OH GOD, COULD SHE SING: Jackie Shane

Numero Group offers up an odd, beautiful, powerful monument to one of the craziest stories in popular music, that of a trans pioneer operating as a full-blown soul diva, and possessed of jaw-dropping vocal talent.

BY JENNIFER KELLY

In photos, Jackie Shane radiates an unearthly poise and elegance, whether dressed in suits with only a slash of mascara to indicate her femininity or in full-blown soul diva mode with a long wig, elbow-length gloves and shimmery ball gowns.  Born in the south in 1940, Shane knew from early teenage-hood the two things that would set her apart: that she was a woman trapped in a man’s body and that she could sing (oh god could she sing).

Shane made her way in a culture not yet equipped for gender ambiguity on sheer talent, drive and charm and got surprisingly far, flourishing in Canada for a few years in a much loved soul revue and notching a regional hit in her cover of William Bell’s “Any Other Way.”  There was drama, the usual (song-credit stealing, racism, money troubles and drink and drugs among band members), as well as exotic (she was kidnapped once by a Montreal gangster eager to make her a star and his mistress), but also the hard, ordinary work of building a career, perhaps not as illustrious a career as if Shane had not been trans ahead of her time, but still remarkable for the 1960s.

A new two-disc set from Numero Group collects, for the first time, all Jackie Shane’s singles, as well as sessions from a near legendary set of shows in Toronto in 1967. The first disc of Any Other Way makes the case for Shane’s lasting resonance as a soul icon, fronting a superbly tight band led by Frank Motley. The second reinforces the case for Shane as an artist, provides a glimpse of her mesmerizing on-stage persona and perhaps even draws the curtain on the real person behind it.

Disc One, containing substantially all of Shane’s professionally recorded material, runs from sublime to raucous, with the former exemplified by her biggest hit “Any Other Way,” a saxophone-swaying ballad with bright flares of brass. Shane’s voice is gorgeous, a woman’s voice in its flute-y flourishes, but with the shadowy ambiguity of lower timbres in the refrain.

No one was talking about non-binary pronouns in the 1960s, so gender becomes rather fluid in these songs, sometimes CIS male, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes female. The covers were, of course, written for more conventionally oriented performers, but Shane manages to put a subversive spin on them. Her toughness and resilience is heartbreaking in the title track, when she confides to an ex-lover’s new flame, “tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay, I wouldn’t have it, any other way.”  Yet she was also the center of one of the best party bands in Toronto during her day; you can get a real sense of the sweat-soaked, euphoric abandon of a Jackie Shane show in cuts like “Walking the Dog” and “Shot Gun.”

Disc One demonstrates how well Jackie Shane fit into a tradition steeped in gospel, spiked with soul and jacked on James Brown-style funk, but on the live Disc Two, recorded in mono during two nights of shows at the Sapphire Tavern in Toronto, and it is here that you begin to get a sense of what was different about Shane and her band. The live version of “Money (That’s What I Want),” composed by Barratt Strong but reconstructed here, is a revelation, as Shane unspools a monologue halfway through about difference and self-respect, family, fame and money that makes her personality pop right out of the record grooves. She’s not an easy person, clearly, as she asserts her right to looking good, giving (and receiving) satisfaction, living life her way and getting paid for the privilege, but she is formidable, a force of life not afraid to compare herself to Jesus Christ.

Shane quarreled with her band leader, Frank Motley, soon after these songs were recorded, and spent a couple of years fronting other ensembles. (Funkadelic tried, and failed, to get her to sing for them.)  She disappeared from music entirely in 1971, and rumors flew that she had been murdered. She had, in fact, gone back to Los Angeles to care for her mother, and lived as a recluse for decades before Numero found her and convinced her to release this music. Any Other Way is an odd, beautiful, powerful monument to one of the craziest stories in popular music; it’s a killer record without the back story, but all the more jaw dropping when you know the history.

 

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