Candye Kane, an L.A.-raised blues, swing and roots-rock performer who preached self-acceptance and whose song "The Toughest Girl Alive" gained new meaning as she performed for years with cancer, died Friday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
She had been ill with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer for about eight years. She was 54.
Dubbed an "East L.A. white homegirl" by The Times in the 1980s, Kane had been a high school dropout and phone-sex operator before emerging as a musician and recording more than a dozen albums. Her music earned an international following and championed LGBT people and others.
She cited Patsy Cline as an inspiration, and touted the universal appeal of what she called "the old twangy stuff" over newer, more polished versions of country music. A Times critic in 1990 compared her voice to Loretta Lynn's.
Despite advancing cancer, Kane returned to the concert stage again and again, sometimes from her hospital bed. Her final performance was a New Year's Eve show at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. Her most recent U.S. tour was in December.
"I almost felt like she wanted to die on stage, because she loved what she was doing so much," said Sue Palmer, who was Kane's pianist from 1991 to 1999 and performed with her last year.
"For me, she really is an example of mind over matter," said her son and drummer Evan Caleb Yearsley.
Born Candace Hogan on Nov. 13, 1961, in Ventura, she later legally changed her name to Candye Kane. At the time of her birth, Kane's father was in jail for embezzlement. When she was 9, her mother taught her how to shoplift. She told The Times she took to rock oldies in part because "that's what all the gangs and cholos listened to," and singing them helped her deflect bullies.
At age 14, she appeared on "The Gong Show" and at 17 she was an unwed mother. She began making adult films and using intravenous drugs. She worked as a phone sex operator, stripper and Hustler model.
Later, she channeled these experiences into a pride-in-who-I-am message which she paired with sometimes-risque song lyrics and bawdy performances. She played the piano with her breasts and sought to convey that "it's OK to feel good about sex and one's body – even if you're a big girl like me," she told the Times in 1997.
"She had this healing impact and energy," her son Yearsley said. "Being able to share time on the road with her, I really got to see her fans and how they reacted to who she was, her songs and what they meant to people."
San Diego Ballet Artistic Director Javier Velasco, who directed and co-wrote a musical based on Kane's life called "The Toughest Girl Alive," praised her "amazing sense of inclusiveness."
Kane moved to San Diego in 1986 and signed with Epic Records the same year. The deal ended in disappointment and she signed with Austin, Texas-based Antone's Records, and frequently performed in San Diego venues. She also toured abroad, speaking freely of her cancer diagnosis on stage.
She is survived by sons, Evan and Thomas; her mother and stepfather, Janet and Eugene Caleb; her two half-siblings, Christopher and Leslie Caleb; and her former husband, Thomas Yearsley, the bass guitarist and singer in San Diego roots-rock band The Paladins.
Times staff contributed to this report.