died in her sleep in February of this year. She was 77. In a testament to her enduring appeal, it was Janelle Monae, one of the most respecting and acclaimed artists In the world at the moment, and RuPaul, host of one the biggest TV phenomena of recent years, who led the tributes.

But perhaps it was the humbling statement by McGowan, who worked with her so closely towards the end of her life, that cuts the deepest; “Jackie Shane didn’t do what she did for anyone’s else’s approval. She was here to entertain, but also to educate and inspire. She lived entirely on her own terms. She taught me so many things about self-respect and grace under difficult circumstances. I believe that she was a visionary who will never be forgotten, and will be recognized by more and more people as one of the greatest soul singers of all time. I’ll never know anyone else like Jackie.”

There is really no story like Jackie Shane’s in the history of soul music – maybe all of popular music. We haven’t even scratched the surface of it here. She was a trailblazer. As challenging as life can be for trans people today, put that into the context of trans person of colour in the deep south of a segregated America where pretty much all forms of queerness are illegal. She rose above the social hierarchy imposed onto society and lived her life unashamedly, outspoken and embraced by her audience. It is sad that she was never able to take advantage of the strides we have made since that time, even if they are not enough. But her legacy remains intact.

Of course, the fight is far from over, and it is bizarre to us that there are so many people like Graham Linehan out there, who come across as extremely open and left wing on just about every issue except trans rights. We broke off contact with one former Planet Slop associate after seeing their twitter feed become weirdly obsessed with an anti-trans crusade and – as a straight, white, cis man – arrogantly spreading wholesale mistruths about LGBTQ+ history out of ignorance to support his agenda, before starting up a whole new account dedicated to hate. You’d never have guessed it from the guy. We were shocked.

All of this makes Jackie Shane one of the most inspiring figures of her era, and a life worth celebrating.