Jackie Shane, A Force Of Nature Who Disappeared, Has A Story All Her Own : The Record The performances of this trailblazing transgender singer — once radically visible, now long hidden — have been likened to tornadoes. A new box set is a document of a career that never followed rules.
NPR logo Jackie Shane, A Force Of Nature Who Disappeared, Has A Story All Her Own

Jackie Shane, A Force Of Nature Who Disappeared, Has A Story All Her Own

Jackie Shane in Sept. 1967. Courtesy of Numero Group hide caption

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Courtesy of Numero Group

Jackie Shane in Sept. 1967.

Courtesy of Numero Group

For years, if you were the kind of curious record hound or obscure soul fan that got a hold of Jackie Shane's phone number and called it, this is what would happen to you: The first unsolicited call got a hang-up. If you called right back, the Nashville-born rhythm and blues singer would be less polite; she'd take a whistle that she apparently kept handy, and blow it into the receiver, loud.

"It's happened to me when I don't speak up immediately," said Douglas Mcgowan, the Numero Group producer who convinced Shane to work with him on Any Other Way, the first official boxed-set collection of her recordings, released this month. "Jackie will say hello and if I don't say, 'Hi Jackie it's me Douglas!'" — he said the words running together in a rush — "so that she gets that it's me right away, she'll hang up. I got the whistle blown at me once."

That kind of aggressive reclusiveness might not be what audiences would expect from a performer who had been, particularly for her time, radically visible. From her earliest adolescence Shane had known she was transgender and, blessed with a supportive and loving mom, Jessie Shane (who went back to her maiden name after splitting up with Jackie's father less than a year after their daughter was born, and gave it to Jackie, too), wore makeup and jewelry to school and, when she started performing, onstage. This was in the American South in the 1950s, when it was challenging enough to be a black man, let alone a black trans woman. There were rigid laws on the books that circumscribed, and often outright outlawed, most of who she was.

Interestingly, on the R&B circuit at the time, there was some room in the onstage world for gender ambiguity: Little Richard, of course, had put in a pre-rock and roll stint as the performer Princess Lavonne in a traveling tent show called Sugarfoot Sam's. In New Orleans there was Esquerita, the flamboyant and feminine pianist widely considered to be an influence on Little Richard — who got the reissue treatment from Norton Records in the late '80s — and Patsy Vidalia, the longtime host at the city's legendary Dew Drop Inn who, born Irving Ale, recorded a couple of R&B singles as Pat Valdelar for the Mercury label in 1953. And there was the redoubtable gay soul singer and impresario Bobby Marchan, who spent his long career living and performing in traditionally male or female clothing, makeup and accessories as it pleased him.

It wasn't just cosmopolitan, laissez-faire New Orleans that made space on its stages to celebrate performers who were gay or transgender or nonbinary, and those performers also weren't necessarily always the marquee stars. As Preston Lauterbach recounts in his 2011 book The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll, which draws heavily on mid-20th century accounts from regional African-American newspapers, it was common, almost more so than not, for a night's revue to include a troupe of what would usually be billed as "female impersonators" before or after a comedian, a magician, a shake dancer and then finally, at the top of the bill, perhaps Fats Domino or Roy Brown.

Young Jackie Shane certainly intersected with that world. She definitely met Little Richard when he came through Nashville with his early touring band the Upsetters, and even got a lesson from their drummer, Chuck Connor. She put in a lot of work at home in Nashville as a member of Excello Records' studio band, as well as in the house band at a hot nightspot called the New Era, drumming behind Big Maybelle, Joe Tex, Larry Williams and others. But she also crisscrossed the Chitlin' Circuit herself with the Cetlin & Wilson carnival, dancing and singing with the tent-show band, along with strippers and ventriloquists and animal acts and the whole post-vaudevillian cast of characters.

"I'm no expert on the subject," Mcgowan said, "but I think it's really apparent that there's a very, very clear difference between a drag performer, where there's a cloak of irony, a self-protective affectation that blunts the impact of offense to straight or square society with this sort of wink, that Jackie did not do. Jackie was absolutely what I understand to be a modern 21st century transsexual person in the mid-60's. And I don'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."

It was through her traveling carnival gig that Jackie got to Canada — Cornwall, Ontario around the spring or summer of 1959 — and that's where she felt at home. ("I never felt that good before. I felt so free," she told the Toronto musicologist Rob Bowman, who interviewed her at length for the liner notes to Any Other Way. "I just loved it.") She was far from the Jim Crow South, which she had resolved to leave. And in Montreal, she connected with trumpeter Frank Motley, a popular bandleader who would become her regular collaborator.

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Throughout the '60s, Shane blazed a path between Toronto, her new base; Los Angeles, where her mom had relocated and where she drummed on sessions for the Bihari brothers' Modern Records label; and the road, which also included her old stomping grounds in Nashville, where she appeared on the iconic local music TV show Night Train. She cut singles with Motley backing; "Any Other Way," a cover of the William Bell Stax original and the track that gives the reissue box its title, became a regional breakout hit, in heavy radio rotation up North. She also earned a solid rep as a live performer. "It was like going to see Little Richard," the Canadian soul singer Eric Mercury told Bowman. "I would come out of the Holiday Tavern [in Toronto] sweating, and it wasn't hot in there, except for what Jackie was putting down ... We had never seen anything up close like that in Toronto. It was like a tornado coming through the place."

