Remembering One-Of-A-Kind Blues Woman Candye Kane
San Diego blues belter Candye Kane had a voice that rightly stands beside giants such as Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, and Julia Lee: big, bold, and brash; thoroughly empowered and full of an unquenchable lust for life; a little risqué to downright raunchy at times, and absolutely unforgettable.
Now, that voice has been silenced: Kane lost a long and difficult battle with cancer on Friday, partly chronicled with typical humor and bravery—like all of the challenges in a fascinating and very full life—in song and in her writings. She was 54 years old.
The San Diego Union-Tribune and The San Diego Reader both ran moving obituaries over the weekend of an artist who deserved much more than her considerable cult following. As a fan who Candye at one point approached about writing her biography (I told her that her own voice was the only one really suited to the task), I thought I’d add to these remembrances with a profile I wrote for Penthouse in 2002, and pay tribute with an anthem that stands as her epithet, “Great Big Woman:”
Candye Kane is used to seeing a long string of intriguing labels following her name in print. “I’m the ‘former porn star, stripper, blues diva, fat activist, feminist bisexual,’” she says proudly. The one adjective that she had some trepidations about adding? “I didn’t know if ‘Tupperware Lady’ might be a little too radical,” she says with a hearty laugh. But she recently discovered that peddling plasticware while singing for housewives is a good way to earn a few extra bucks when she’s not on the road.
Kane is clearly one motivated mama, and her climb to cult fandom is an inspirational one. Born and raised in East L.A., she was a precocious kid who organized neighborhood variety shows. She dreamed of being a singer, but got sidetracked in high school when she fell in with an Hispanic gang and wound up as a teenage welfare mom. That got her excommunicated from the Mormon Church, but she never really fit in there; she’d only joined because it provided an outlet for her singing. She’d belt out hymns for the Mormons in church and doo-wop oldies for the chulos on the street corner, showing the broad range of her appeal right from the start.
Candye’s first brush with fame came not from the music world, but from displaying her plus-size charms in specialized men’s magazines such as Juggs and Plumpers and Big Women, as well as in a handful of porn films. Adult entertainment supported her son and provided the money to form a band and record some demos; it also did wonders for her body image. For the first time, she realized that fat people can be sexy. This has become a favorite theme in her songwriting, powering tunes such as “All You Can Eat (And You Can Eat It All Night Long)” from 1997’s jump-blues masterpiece, Diva la Grande, and “200 Lbs of Fun” from ’98’s martini-flavored lounge effort, Swango.
“I think I’ve formed my own niche, my own quirky little audience of bisexuals and fat women and men who like fat women and porn fans and rockabilly fans and feminists and lesbians and bikers—different weird people who feel disenfranchised, who can relate to someone in their lives who is, or who just want to see how big my boobs are,” Kane says. “They’re all there for different reasons, and I just try to deliver a sound musical experience that they’re going to like. I do my own fair share of soap-boxing, that’s for sure. But when I sing, ‘You Need A Great Big Woman to Show You How to Love’ or ‘I’m two hundred pounds of fun/There’s enough for everyone,’ it’s a positive affirmation for me. I have body issues like everybody, and there’s parts of my body that I still dislike. But when I sing those songs, I feel empowered by singing them and empowered by others’ reactions to them. It’s a wonderful free therapy session.”
Kane started her recording career in typical do-it-yourself fashion, inspired by punk-scene friends such as Los Lobos, Social Distortion, and the Blasters (Dave Alvin produced Diva la Grande). She graduated to the well-regarded Austin blues label Antone’s, and then to Sire for a short stint circa Swango. “But they really cared about the swing revival more than they cared about the Candye Kane message,” the singer says. “I think the music industry is just as seedy and heinous as the porn industry. The main difference to me is that in the porn industry they’re very upfront about the fact that if you gain weight or you don’t do exactly what they want, they’ll get somebody else who will. In the music industry, they won’t tell you why they’re getting rid of you, and then a year later, somebody else will be doing exactly what you were doing, only they’re younger and thinner.”
Now Kane is back in the indie ranks, recording for Bullseye Blues & Jazz. The Toughest Girl Alive finds her channeling her inner Etta James on her gutsiest, ballsiest effort yet; the emaciated young waifs who populate MTV would kill to have an instrument half as potent as hers. Kane is resigned to the fact that some people will always view her as a novelty, but she knows exactly where she fits in the blues pantheon.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever live down ‘the legacy,’” she says. “That’s part of why I stopped playing piano with my boobs—it started out just as a funny little lark, and then it became bigger than the music. I’d like to be recognized in the same way as the women I admire: Bessy Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Lucille Bogan, Julia Lee. Bogan wrote ‘Shave ’em Dry,’ and Lee did ‘Snatch and Grab It.’ They were nasty, and I’ve never understood how the blues purists don’t see how I fit into that. Maybe I’m a bit more contemporary in my delivery and more blatant about my bisexuality, but I’m living in 2001, and people can talk about sexual issues now that they didn’t talk about in the ’40s. I’m just a different version of a proud and raunchy tradition.”