Jackie Shane, a soul singer and transgender pioneer who had been all but forgotten for decades until her reissued catalogue sparked renewed attention in 2017, has died at the age of 78. Douglas McGowan, the Numero Group A&R scout who had tracked down Shane and was responsible for her rediscovery, confirmed the news to Rolling Stone. Shane died at home in Nashville, where she lived with her cat, Sweetie.
“I’m devastated to report that our friend and hero Jackie Shane passed away peacefully in her sleep earlier this week,” McGowan said. “[Jackie] said many times that she was humbled by all the acclaim lavished on her in the year and a half since our record. To this she’d rarely fail to add that she never asked for any of this, but felt it was fate. Jackie didn’t do what she did for anyone’s else’s approval. She was here to entertain, but also to educate and inspire. She lived entirely on her own terms. She taught me so many things about self-respect and grace under difficult circumstances. She was hilarious and she was wise. She saw dimensions to things others could not. I believe that she was a visionary who will never be forgotten, and will be recognized by more and more people as one of the greatest soul singers of all time. I’ll never know anyone else like Jackie.”
Shane was extraordinary in many ways — musically and socially. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1940, growing up black and transgender in the Jim Crow South. As young as 13, she said she self-identified as a woman in a man’s body but would occasionally describe herself to peers as gay since people didn’t understand how to accept her.
She sang in Southern churches and gospel groups but lived among R&B and soul icons in Nashville. She learned from Little Richard and the Upsetters, and shared stages with Etta James, Jackie Wilson and the Impressions.
Soul singer Joe Tex encouraged her to leave the American South and pursue her musical career, so she began playing gigs in Boston, Montreal and eventually Toronto. It was in the latter city, which had a budding R&B scene in the Sixties, that she found her audience. Shane packed nightclubs in Toronto in the 1960s and appeared on local music TV show Night Train. “Jackie was a revelation,” music journalist Rob Bowman said. “Quite quickly the black audience in Toronto embraced her. Within a couple of years, Jackie’s audiences were 50-50 white and black.”
She covered songs like “Money (That’s What I Want),” ″You Are My Sunshine” and “Any Other Way,” and put out singles and a live album but never recorded a studio album, stating that she distrusted music labels. Then she mysteriously disappeared in 1971, leaving many to assume she was dead. Music historians and avid R&B collectors kept her memory alive.
In 2010, the Canadian Broadcasting Company produced an audio documentary about her, spurring a wider interest. She reclaimed the spotlight in 2017 when archival record label Numero Group released a box set that collected her work, titled Any Other Way. The live songs are populated with extended monologues in which Shane takes on the role of a preacher, sermonizing on her life, sexual politics and much more. The collection was later nominated for a Grammy for Best Historical Album.
She explained to the New York Times that she had left her career behind to take care of her mother in Los Angeles. After her mom died, she’d returned to Nashville, where she spent her final days as a recluse, but her face is included on a 20-story musical mural in Toronto with other influential musicians like Muddy Waters. She was quickly embraced as a forgotten LGBT icon.
“I had been discovered,” Shane told the Associated Press. “It wasn’t what I wanted, but I felt good about it. After such a long time, people still cared. And now those people who are just discovering me, it’s just overwhelming.”