In light of her recent passing, today’s Black History Month post is on Toronto soul singer, Jackie Shane. A performer who defied gender stereotypes and had a captivating stage presence, Shane is recognized by soul-music enthusiasts as one of the greatest singers of the genre, yet Shane has remained largely unknown outside Toronto.
Born in 1940 in Nashville, Shane moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1960. Still presenting as male, Shane was invited onstage at a show of Frank Motley and his Motley Crew, and performed songs by Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Soon after, Shane was the band’s lead vocalist, and she relocated with them to Toronto the next year.
Shane’s style held onto her southern roots, a foreign feel for her new Toronto fans. So, rumors went around that she was connected to or related to Little Richard.
From 1961-1971, Shane toured Canada and the US, and performed on albums released by Motley as well as releasing singles and albums of her own.
Shane dropped out of the scene in 1971, even losing contact with her bandmates. She moved to Los Angeles to be with her ailing mother (and turned down an invitation to perform with George Clinton’s Funkadelic.) When her mother passed, Shane moved back to Nashville.
Canada’s CBC Radio did a documentary on Shane in 2010, “I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane.”
“I have never felt that I had to change or do anything that wasn’t natural to me. I will never, ever be some kind of wishy-washy creature that pretends or lets others guide me. I guide my life. It is mine. No matter what anyone says, I’m going to be Jackie. That’s all I can be. That’s all I know. It’s what I feel from my heart and my soul.” – Jackie Shane
In 2017, the reissue label Numero Group released a double-LP/CD box-set of Shane’s music, Any Other Way. This was the first time since she released her final single in 1969 that Shane was directly involved in the production and release of her music. This box set was recognized with a Best Historical Album Grammy nomination.
Most articles from the 1960s referred to Shane as a man who performed in ambiguous or feminine clothing. A couple articles in the Toronto Star have Shane self-identifying as male, but most often Shane simply dodged questions about gender identification. Shane was referred to as a trans woman in a Globe and Mail article in 2017, stating she “was one of the only black transgender women working in soul music at the time, well before the idea of trans was identified and years prior to Canada’s decriminalization of homosexual acts in 1969.” In 2010, CBC Radio referred to Shane as gay and a cross-dresser. Current articles, including some by CBC Radio, refer to Shane as transgender.
“Jackie did not want the idea of being gay or non-straight as something to be focused on. As far as she was concerned, it’s as normal as the sky being blue. Jackie is extremely happy that the world has moved if not 360 degrees, at least a whole bunch of degrees from where it once was.” – Rob Bowman, York University ethnomusicology professor and writer for Shane’s box-set liner notes
In 2014, a shadow-puppet-animated short video by Toronto-based artists Sonya Reynolds and Lauren Hortie, called Whatever Happened to Jackie Shane?, made its rounds in LGBTQ-focused film festivals. They, too, tried to solve the “mystery” surrounding Shane’s gender identity. “Jackie was undermining a lot of gender norms with the way she pushed people to question gender. She sang songs with very coded lyrics. Even if the original songs she sang – which were not written by her – didn’t mean to be coded in queer language, they were,” Reynolds says.
Jackie Shane passed away February 21, 2019 at the age of 78.
“Most people are planted in someone else’s soil, which means they’re a carbon copy. I say to them, uproot yourself. Get into your own soil. You may be surprised who you really are.” – Jackie Shane