Sound & Vision: Looking Back at Pioneering Trans Blues Artist Jackie Shane

Interviews, Sound and Vision
Emily Fox

This piece originally aired as a feature on KEXP's radio show Sound & Vision. Revisit the audio in our archive

Jackie Shane was a Black trans soul singer who performed in the 60s. In 1971, she walked away from her career and effectively disappeared. New York Times writer Reggie Ugwu was able to track her down in 2017 and spoke to her on the phone from her home in Nashville, a place she admits she doesn't leave and says even her neighbors have probably only seen her three or four times over a decade.

Shane passed away last year at the age of 78. Ugwu speaks with KEXP to share Shane’s story.

KEXP: So how did you first hear about Jackie Shane's story?

Reggie Ugwu: It was a Numero Group boxset that they put out back in 2017 that came across our attention and seemed like a really, fascinating untold story.

What fascinated you the most as you were reporting on this story? You even got to talk to Jackie Shane. What fascinated you the most about her story?

Well, for me, it was an incredible kind of opportunity as a journalist because she was just really fascinating figure who had, as you mentioned, kind of vanished and hadn't been heard from. So just the opportunity to speak to someone who had never given an extensive interview with the press before was really interesting to me. And then, of course, Jackie herself was such a singular figure. She was kind of light years ahead of her time in so many different ways. I had never heard of anyone quite like her.

You got to talk to her on the phone and [were able to] understand who she was through research, but how would you describe Jackie Shane as a person but also the sense you got from talking to her on the phone?

She was [an] incredibly warm and generous person to speak with. We talked for hours over two different phone calls. She was very, very sort of self-possessed and confident and just kind of exudes dignity. She had this kind of way where she would love to just kind of share her wisdom and expound on different issues, different topics of the day, whether it's morality or music or Toronto, where she spent much of her time, or the south. She was a really warm and thoughtful person to speak with.

It's interesting that you say she had a confidence about her because I think about [how] she just kind of disappeared and you even said in her article that she just kind of stays at home. She doesn't even know how to cook. And so she'd just have people deliver food to her front door and doesn't go out much. Why do you think it is that she holed up for so long? That she just kind of kept at home and never really left?

Well, I think she didn't have the most optimistic view of humanity. And she kind of became a deeply, deeply private person. I think that had a lot to do with the way she grew up. She grew up as a transgender person before there was really even the common understanding of what that meant before that word was commonly used. And yet, she lived as a girl and as a woman for her entire life. She told me a story about being bullied as a child in elementary school and getting into fights with not only her classmates but her teacher as well, just to defend herself and who she was. She grew up in Nashville, Tennessee in the 50s and the 40s. And it was not a very welcoming environment for LGBT people and that's part of the reason why she left and lived in Toronto, which is where she spent most of her career in the '60s. I think for similar reasons, she eventually kind of withdrew from society at large.

You spoke to Jackie Sheen and in 2017 and in your article you also said as early as 13 she identified as female. The fact that she was growing up in the '50s in the south, in your conversation with her, did she reflect on how much has changed in her lifetime in terms of LGBT rights? Did she talk about how her life would've been different if she grew up in a different era or just how things have changed in the outside world since she was growing up?

I talked to her a little bit about all the changes. I mean, we talked in 2017. In 2015 there was the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. Her point of view was kind of like, you know, "It's about time." She said that we should have had these rights from the beginning. I mentioned her being kind of ahead of her time. The way she always put it was that everyone else was behind, that people are kind of behind the times. I think she was happy to see greater acceptance and greater understanding of LGBT people in her lifetime, but it was very slow going. For her, I don't know that she was ever that impressed, given how long it took for basic civil rights for LGBT people to become commonplace. And as you see, we're still making progress on that front.

There's a lot of conversation right now, not only around black lives mattering, but black trans lives mattering right now. What do you think is Jackie Shane's legacy as we look back on her life?

I think that she was someone who was, as I say, extremely confident and who exuded dignity. She never let anyone define her or put her in a box. She never felt that she had to explain herself to anyone. So she was someone who believed deeply in personal liberation and personal freedom and live and let live. And that's the way that she lived her life – at some cost, I would say. But she was very convicted. I think she's a real model for how you can be yourself and not conform to the pressures of society or of the government or anyone who wants to change who you are.

And you said, "at some cost." Even as she was a performer, as a black trans performer, did she face a lot of discrimination? Did she ever talk about that?

She didn't like to talk too much about hardship. She didn't like to give the impression or I got the impression that she didn't want to be seen as a victim. But she did talk about, as I mentioned, some of the bullying that she experienced and just for general kind of distrust of even her neighbors in Nashville. She was very concerned about being spotted or people gossiping about her. And I think that that was one of the consequences or that was kind of a lesson that she learned through hard-won experience in her life.

How would you describe her as a performer? I know you didn't get to see her perform personally, but did you get a sense of who she was as a performer?

Yeah, there's only one video that exists of her performing. I believe that was recorded in 1965, a song called "Any Other Way," which is the title track of that Numero Group reissue. And you can kind of see in that performance what people generally described at the time, which is just a very captivating and magnetic presence on stage. She moved with a lot of grace and subtle precision so that you can't really take your eyes off of her. As a presence, she was beautiful and glamorous and furs and sequins and bold makeup. So she had a reputation as the kind of person that could hold a room in the palm of her hand.

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