Photo courtesy of Numero Group

Jackie Shane: Any Other Way

Numero Group gathers assorted singles, live recordings and generous liner notes to provide a more complete picture of revolutionary transsexual soul singer Jackie Shane, in the process producing a minor masterpiece of overlooked soul.
Jackie Shane
Numero Group

Since its inception over a decade ago, the Numero Group has set the gold standard for what reissues of long lost soul, funk, R&B and more could and should be. Lovingly curated, graciously annotated and documented and presented in a stylistically uniform package that has become a sort of shorthand for quality, they rarely — if ever — stumble in bringing back to life some of the best, most criminally overlooked (in its own time) music. While their focus began with labels and the corresponding roster of each, they’ve since gone on to explore the oeuvre of individual artists, digging deep into the archives, musty basements, forgotten storage lockers and more to provide the fullest, most complete picture possible.

For their latest passion project, they’ve compiled more than two dozen tracks featuring the fiery vocal powerhouse Jackie Shane. As evidenced by the collection’s time-faded photograph (another Numero Group hallmark), Shane comes off as a tough, no-nonsense, self-assured woman capable of pushing a mic to its physical limits like few other vocalists. That she was a black transsexual woman — at a time when such an existence was simply unfathomable — confined largely to the mid-to-late-’60s Toronto music scene comes as almost an afterthought, the power of her voice taking precedent ahead of everything else and rendering everything else moot.

Reading the collection’s well-researched, heavily biographical liner notes adds further depth to the music itself, exploring Shane’s journey from young boy in Nashville to gospel-obsessed youth to Little Richard protégé to living openly as a transsexual black woman to tearing up clubs as Little Jackie Shane and a member of trumpeter Frank Motley’s groups to her ultimate arrival and semi-stardom in Canada. It’s a riveting story worthy of the biopic treatment, if not at least a full-length (auto)biography, the twists and turns of her life beyond the grasp of even the most imaginative screenwriters. Indeed, hers is a truly fascinating story on par with her music itself.

And what music it is! Capable of a wildly impressive range, Shane transcends the male body into which she was born to become something greater, her voice an incomparable mix of the masculine and feminine; utterly genderless while simultaneously inhabiting the rarified air reserved for soul luminaries like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Sharon Jones, Jackie Wilson, Tina Turner, and more. Combine the best qualities of these legendary vocalists and you will have a rough idea of the incomparable power that is Shane’s voice here. That she manages a full program of songs perfectly suited to either male or female performers — rarely both — is all the more impressive given the strength and ferociousness with which she sings.

Opening track “Sticks and Stones” could just as easily pass for an unhinged Etta James or Doris Duke tune — or any number of soul queens, both southern and otherwise. Meanwhile, the track that immediately follows, a cover of William Bell’s “Any Other Way”, finds Shane in Cooke/Brown raw emoting territory; her read of the lyric: “Tell her that I’m happy / tell her that I’m gay” is particularly affecting, the context shifting entirely from Bell’s original meaning and thus becoming all the more impactful given the time and the prevailing cultural attitudes. (Notably, “Any Other Way” was a regional hit in and around Baltimore, St. Louis and Washington in 1963, while also reaching #124 on Billboard‘s “Bubbling Under the Hot 100″.) “In My Tenement” finds Shane’s voice taking yet another step down within her impeccable range, sounding for all the world like Sam Cooke.

Her reads of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Money”, in particular, are wonderfully inspired, taking the well-known melodies and, in the case of the former, making it groove like no other, while the latter flies by at a truly breakneck pace that causes you to truly believe Shane’s visceral pleading for cash. That these aren’t standard issue on classic soul collections across the border is tantamount to tragedy, their quality and sheer vitality and energy surpassing the majority of contemporary recordings. It’s easy to see why Shane caused such a fuss with her live performances, tearing into the material with a powerful intensity gleaned from her years listening to gospel acts like the Davis Sisters.

The second disc, a full live performance, issued with Shane’s full cooperation for the first time, captures Shane wholly in her element, fronting a smoking band and commanding the stage as few others could manage. Following an electrifying introduction, she tears into “High Heel Sneakers” with energy and passion rivaling that of Otis Redding at his all-too-brief prime. While such sentiments may read as hyperbolic, one listen will quickly set the record straight that Shane was and is the real deal, an unjustly overlooked performer of the highest order who, under different circumstances, would be one of the biggest names in the genre. From there, her stage patter is striking given the time during which it was recorded.

That the audience sounds to have fully accepted her on her own terms is shockingly progressive. Yet it also shows that pure talent transcends even the most damning of social stigma. As Rob Bowman points out in the collection’s fascinating liner notes, “[Jackie] was so far ahead of her time that in her mind, and in the way she led her life, being gay or transgendered was no different than being short or tall. It just was.” Being heard for the first time since her last appearance on stage in 1971, Any Other Way is an essential document of a revolutionary talent who should have been much bigger than she ultimately ended up being and now, with any luck and a little help from the fine folks at Numero Group, she’ll finally get her due.

RATING 9 / 10