It is difficult to tell the story of Jackie Shane without mentioning her sexuality. Born a boy, the few photographs of Shane usually show a man in drag, or dressed in a man’s suit with bouffant hair and full makeup. The extraordinary voice is difficult to pin down as male or female. But there is no escaping the fact that, were it not for her sexuality, this incredible performer would very likely be lost to the archives – another talented soul singer who nearly made it. Finally, at the age of seventy-seven, now living as a woman, Jackie is enjoying a renaissance.
As a young man, at the age of twenty, Jackie relocated from her native Nashville to more tolerant Canada. Attending a Toronto club to see local band The Motley Crew, the band-leader Frank Motley pulled her on stage. The fact she wore a bright red cocktail dress was too hard to ignore. Within a year ‘Lil’ Jackie Shane’ was the band’s full time singer.
Jackie enjoyed modest success in Canada including a top ten hit with Any Other Way. This album is a reissue of the singles (disc one), together with selected live tracks (disc two), all recorded in the early 1960s. It shares the same sound (and often the same repertoire) as that of Motown and Stax. Production values and musicianship aren’t as high as those more successful labels, but the low fidelity of these recordings lends everything an attractively sleazy sound. The live tracks work best. It’s easy to imagine sitting in a late night club, in a cheap suit, sipping a whisky sour, while Jackie runs through Walk The Dog.
Her performances were high energy but it is the voice that thrills: a honey-soaked sandpaper that brings warmth to the saddest ballads but can effortlessly conjure the primal energy of Otis Redding or even James Brown. This ability to change gears is best displayed on the stunning Raindrops and the sublime I Don’t Wanna Cry.
As a listener, the knowledge of her personal story inflects every lyric with poignancy – perhaps more so than Shane herself intended. Song choices like New Way of Loving, Cruel Cruel World and I Don’t Wanna Cry emphasise this but the live recordings suggest a more positive outlook. The extended monologue she delivers in the middle of Money (That’s What I Want) captures this: “I’m a little piece of leather but I’m well put together…98 on the seats, 75 on the sheets. If people didn’t point and laugh… I’d think I was losing my touch”.
One imagines life for a black transgender men in the American south is tough enough in Trump’s America but it surely can’t compare to what Lil’ Jackie encountered in the 1940s and 50s, when lynchings were still common. Jackie’s strategy seems to have been to brazen it out with humour and real soul. Even without that knowledge, it’s a cracking album.
Any Other Way was released via Numero Group on 20th October.