Black History Month: Jackie Shane

‘Tell her that I am happy
Tell her that I am gay
Tell her I wouldn’t have it
Any other way’

Jackie Shane has a voice that stops you in your tracks. She’s been out of the spotlight for over 45 years – widely believed to be dead at one point – but you better believe that she’s still alive and kicking.

Shane was born in Nashville in 1940, a tough time and place to be black and trans. Jim Crow laws were in full force and there were no protections in place for LGBTQ+ people. Assigned male at birth, she began to wear girls clothes to school at the age of 13 by which time she self identified as a woman in a man’s body.

In 1960 she moved up to Canada, first to Montreal where she joined Frank Motley and the Motley Crew as their lead vocalist before travelling with them to Toronto. Here she came into her own:

“I live the life I love and I love the life I live, and I hope you’ll do the same. You know, you’re supposed to live, so long as you don’t force your will and your way on others. Forget ‘em baby, you don’t need ‘em because the mean things people say about you, can’t make you feel bad because Jackie can’t miss a friend that I’ve never had…And I sing sexy too, that helps.”  – Midsong monologue from ‘Any Other Way’

Her single ‘Any Other Way’ reached no.2 on the local Toronto music chart in 1963 and stayed there for twenty weeks. A local radio station initially refused to play the song as they were upset by her nonconforming appearance, but public appetite was in fact so great that they were forced to. Shane was, after all, a phenomenal live performer – fellow artists and contemporary Eric Mercury described her show as “It was like going to see Little Richard. We had never seen anything up close like that in Toronto.” After the Wednesday of her first week performing, queues formed round the block for her shows, and she went on to share a stage with soul legends including Etta James and Jackie Wilson & the Impressions, amongst others.

Shane left Canada to return home to care for her mother who was getting frailer, and she has lived in Nashville ever since her death in 1996, leading a secluded life away from public attention. Her door remains unopened even for her record company, and phone callers get hung up on or have a whistle blown down the phoneline if they try again.

However, Numero Group  have recently released her catalogue as a compilation album, Any Other Way named after her 1963 single. It’s the first official release in almost 50 years and encompasses all her singles plus wonderful live performances (I recommend checking out the live audio of her concerts  – her voice and wit are second to none).

Beyond this record release, Shane is also being recognised as a key part of Canadian LGBTQ+ history and culture. Her story is representative of how sexual and gender identity politics have developed since the 60s – during her career she was referred to as transsexual, crossdresser, a man and/or a gay man (which she did sometimes describe herself as). Some of these terms have aged badly, yet that is how people back then understood folk who did not conform to gender expectations. To many she was an inspiration as she showed them something they had previously not recognised or been able to describe within themselves.

The essay collection Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer, gets its title from her single and she is the star of two pieces within. As the trans movement grows, Jackie Shane is being seen as an elder and trailblazer of the community for openly living her truth in the pre-Stonewall 1960s; she is an inspirational figure of strength both then and now, when trans women of colour are amongst the most vulnerable members of LGBTQ+ community.

“You know, when I’m walking down Yonge Street, you 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 morning I laugh and grin on my way to the bank, because I got mine.”  – Midsong monologue from live performance of Money

[Rose Jackson – @ginger_git]

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