Jackie Shane, a black transgender soul singer from the American South who moved to Toronto in the 1960s and packed out nightclubs for years with electrifying showmanship, was found dead Feb. 21 in Nashville. She was 78.
Record label Numero Group, which produced a Grammy-nominated album about Ms. Shane that brought her back out into the spotlight, confirmed the death, but the cause was not immediately available.
Ms. Shane became a musical mystery after disappearing suddenly in 1971, but her legacy lived on among music historians and vinyl collectors. She lived in anonymity for decades after retiring and was a recluse who didn’t leave her house.
A Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary about Ms. Shane renewed interest in the singer, and a few years ago, Douglas Mcgowan of 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.
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.”
Born on May 15, 1940, and raised during the heyday of Nashville’s small but influential R&B scene, Ms. 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,” Ms. Shane told the Associated Press last year. “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 like 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.
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. Both white and black audiences packed the clubs to see Ms. Shane 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Shane to leave show business in 1971. Her mother’s husband died, and Ms. Shane said she did not 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 20-story musical mural in Toronto with other influential musicians, including Muddy Waters.
— Associated Press