By the dawn on the '70s, Jackie had tentatively split with Frank Motley, but was still active: She played shows in L.A. and Las Vegas and Nashville, and back in Toronto too, where, coincidentally, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic were then based. (They tried to hire her onto the Mothership; she declined.) She played a few more shows with the Motley band, but their professional relationship had deteriorated badly. She had her mother and a serious boyfriend in Los Angeles and at the end of 1971, barely 30 years old, she quit, becoming the whistle-packing Greta Garbo of R&B right at the dawn of androgyny-friendly glam-punk and gay rights.

As the 21st century got rolling, Shane drew interest, especially in her adopted Canada. She became the subject of an acclaimed 2010 CBC audio documentary by journalist Elaine Banks, a lengthy 2013 Hazlitt piece by Slate music critic Carl Wilson, a 2017 book about queer Toronto that uses the title of her most well-known song as its title, and a mural on Yonge Street by the artist Adrian Hayles. Of course, Douglas Mcgowan and Numero Group, which puts out beautifully packaged, painstakingly researched reissues of lost and obscure sounds, were drawn in by the mystery of Jackie Shane. But a good story is only part of what makes a good record.

"I just started listening, and I realized that it was worth as much time as it would take to try to guide the project into the mainstream world," said Mcgowan. "Because until really recently, the only way to hear Jackie's music was through bootleg CDs and YouTube clips." Researching her output, he even had to buy a few very early recordings — which wound up not making it into the collection — off of eBay. (The Any Other Way double-disc collection includes six 45s; the cream of a week's residency at Toronto's Saphire Tavern in 1967, recorded with a version of the Motley band and previously compiled as Jackie Shane Live; and three never-before-released live cuts.) Her scattered singles, if available at all, were going for hundreds of dollars online, catnip to collectors for their rarity. But they were also good. As Eric Mercury told Rob Bowman in the liner notes, Jackie Shane was a force of nature, a soul scorcher who could murder a ballad or ignite a dance floor.

And perhaps more than that, or at least equal to it, the recordings — particularly the live ones nabbed at the Saphire — had managed to capture Jackie's wildfire spirit, her passionate adherence to her truth. The spoken breakdowns in songs like "Any Other Way" or a version of Barrett Strong's "Money" use the pulpit charisma of the gospel singers Jackie had grown up with to preach her message of self-love and acceptance on wax: "You know what my slogan is?" she says, after disclosing that sometimes, as she walked down the street, people would point their fingers and try to hide a laugh — "Baby, do what you want, just know what you're doing. As long as you don't force your will and your way on anyone else, live your life because ain't nobody sanctified and holy."

Jackie's live spoken breakdowns rang "like a church sermon" to Mcgowan, who courted her doggedly before she agreed to the project. He heard her steely sense of self-worth. Eventually, he thinks, she sensed his sincerity and willingness to do right by her.

"I think Jackie saw in me maybe a kindred spirit, that I was into celebrating the work of outsiders, and also that I could do it in a way that wasn't going to be super sensationalistic or tacky, I like to think." Mcgowan had the right touch. He spent about three years working on the project with Jackie, without ever asking, for example, what kind of work she did after leaving show business, if any. ("I guess it says something about me that I never pressed to get an answer, but I haven't," he said. He suspects that Jackie's late mother may have been a smart investor, in real estate.)

"You have to come in with the artist's agenda on your mind rather than your own," he said. "I relate to Jackie in the sense that I understand wanting to be left alone."

Luckily for Numero Group, Jackie's nearly five-decade seclusion was stable enough that she had been able to keep — whether she intended it for posterity or not — an extensive archive of her career. The various photos, newspaper articles, scraps of business cards and contracts and promotional items and so on that are included in the vinyl double album version of Any Other Way evoke a life — from the casual cover photo of Shane in ballet slippers, winged eyeliner and a cinched shift dress relaxing with a cigarette on a satin bedspread to a newspaper column, from the early '60s or so, where a reader writes in a question. "My friend and I saw a group called Jackie Shane and the Hitchhikers," the writer explains, "and he says Jackie Shane is a girl. I thought he was a boy ... Could you find out?"

(The answer in the column quotes Jackie as saying, "I'm a boy of 23, I just wear my hair long, that's all," — "with," the columnist writes, "just a touch of irritation.") All together — with Jackie's blessing and participation — Any Other Way is a singular package, an insanely rare first-person document of a life that had a million more than likely chances to slip into the quicksand of history, but still exists.

Now close to 80, Jackie Shane lives a quiet life back in Nashville, caring for a series of pet cats (some are pictured in the materials of Any Other Way) and occasionally, when pressed, blowing her whistle. There have been inquiries about a return to the stage, Mcgowan said, and he knows Jackie — who regularly sings to her current cat — still has the voice for it. Will she? After 50 years, she'd still rock.