For more than 20 years, the terrific singer Candye Kane has performed blues, country, roots rock and jazz in a powerful, bodacious manner.
Kane's brash, over-the-top persona was never a calculated stage act; it was her method of empowering herself to triumph over what she describes as a "hard-knock life."
"I often say that songwriting and performing is kind of a therapeutic thing for me," Kane says.
Which explains songs such as "Big Mama Candye's Blues," "Gifted in the Ways of Love," "I'm the Toughest Girl Alive," "Everybody Needs Love" and "Don't Cry Sister," to cite a few tunes on Kane's first eight albums.
"I write songs for myself, to heal myself and guide myself in the direction I want to go, to give myself the reinforcement and feedback I need. Then I give them to the audience, and the audience responds itself in its own ways."
Candye Kane will return to Tucson for a free-admission gig this Sunday afternoon at The Hut during the Fourth Avenue Street Fair.
Kane's most recent challenge was the discovery in 2008 that she had pancreatic cancer, an illness she has since overcome after an operation and considerable treatment. The healing process inspired Kane to create her ninth album, Superhero, which was released earlier this year by Delta Groove Records.
It's one of her best recordings, and perhaps the most inspirational. Songs such as the title track, "Hey! Toughen Up!" and the personal affirmation "I'm Gonna Be Just Fine" will reassure Kane fans that their Diva La Grande is not simply surviving; she's thriving.
Born in East Los Angeles to a dysfunctional, blue-collar family, Kane didn't grow up with many healthy influences.
"I was being taught to shoplift at a young age by my mother, and at home, I was being called a cocksucker before I ever knew what that word meant, before I even knew what a cock was," she says.
She turned to singing as a young girl, because it was one of the few vehicles in her life to provide positive reinforcement.
Like many young girls, she often sang in her bedroom. "It would take me away from the troubles of my life, but then I discovered I could sing for other people. I could sit on the steps of the library, and I would sing to strangers, and they would talk to me in encouraging ways. It was the first time I really felt OK and ... worthy of anything."
Kane sang with friends, choruses and small ensembles throughout school, learning what self-esteem was. She took a few college singing classes, too.
Then, as a young single mother, she turned to the adult industry. She modeled in men's magazines and appeared in explicit adult videos for a few years in the 1980s.
"Even my years in the adult-entertainment business brought me self-esteem," she says. "I was getting what I thought at the time was a huge amount of money (and) being flown from Los Angeles to Hawaii. I was sort of an underground celebrity, and people gave me all sorts of positive feedback. It was totally a turnaround from being a verbally abused kid from East L.A."
Kane is not ashamed of her adult career and has never hidden it. But after the singer recorded and distributed a promising demo tape, Burlesque Swing, record executives who were interested in working with Kane suggested she disavow her previous career.
"When I had a record label tell me I should deny my past and change my name, I made a choice to be honest. Some people will do anything to become famous, but I think it was so much more important to me to be honest and have that integrity," she says.
She adds that people would have found out about her sex work anyway, so she never considered denying it. That said, Kane's career in sex work still attracts attention.
"And the press sometimes tends to focus more on my five years in the adult industry than on the other 40 years that I have been on the planet. It's just a small part of who I am. I don't flaunt it, but I don't hide it, either; that's not what I'm about."
What she is about is being tough and sweet, vulnerable and powerful, sexual and thoughtful, a whole person who can get hurt and heal herself, not unlike many of her singing idols: Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, Etta James and Judy Garland.
"I never wanted anyone who heard my music to view me as a victim, just as I was never a victim," she says, adding that what's most important is that a person gets the opportunity to shape one's life. "You need to create the reality of your life, and create who you are in the scheme of things."
Kane speaks with great passion about the power of words, both negative and positive, and the way they affect how people feel inside.
"The word is a powerful thing to me. ... Words mean survival to me. The words a person uses and applies to their life, and the words I put in a song, have the affect of shaping my life and the way I view myself, adjusting my self-esteem and confidence in the way I use the words."
When she performs at The Hut, Kane will perform with a backing band that includes guitarist and songwriting partner Laura Chavez, as well as the oldest of Kane's two sons, Evan Caleb, on drums. At press time, the band was searching for a replacement for a bass player who recently moved on to another gig.