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Grammy-nominated Rob Bowman on the 'extraordinary life' of transgender soul pioneer

Last Updated Feb 6, 2019 at 7:44 pm EDT

Canadian music journalist Rob Bowman, who has been nominated for a Grammy for his archival album on the career of 1960s transgender R&B/soul singer Jackie Shane, sits in his home office in Toronto on Wednesday, January 16, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO — Music writer Rob Bowman has a lifetime of experience digging into the incredible stories of legendary musicians, but the tale of 1960s soul singer Jackie Shane was unlike any he’d ever told.

The Nashville performer had been living for decades as a recluse when Bowman was hired to author a sprawling profile of her career for the liner notes of a retrospective album. After years of rumours on her whereabouts, he finally had Shane on the phone willing to talk about her exceptional life.

She told him about her experiences as a black transgender singer in the Jim Crow era and reflected on the time she crossed into Eastern Ontario as part of a travelling carnival.

She also remembered the days of studying under the guidance of Little Richard, and told Bowman about being kidnapped by gangsters — twice.

“These are things that if Hollywood screenwriters wrote it you’d think, ‘Come on, that’s way over the top,'” the York University professor said of his work on “Any Other Way,” which helped Bowman pick up his sixth nomination at the Grammy Awards on Sunday.

The double-disc release features many of Shane’s underappreciated songs, including the title track and “Comin’ Down,” two songs that feel at home on any playlist of classic soul hits. The collection is anchored by Bowman’s detailed recount of Shane’s life, constructed from more than 100 hours of conversations with the now 78-year-old singer.

“She’s smart, she’s sharp as a tack, she’s very opinionated and she’s led an extraordinary life,” he added. “It was a real privilege to get to tell her story.”

Despite spending more time chatting with Shane than almost anyone else in recent years, Bowman still hasn’t met her. She’s rejected efforts by record executives to get any farther than her front porch — asking them to leave the archival album contract on her doorstep so she could sign it.

“I’m quite confident she and I will meet at some point,” Bowman said during a conversation in his Toronto living room a few weeks ahead of the Grammys.

“Everything with Jackie is a process, though I can understand why.”

Patience is a trait Bowman has honed after producing written material for Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Rush boxed sets.

He remembers how as a teenager he listened to Shane’s music and thought it would be “fascinating” to have a conversation with the singer. It took roughly 45 years before that opportunity arose.

Bowman started as an eager high school journalist who scored his first major interviews with blues guitarists T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker — not necessarily the kind of guys expected to entertain the questions of a budding young writer.

“They must’ve thought I was from outer space,” he supposes in retrospect.

Bowman won his first Grammy in 1995 for the album notes on “The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3: 1972-1975,” a 10-disc box set of soul gems from the Memphis record label. His 47,000-word essay brought to light memories collected from the artists who experienced the era first-hand.

“For me, it’s the magic of being allowed into somebody else’s world, the fascination of an amazing story and a great musician I can maybe help others find out about,” he said.

“I’m interested in presenting people in ways that do them justice, that present their role as musicians in history with dignity and respect.”

Rock icons the Rolling Stones were so impressed with Bowman’s work they invited him to conduct an extensive series of interviews during their 2002 world tour.

“They wanted somebody who could talk about music and interview them about their art, not sex and drugs, which had been done to death,” Bowman said.

“Every morning I would get a call somewhere between 10 and 11 telling me what might happen or will not happen that day. The funny thing is, the calls would come from England — but I’m in the same hotel as them.”

Bowman said he quickly learned that with the Stones “you’re living in their world,” and since they paid a day rate, he simply went along for the ride.

“They kept wanting to keep me longer and longer, but I finally at one point had to say, ‘Look I’ve got to go. My son has a hockey tournament I’m driving him to,” he said.

“People in England were going, ‘A hockey tournament?'”

With “Any Other Way,” interest in Shane and the project continues to deliver surprises for Bowman. After the album was included among the Grammy nominees in December, he spoke with Shane about the news.

“She was over the moon,” he said, noting that she later discovered her own name wasn’t among the nominees, since that award goes to producers and engineers, but not the artists.

“For Jackie that was a big disappointment… I phoned some people at the Grammys to see if it does win, would it be possible to pay to have one made with Jackie’s name on it. They don’t do that and were not about to set a precedent.”

Still, the singer has plenty to celebrate as the world learns more about her story.

She’s pondered the possibility of writing a book, discussed recording new music, and considered giving film producers the rights to her story, if they can guarantee it won’t be sensationalized, Bowman said.

“She wants it on her own terms and done right, with respect,” he said. “It’s too easy to take her story and maybe even unintentionally, disrespect it.”

As those opportunities linger, other tributes are popping up.

Shane was included as part of a 22-storey mural painted two years ago in Toronto, paying tribute to Yonge Street’s music scene. When it debuted, Bowman snapped a photograph for her.

“She framed it, it meant everything to her,” he said.

“It’s like there’s suddenly this second career, even if she’s not out there performing. And it’s a veneration she meant something… decades later that’s still important.”


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David Friend, The Canadian Press