Jackie Shane, a transgender soul singer who became a pioneering musician in Toronto, where she packed out nightclubs in the 1960s, has died. She was 78.
Record label Numero Group, which produced a Grammy-nominated album about Shane that brought her back out into the spotlight, confirmed Friday that she died in Nashville. The date and cause of death were not provided.
She became a musical mystery after disappearing suddenly in 1971, but her legacy lived on among music historians and vinyl collectors. Shane lived in anonymity for decades after retiring and was a recluse who didn’t leave her house.
A Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary about Shane renewed interest in the singer, and a few years ago, Douglas Mcgowan from Numero Group tracked her down by phone in Nashville, where she was born. She agreed to work with the label on a new release of all her singles and live recordings, called “Any Other Way,” which was released in 2017.
Music journalist Rob Bowman interviewed her by phone for hours to write the liner notes for the project, which detailed her youth growing up black and transgender in the Jim Crow era of the South through her travels to Canada and her recording and performing career.
“I am incredibly honored that Jackie trusted me enough to tell her story,” Bowman said Friday.
The album was nominated for best historical album at this month’s Grammy Awards but lost to “Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris.” Still Bowman said Friday that Shane was glad that people were discovering her music after so many years and he was glad that she got to see that before she died.
“She was so gratified that people cared,” Bowman said. “She knew that she was loved and that her music was loved.”
After the album came out, news outlets began calling and her photos started appearing in newspapers and magazines. RuPaul and Laverne Cox have tweeted stories about Shane.
Jackie Shane was a regular session player for Nashville R&B, gospel labels
Born in the Jim Crow era and raised during the heyday of Nashville’s small but influential R&B scene, Shane was confident in herself and musically inclined since she was a child. By the time she was 13, she considered herself a woman in a man’s body and her mother unconditionally supported her, according to Bowman’s liner notes.
“Even in school, I never had any problems,” Shane told The Associated Press in 2018. “People have accepted me.”
She played drums and became a regular session player for Nashville R&B and gospel record labels and went out on tour with artists such as Jackie Wilson. She knew Little Richard since she was a teenager and later in the ’60s met Jimi Hendrix, who spent time gigging on Nashville’s Jefferson Street. But soon the South’s Jim Crow laws became too harsh for her to live with.
She began playing gigs in Boston, Montreal and eventually Toronto, which despite being a majority-white city at the time still had a budding R&B musical scene. She performed with Frank Motley, who was known for playing two trumpets at once. White and black audiences loved Shane and packed the clubs to see her perform.
She put out singles and a live album, covering songs like “Money (That’s What I Want),” ”You Are My Sunshine” and “Any Other Way,” which was regionally popular in Boston and Toronto in 1963. Her live songs are populated with extended monologues in which Shane took on the role of a preacher, sermonizing on her life, sexual politics and much more.
But her connection to her mother was so strong that ultimately it led Shane to leave show business in 1971. Her mother’s husband died and Shane said she didn’t want to leave her mother living alone. But she said in 2018 that she also felt a bit exhausted by the pace.
Today her face is painted on a massive 20-story musical mural in Toronto with other influential musicians such as Muddy Waters.