Jackie Shane, Genderqueer Soul Survivor, Prepares For Her Comeback

Jackie Shane

Jackie Shane puts me on notice at the very top of our conversation.

“I will say what I want to say or I won’t say anything,” the 77-year-old soul singer says. Her voice is clipped and precise, each letter perfectly enunciated. Despite a professional career that began at the age of 14, and which has included such highlights as performing with Etta James and sharing a bill with a young Jimi Hendrix, this is her first official interview. In 1967, a Canadian gossip columnist lobbed questions at her while she prepped for a show at the Palais Royale in Toronto—Are you a boy or a girl? Is it annoying to have people ask about your gender? Is your hair real?—but aside from that, Shane has always let her music speak for itself.

But it’s been a long time since that voice has been heard—since 1971, to be exact. At the age of 31, Shane walked away from performing and virtually disappeared; for years, internet forums dedicated to the roots of rock ’n’ roll have trafficked regularly in rumors of her death. Yet now, she’s prepping for the release of Any Other Way, a double album of her material from the 1960s: 12 studio tracks and 13 live ones. From the repressed longing of the title track to the rebellious energy on her version of “Shotgun,” Shane’s voice captures the soul of an entire decade. The record blends or anticipates a half-dozen musical traditions, including Motown, soul, rock, R&B, and funk. It even includes a Shaned-up cover of the folk standard “You Are My Sunshine.”

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“There’s stuff here that nobody’s heard,” says Douglas Mcgowan, the head of reissue A&R for Numero Group, the label putting out Any Other Way, which drops October 20. “Our label is dedicated to underappreciated artists,” he says with nearly palpable excitement. “This is our core product.”

Mcgowan spent more than two years trying to persuade Shane to meet with him about the reissue. Even when he showed up in her hometown, she refused to come to the door or even speak to him through a window. But she did end up signing the contract.

It’s hard not to wonder if Shane’s reclusiveness is a response to something specific that happened during her career, or just the cumulative exhaustion of being black, brilliant, and genderqueer in a business that doesn’t necessarily respect any of those things. But Shane isn’t one to dwell on the bad times, if there were any.

“My career has been one of wonder and excitement,” she tells me when I ask if it was hard being gay in the music business in the 1960s. (Although she knows people might describe her as such, Shane doesn’t identify with the labels “transgender” or “queer,” preferring to use “gay” to refer to the entire alphabet of LGBTQIAA identities).

The liner notes to the new double album provide great details from that life of wonder and excitement: how she got her start singing gospel and playing drums in Ohio and Nashville; how she was on the radio with her first trio by the age of 14; how performing in traveling, segregated “soul tents” brought her to Montreal and Toronto; how a Canadian mobster once kidnapped her to make her a star; and how her cover of “Any Other Way” became a Canadian radio hit (twice).

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In the late ’60s, when Shane was in her prime, she performed regularly with the Etta James Revue, a show put together by the Grammy award–winning James herself. After Shane’s explosive opening act at their first show together, James said to her, “If I had known this [would happen], I would have gone on first!”

Still, despite all her incredible stories, Shane is often loath to discuss specifics, particularly about the difficulties she’s experienced. “I didn’t allow Jackie to get down,” she simply says.

As for what happened in the years between when she stopped performing and when Numero Group got in touch about reissuing her material? On that she says nothing at all, except that she retired to take care of her mother, with whom she had always been close.

About the future, Shane is similarly tight-lipped. She prefers to surf the wave that comes, rather than trying to plan for what may never happen. If there is a comeback, it will be on her terms. She doesn’t like much music on the radio today, so she would choose the musicians (all Southern, of course) and put the band together herself. She makes no promises, but like a good performer, she knows to leave you wanting more.

“I have given it a great deal of thought,” she says as our interview ends, “and I think I would like to give the world a little more of Jackie Shane.”

The world wouldn’t have it any other way.

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