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March 12, 2021

March is Women's History Month! MCA Denver Staff Shares Their Influential Creators

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Throughout the month of March we celebrate Women’s History Month! It is a dedicated time in the year to recognize the monumental impact women have made to the United States in history and contemporary society. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we asked our staff to share women artists/creators that have impacted their lives or inspired them in some way.

This week, Courtney Law, Director of Communications, Partnerships & Digital Initiatives shares with us soul and rhythm and blues singer, Jackie Shane. 

Vintage black and white photo of Jackie Shane in white elbow length gloves and black dress standing facing the camera in the center of the horizontal photo.
Photo courtesy of Numero Group

I think Women’s History Month is an opportunity to celebrate all women, no matter if their life garnered attention and fame or not. I’m especially interested in women who didn’t receive recognition for their talents while they were alive. I think the singer and performer Jackie Shane is one of those women. 

Jackie Shane’s music has a familiar sound if you’ve ever listened to soul and R&B recordings of the 50’s and 60’s: high energy ditties that compel you to your feet and slow, forlorn ballads with the classic combination of rhythmic guitar, horns, and a strong vocal lead. What is perhaps a lot less familiar about Shane’s sound is that her vocals are distinctly androgynous, in addition to confident, charismatic, and powerful. 

Jackie Shane was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1940. According to NPR, “from her earliest adolescence Shane had known she was transgender and, blessed with a supportive and loving mom, Jessie Shane (who went back to her maiden name after splitting up with Jackie's father less than a year after their daughter was born, and gave it to Jackie, too), wore makeup and jewelry to school and, when she started performing, onstage. This was in the American South in the 1950s, when it was challenging enough to be a black man, let alone a black trans woman. There were rigid laws on the books that circumscribed, and often outright outlawed, most of who she was.”

Faded color photo of Jackie Shane lounging on a bed with a cigarette in her hand
Photo courtesy of Numero Group

Until somewhat recently, her story was less well known outside of Ontario, Canada, where she visited on a traveling carnival tour in 1959. She moved to Toronto in 1961, seizing the opportunity to escape the overt racism of the Jim Crow South. In Toronto she made a home for herself and developed a loyal fan base. "I never felt that good before. I felt so free," she once told the Toronto musicologist Rob Bowman, who became one of her fans. He once shared that, "I would come out of the Holiday Tavern [in Toronto] sweating, and it wasn't hot in there, except for what Jackie was putting down ... We had never seen anything up close like that in Toronto. It was like a tornado coming through the place."

Just shy of 30 and just barely a decade after arriving in Toronto and making a name for herself, Shane mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind only bootleg recordings and scant video recordings from TV appearances. There were rumors she was murdered but no one seemed to really know where she had gone. One day she was being described as “a force of nature, a soul scorcher who could murder a ballad or ignite a dance floor” and the next she was nowhere to be found.  

Black and White Photo of Jackie Shane singing in a sequin blazer, profile of a trumpet player playing behind her.
Jeff Goode/Toronto Star/Getty Images

It wasn’t until around 2010 that interest in Shane’s life and music began to resurface after the audio documentary, I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane, was released from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about her (which was made without information about her whereabouts). That audio documentary piqued the interest of the Numero Group, which then sought to release a box set of Jackie’s recordings. Douglas McGowan, who put the box set together, was able to successfully track Jackie down to get her permission for his work, and as a result, was also able to include photos, newspaper articles, scraps of business cards and contracts and promotional items with the record. Apparently she quit music to take care of her ailing mother in L.A. and remained reclusive for 40 years until McGowan’s dogged pursuit of her. Per NPR: “All together — with Jackie's blessing and participation — Any Other Way is a singular package, an insanely rare first-person document of a life that had a million more than likely chances to slip into the quicksand of history, but still exists.”    

Luckily, Shane lived long enough to learn that there was still great demand for her dynamic sound and presence. She died in 2019 at the age of 78. 

Watch Jackie Shane in a rare video. 

Walking The Dog - Jackie Shane