Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Is Candye Kane the
“Toughest Girl Alive”?
The colorful and outspoken blues belter, songwriter and actress speaks frankly about her unique life and career
By Eric Schelkopf
Only Candye Kane can tell the story of how someone who became a mother and pinup cover girl by the time she was 21 goes on to become an acclaimed blues singer.
Kane has lived that life, so it only makes sense that she stars in the autobiographical musical "The Toughest Girl Alive."
Along with performing in the musical this summer, Kane also recently released her 11th CD, "Sister Vagabond," the followup to 2010's CD "Superhero," which was nominated for a Blues Foundation Blues Music Award in the category of best contemporary blues CD.
Kane will perform Thursday, Sept. 15, at S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Avenue, Evanston.
Seth Walker also is part of the bill. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets range in price from $12 to $20, available at www.ticketweb.com.
I had the chance to talk to the outspoken Kane on a variety of topics, including her ongoing battle with cancer.
Oh yeah, it's amazing. It's the story of my life. I play myself, and there are 23 original songs in it, but we just play snippets of the songs.
For example, I tell a story about my mom teaching me to shoplift when I was 9, and then the actress becomes my mom and talks about it from her perspective.
Q - But it's only 99.9 percent true, I understand.
The only reason that we say that is because we change the sequence of events. Everything in it is actually true.
But we included in the play the death of my friend Robert "Tiny" Gibson,
a drag queen/sex worker, who was murdered during an act of prostitution.
We included that because we wanted to show the link between violence and sex work, and also because much of the play is about my five years in the adult entertainment business, and how that paid for my musical career, and how I had put myself in dangerous situations.
So really, the .1 percent is because Tiny's introduction into it doesn't happen until much, much later in my life. He actually died in 1998, but my book has him dying in 1992.
It's funny, because that's what they're saying about this one. Everyone has an opinion. Allmusicguide.com just called "Sister Vagabond" the best of my career.
That's been my strategy throughout my life. I've never tried to make a record that would get nominated for a Blues Foundation award, or tried to make a record that only had one style of music on it.
I've pretty much stayed true to my love of all Americana roots music, and that's why there are many different styles on my records, which I get criticized for and complimented for.
Q - I like the diversity myself. I don't like albums that are basically one note albums.
I do too. I think it's more interesting, and I think it makes for a more well-rounded musical experience. The records I like have a mixture of styles on them as well.
Q - On "Sister Vagabond," you again are collaborating with guitarist Laura Chavez. What did you like about her? Why did you want to work with her in the first place?
Sue Foley recommended Laura to me. Laura was playing in kind of an
unknown band in San Jose, and my guitar player had quit.
Sue is a longtime friend of mine and is a great guitar player also, so she knows what I like in guitar players.
So I asked if Sue knew any guitar players and she recommended Laura. I picked up Laura at the airport and we were wearing the same shirt, and I found out that we had shared a lot of the same interests, and we became friends.
Laura is just an amazing player. She's still young, so she's still developing as a player. She's quite shy, so sometimes I really, really have to stand behind her and push her into the spotlight.
She's not entirely comfortable with a likeness of her being on the cover of a record, but she's extremely talented and it's been a really great musical collaboration and partnership.
Q - When you started out professionally in your music career, was it hard to shake what you did in the past?
Did people think of you as a novelty act?
I still am marginalized because of my choice to be outspoken about my
background. I paid a price by being outspoken, but it was something
early on that I decided to do.
I didn't want to change my name. I had already started recording under the name Candye Kane as early as 1983, and I also had an advice column in "Gent," which was adult magazine, called "Candye's Corner."
But that's OK, because by being honest, I've gained the acceptance and love and support of the queer community, and the fat girl community, and the rockabilly community.
And I'm probably one of the only blues artists who has played The Hooker's Ball in San Francisco. I've been able to cross over into a lot of musical communities and otherwise because of my desire to be honest about things.
Q - Blues fans can be stuck up and purists.
Well, I think they are ignoring the obvious, which is that the blues is one of the unique genres where women were sexual beings. As early as the 1920s, you had women like Bessie Smith singing, "I need a little sugar in my bowl."
Bessie Smith was rumored to have performed in bathhouses. Memphis Minnie certainly wrote songs about prostitution. "In My Girlish Days" is a blatant song about prostitution.
So there is a rich legacy and history of sex working in the blues in particular and of songs that are ripe with innuendo. So blues fans, especially blues purists, should be more aware of the history of sexuality in blues.
The fact that I embrace my past and talk about it openly gives me a certain amount of power over it. But I pay a price for that power.
Q - Your last album was named "Superhero," and you have overcome a lot in your life, including cancer. How is your health these days?
I'm OK. I'm in an ongoing fight with neuroendocrine cancer. It's the same kind of cancer that Steve Jobs has, and I will continue to be in a fight with this disease, probably for the rest of my life.
I'm lucky to keep working and to feel healthy most of the time, and be able to do my job.
Music gives me a lot of joy and a lot of passion, and a reason to stay alive. My life is really blessed and amazing. I've had some tough bumps in the road, but it has all strengthened me to be the person I am today.
I'm ready and willing to tackle any obstacle.
Q - Do you see yourself as a superhero?
No, I don't. But it's positive affirmation that if you sing it enough,
it makes you feel more powerful.
The same thing with the song "The Toughest Girl Alive," which is the name of the song and my stage play. I'm not the toughest girl alive, but when I sing that song 250 days a year, when I sing that I'm a superhero, it feels like I can accomplish and overcome anything.
And that's really 80 percent of the battle. If you feel like you can win, then you can.
Listen to Candye Kane sing “Superhero” on YouTube: