Written by Megan Crutchley
Jackie Shane was a Black, trans woman, and a performer of rhythm and blues and soul music. Her performance style is something more spiritual than can be described – an energy that is palpable through recordings alone, an attitude contagious through her voice, and a sense of soul that can ignite a room.
Shane developed her unique style during her upbringing in Nashville. Living with blues singers, she developed a taste for music. She remembered when she used to go to church and listen to the music, then leave as soon as the preaching began. Since childhood she would have her hair long and dress in feminine clothing. Despite the time period, Jackie had a unique experience in apparently never being critiqued for being openly queer. However, one of the things Jackie did suffer was the overt racism of the US, especially in the South. The Jim Crow Laws were still in practice and segregation was enforced. For these reasons, she joined a travelling carnival and partook in side-shows, joined by others who felt the same way as her but, due to the terminology of the time, did not have the word ‘transgender’ in their vocabulary yet. At this time, she was known to have travelled with the likes of Little Richard, and so her love for music grew, surrounded by people who seemed to accept her.
With this group, Jackie eventually came to Montreal in 1960, where one night she visited the Esquire Show Bar, a bar known to have performers entertaining until three in the morning. There she watched Frank Motley – a jazz performer known to be able to play two trumpets at once – perform one night and was invited onstage by the saxophone player King Herbert. Her performance solidified her as a permanent band member. Thus, Frank Motley & His Motley Crew was formed; Frank was the headliner, but Jackie was the lead singer. The band moved from jazz to R&B and Jackie’s performance style was popular with the crowd in Toronto, where they began performing regularly.
Canada, as Jackie and other members of the band said, was an easier place to make a living for Black performers. In the US, there was still rampant segregation and prejudices against people of colour that made it difficult for Black performers to make a living. Although Toronto had racist practices and legislation – for example, segregation was still in place – racism was more ‘covert’. When you were a performer, you were treated with a little more leniency when it came to segregation laws; hence why the band continued to play in Canada for some years, and why the area attracted so many other Black performers. In addition to racism, Jackie faced homophobia. At this time, Jackie was seen by others as a gay man, with the word transgender not even being conceived yet. Jackie experienced homophobia in the form of frequently being pulled over by police when she was seen with men and being heckled at shows. She dealt with these issues openly and directly. Having grown up in a loving and accepting household, she said that she fought hate with love: “I loved them first. I had to. I could not allow myself to be angry”.
She became known in Canada for her performing style: she would pause mid song and deliver monologues that had meaning to the people she was performing to, but also resonated with the content of the song. She frequently used word play in her music to make songs her own. For example, in her song Any Other Way, the lines “tell her that I’m happy / Tell her that I’m gay” take on a different meaning in her live performances. This style of performance suited the popular style of bar at the time – lounge bars. People listened to soul music to feel something, not only through lyrics but the music itself. The way Jackie would deliver these monologues meant every member of the audience was addressed, felt as if they were part of something bigger than themselves. It created a sense of community, if only temporarily. Jackie herself was also a spectacle – she would appear on stage with her long feminine hair, dressed in a suit, wearing makeup, her hands decked with rings and her nails long and immaculately painted. Or covered in sequins, like in her only television appearance where she sings Walking the Dog. She gave body to the performance with her confidence and people seemed to accept her extravagance as adding to the show.
One reason why Jackie Shane does not have a lot of released music is due to this love for live performances. She was never signed to a record label, fearing that they would try and force her back into the closet in order to make her appeal to a bigger audience. There was a period of time where she moved to LA and was booked out at The Sapphire to perform, and these performances were recorded to compile an album. By this time, however, it was the late 60’s, and the music scene was changing. People came to clubs looking to dance, not to listen. Jackie complained this separated her from her audience – there wasn’t any room for her to connect with people or time for her to talk. She recorded one of her last songs, New Way of Loving, and then it seemed her career began to wind down. In 1969, she split from Frank Motley & His Motley Crew and, by the 1970s, it seemed as if she had disappeared.
Her band mates couldn’t trace her, and she had done no performances for years. She had not kept in contact with anyone, and slowly her name began to disappear, with no big records of her own, only features on compilation tracks. There were rumours she had been murdered, been forced out of Canada by the government or some sort of underground group. Her old band mates report of her always having some sort of sadness to her and attributed this to her disappearance.
It is only in the last ten years, after the making of a radio documentary called I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane that people began to properly search for her. It turns out that there was no big mystery: Jackie had left Canada to look after her mother in LA. She had kept a very low profile, wearing sunglasses in public and barely leaving the house. After her mother’s death, she retired to Nashville and that was where she stayed until her death in 2018.
In the documentary I Got Mine her ex-band members spoke of how, had she had a manager and someone to guide her, she could have been a household name. One gives her credit as being “the grand[mother] of glam rock”, being one of the first performers to incorporate elements of glamour into her music. Her influence in the way she played with feminine and masculine appearances can be seen in such artists as David Bowie and her extravagant clothes can be compared to later Elton John costumes. Jackie had a long and fulfilling life and was accepted by those around her. She always regretted having to move back to the US though, never forgetting the harm it had caused her as a Black and Queer person. Her album Any Other Way, a collection of her live performances and compilation records, was released in 2017. One of the lines she throws out is “baby, do what you want, just know what you’re doing”. This seems to sum up her life perfectly – she did what she wanted and, baby, she knew what she was doing.
Banks, E. (Director). (2010). I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane [Motion Picture].
Darling, & Laura. (2020, February 25). Jackie Shane Part 1. Retrieved from Making Queer History: https://www.makingqueerhistory.com/articles/2020/2/24/jackie-shane-part-i
Darling, L. (2020, February 28). Jackie Shane Part II. Retrieved from Making Queer History : https://www.makingqueerhistory.com/articles/2020/2/28/jackie-shane-ii
Mcgowan, D. (2018, Fall). Jackie Shane: It’s Just, ‘Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am’. Southern Cultures, pp. 30-44.
Featured image credit: Jackie Shane. Photograph by Jeff Goode/Toronto Star/Getty Images. Accessed via Rolling Stone: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/jackie-shane-soul-singer-transgender-obituary-798820. Used under fair use policy.