"Once you pose naked on a stage, you can do anything in front of a crowd," says blues mama and ex-porn queen Candye Kane.
"Every night I hit the bandstand, I do my show from the perspective of a disenfranchised, fat, X-rated star in a skinny world where sex is looked down upon and abhorred."
Kane has a voice as big as her 44 double Gs, and sings in a style reminiscent of past greats Etta James and Big Mama Thornton. A prolific songwriter, Kane likes to genre-hop live and on record, moving fluidly through blues, honky-tonk, R&B, jump swing and torch songs.
"A lot of the blues purists shun me because I do a little country, a little rockabilly and so on, but I think there is room for blues to evolve," she says.
But it's not just Kane's voice that does the swingin'. "I play piano with my boobs sometimes," she says. "I can balance a drink and do a lot of other things with them. It's funny, and in a way it's a statement about my body. In the end, it makes people relax and think, 'It's just a body part, who cares?'"
Kane grew up as one of the few white girls in an East Los Angeles barrio. Like many of her friends, she got pregnant young and had a baby at 16. After struggling on welfare, she began working as a phone-sex operator, then a stripper, then a blue-movie actress and porno-mag model, appearing on the cover of Hustler, Gent, and, naturally, Jugs.
"I know there are a lot of things wrong with the pornography business, but for me it was a really positive step in saying, 'Hey, I'm attractive. I'm okay. I may be fat, but there are people who think I'm attractive anyway,'" Kane says. "I'm not proud of everything I've done, but I always managed to push out the negative energy and achieve what I wanted to achieve. I exploited the business as much as it exploited me."
Kane had always dabbled in music and dreamed of being a singer, she says, and in 1986 she landed a deal with Epic to record a country album. To her chagrin, the major label marketed her as a fallen woman who had renounced her past and become a born-again Christian. "At the time, I didn't know how to express that what I was is viable," she says. "Women shouldn't have to choose between dignity and sexuality. Sex is powerful. My show and my music are about reclaiming sexuality and saying it's okay."
Today, this self-described "sex-positive feminist" records for Antones, and juggles her music career with raising two sons and working as an activist for women, prostitutes, and gays and lesbians in organizations such as COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics). Kane, who pushes her politics on stage and during interviews, dismisses blues critics who've stated she should keep her views to her private life.
"They need to look back at the tradition of blues women. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were both bisexual and very vocal about women's rights. Look at Billie Holiday with 'Strange Fruit.' Racism was a very controversial subject in those days, and she was doing that song long before the civil rights movement came along."
Kane is among the few contemporary blues women on the House of Blues compilation Thirty Essential Women of the Blues, scheduled for release later this month. She's also close to wrapping her third album, Diva la Grande, which she describes as a "vintage sensibility record."
Diva will be the first recording to feature Candye's band, the Swingin' Armadillos. Sue Palmer, Candye's business partner, plays piano and accordion for the Armadillos. The other members--guitarist Greg "Grisly" Willis (formerly of Iron Butterfly), veteran San Diego blues bassist Steve Wilcox and drummer Steve Geller--are joined on the album by rootsy guest artists Dave Alvin and Ted Roddy. Austin songstress Toni Price and banjo player Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers also put in appearances on a hillbilly cover of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," and Kane sings a duet with Big Sandy on "I Left My Heart in Texas."
"Diva la Grande tackles some of my soapbox subjects," says Kane. "There's a song on there called 'I'm in Love With a Girl,' which addresses my bisexuality." The album also contains a ballad called "It Should Be Raining" that Kane wrote for Phoenix musician Bruce Hamblin, a well-known figure in the Valley roots and blues scene who died last September.
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"When I found out that Bruce died, I found out how frail life is. I cried all night thinking about what a tragedy it was that he never had the chance to present his own music to the world. When I woke up the next morning, the sun was shining and I thought, 'How can it be such a beautiful day when this has happened?'"
Scheduled for a show at the Rhythm Room this Friday, Kane says she's rolling through town on her way to play the Hooker's Ball at the International Congress on Prostitution in Los Angeles.
"At my shows, you find not just typical blues and rockabilly fans, but queers and misfits," she says. "That's really rewarding for me, because if you go up to the average greasy-haired, teddy-boy rockabilly guy and ask him what he has in common with lesbians, he would probably say 'nothing.' But at my show, he has something in common with the lesbians because he likes my music and so do they."
Candye Kane and the Swingin' Armadillos are scheduled to perform on Friday, February 7, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.