In recent years, a cottage industry has blossomed around the rediscovery and reappraisal of last century’s ignored musicians. I have a love-hate relationship with these releases. Of course, it’s easy to love the slipped-through-the-cracks stories of Rodriguez and William Onyeabor, artists whose music was either collecting dust in a suburban garage or unknowingly inspiring legions of fans in another part of the world. It’s even easier to love labels like Light in the Attic and Numero Group, who mark these unlikely third acts with fetching reissues, each crafted with love. But after being wowed by the beauty of a set like Numero’s Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound, which documents all the local sounds that fueled Prince in his early days, the music’s underwhelming quality makes you wonder if it really needed to be dug up, and it’s only a matter of time before you’ve pushed the set aside to play Dirty Mind again.
It’s hard to imagine anyone pushing aside Jackie Shane’s Any Other Way on grounds of inferiority, simply because there’s nothing else like it. On the one hand, it’s a collection of newly unearthed R&B cuts from the 1960s, the kind Numero has released many times before. But there’s something special about that woman on the cover. Lounging on a chaise, cigarette in hand, she looks ethereal, gorgeously self-possessed. “[This] is the story of a black American woman born into a man’s body,” read the liner notes. As Jackie herself attested, “That’s what it is … That’s how it’s always been … It would be the most ridiculous thing in the world for me to try to be a male.”
Beginning in Nashville in 1940, Shane’s life story fills the 30-page book included with Any Other Way. It features carnivals and a kidnapping, a con-man preacher, and side careers as a drummer and professional gambler. By the time the ’60s had arrived, Shane was fronting her own band and upstaging many a headliner, including Jackie Wilson, whose manager disinvited her from future shows. With her pompadour, heavy eyeliner and zoot suits, she was cheekily billed as “Little” Jackie Shane, even though she sounded more like Sam Cooke and made Little Richard look like Ving Rhames.
It’s this level of genderf*ck that underlines every note she emits. In the title track, Shane croons, “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay, tell her I wouldn’t have it, any other way,” and suddenly this breakup tune feels downright celebratory. During her live performance of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” Shane breaks into a lengthy monologue about needing the best in life: “I’m gon’ live while I’m here/I’m gonna enjoy the chicken, the women and everything else that I wanna enjoy.” Shane could mean any number of things by “chicken”—it’s slang for a kilo of coke and an underage boy, for starters—but the image of a supermodel dressed in Little Richard drag, going on about wanting her chicken and her women? That’s a lot for your average mind to work through. And this went down in 1967!
Time will tell if Any Other Way will seem as vital once Shane and her story feel a tad less radical. For now, it’s a honor getting to know this divine iconoclast.