Trans Soul Legend Jackie Shane’s Songs Are More Powerful Than Ever

For the trans community, recent reminders that we must hold our history close—lest it be twisted in the mouths of others—makes the first authorized release of Jackie Shane's work that much more meaningful.

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Oct 20 2017, 9:58pm

Jackie Shane. Photo courtesy Numero Group

Music history is, in large part, the study of deeply influential people that few have ever heard of. For every Eric Clapton, there's a Junior Barnard; for every Jimi Hendrix, a Jimmy Nolen. The same holds true for queer history, especially since large chunks have been censored or causally overwritten by society at large. In the overlap between both spaces is a soul pioneer whose lamentable obscurity hopefully comes to an end today, with the release of her first box set, Any Other Way, out today from Numero Group—her only authorized release in nearly fifty years. Her name is Jackie Shane, she's a black transgender woman, and she's returned just when the trans community needs her voice the most.

Growing up in Nashville during the 1940s, Shane was reared on a soundtrack of gospel and blues, which proved to be her driving passion—and her escape from a perilous homeland. Having known she was "a woman in a man's body" (as she put it in a recent New York Times profile) since she was thirteen, Shane was well aware of the danger she faced in the Jim Crow-era South. After witnessing a string of racist street violence in 1958, as Shane recounted in ethnomusicologist Rob Bowman's liner notes for Any Other Way, "I sat there and I'm thinking, 'I've got to get out before something really ugly happens.'"

Shane's singing career would take her all the way to Montreal and Toronto, where she became a soul sensation in the late 50s and 60s. Her single "Any Other Way," written by William Bell, soared to #2 on local charts, and she enjoyed long runs as a featured performer in Toronto clubs, parlaying her popularity into riotously popular TV appearances and embarking on a number of successful tours in the US and Canada. (Not one to sell out for fame, Shane turned down offers to perform on the segregated American Bandstand and on The Ed Sullivan Show, which would have required her to remove her makeup.)

Her popularity came with good reason, too: As Bowman observes, Shane possessed extraordinary vocal talents, rocketing through high-octane arrangements with finesse and power. Thanks to her practical training since childhood, she had mastery over her entire vocal range and used that prowess to convey deep, fertile veins of emotion to her audiences.

"One of soul music's great gifts is its power to express suffering and yet somehow simultaneously alleviate it, both for the singer and the listener. I think of that a lot when I hear Jackie Shane sing," Cait Brennan, a transgender singer and songwriter, wrote in an email. "Jackie Shane is a musical force to be reckoned with," fellow trans singer/songwriter Mel Stone agreed. "If she were cisgender, she'd be considered one of the greats."

But just as abruptly as she arrived, Shane vanished. Her final live performance was in 1971, after which she retreated to Los Angeles to care for her widowed mother. She remained in seclusion for decades, her continued survival confirmed only twice by a handful of industry insiders and documentarians, all of whom promptly lost touch once again.

Now, as the transgender community occupies greater visibility than ever before, Shane has returned. Her new set contains twenty-five tracks no soul and R&B aficionado can afford to live without, including a half-hour live set showcasing Shane at her most passionate and energetic. But listening to Any Other Way as a trans woman is to experience its deeper meaning: the set paints a portrait of a strong, confident trans woman of color living life on her own terms nearly two decades before the Stonewall riots, an idea as radical and indispensable today as it was when the songs were recorded.

Consider "Cruel Cruel World," one of two tunes written by Shane herself. (At the time, singer/songwriters were still rare in soul and R&B, and record companies like Motown employed songwriters for their artists; most of Shane's songs were covers or compositions by others which Shane and her bands arranged for their own performances.) Stone calls the song "an anthem that cuts right through you." Though a lonely-hearts ballad on its surface, Shane taps into a well of longing that surpasses simple romantic dissatisfaction. "When she sings 'I want to know if I'll ever be free,' it's filled with such a rich and consuming sadness," says Stone. "I don't know a single trans woman that hasn't felt that crushing loneliness and desperation, crying out for liberation and contentment."


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That resonance is also keenly felt on "Money (That's What I Want)," an early bit of "fuck you, pay me" blues rock that seems tailor-made for a community that's struggled with disproportionate poverty for decades. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that close to a third of transgender people in America live under the poverty line, more than double the national rate—and when Shane howls "Your love gives me such a thrill/But your love don't pay my bills," her performance seems tailor-made for a population living hand-to-mouth. \

The live version of the song further bears this out, featuring one of Shane's signature monologues in which she confides in the audience: "[Y]ou won't believe this, but you know some of them funny people have the nerve to point the finger at me and grin and smile and whisper. But you know that don't worry Jackie, because I know I look good, and every Monday morning I laugh and grin on the way to the bank because I got mine.)

Then there's Shane's singing itself, commanding and raw and utterly unapologetic. "Her voice kind of makes me cry a little bit," Brennan tells me. "Those of us who are trans women vocalists… we're supposed to cultivate some kind of acceptable femininity, something folky and demure and harmless, all sweetness and light, so that when someone hears it, separated from our visual or personal 'presentation,' we won't 'fail gender' somehow." Combined with her silk-shirted, borderline futch onstage persona, Shane's voice shatters these demands, silencing those who would police her; Brennan compares Shane to the legendary James Brown and Irma Thomas, owning her stage with "a fearlessness that few people attempt even now."

In this way, Shane and her music represent a historical anchor point for trans women, a beacon signifying the endurance of our identities and the strength of our lineage. That's vital when you consider the extent to which cis- and heteronormative culture has erased our history. As America sees a resurgence in public displays of Nazism, trans people look back nervously at the 1933 burning of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which irretrievably destroyed centuries of transgender history.

And not all erasure is so obviously violent; Hollywood's monetization of queer history, as seen in films like Roland Emmerich's much-decried Stonewall and Tom Hooper's film adaptation of The Danish Girl, often comes at the expense of trans women—particularly trans women of color, misrepresenting and erasing the most vulnerable members of our community. Just this month, documentarian David France's The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson has come under fire for allegedly poaching trans activist Reina Gossett's work, raising questions about how the efforts of white, cisgender filmmakers are prioritized and lent credence over those of trans women of color. Though much about the France/Gossett controversy remains unsubstantiated, it's nevertheless upsetting that cis men are continually enriched by telling trans stories, while trans women still struggle to make our voices heard over a din of bigotry.

It's in this landscape—one where trans people must hold our history close, the better for it to fuel our march forward—that Jackie Shane has burst forth once more, her work a totem of empowerment and confidence during troubled times. "I'm grateful Jackie Shane is finally getting some of the recognition she deserves," says Brennan, and Stone concurs: "That her music can break through now is a testament to her skill and the indomitable strength trans women have to survive and shine." One hopes that with the release of Any Other Way, the music industry will never again forget Jackie Shane. Her sisters, filled with her spirit and will to thrive, certainly won't.

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