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Jackie Shane


Jackie Shane - Any Other Way / Sticks and Stones - 7

Any Other Way / Sticks and Stones - 7"
Sue - 1963


Michael Panontin
"Is he or isn't she?"

That is precisely how one writer summed up what must have been the question on everyone's mind. You see, in the staid old Toronto of the 1960s, Jackie Shane would have stood out like a sore thumb. The flamboyant r'n'b singer was not only openly gay in an era when most were hiding in their closets, but a gender-bending dynamo who took the stage in make-up, sequins and a puffed-up bouffant hairdo.

Though Shane would ultimately come out as a woman, historians are still trying to piece together exactly how she lived back in the day. Some saw her more along the lines of a drag queen or female impersonator. She was once ambushed in 1967 by the Toronto Star and admitted to being "a boy of 23". Many found the answer less than credible, and her mesmerizing performance of 'Walking the Dog', from a 1965 broadcast of Nashville's Night Train TV, would plant question marks in anyone's head.

So, was he or wasn't she? Jackie sure wasn't telling. And perhaps she wasn't even sure herself at the time. But one thing is certain. Jackie Shane held Toronto in her thrall, from electrifying performances at downtown night clubs to the jeers she often endured while walking down Yonge Street. Her motto summed things up beautifully: "I live the life I love and I love the life I live."

Shane grew up in Nashville and was surrounded by music from an early age. She spent much of her youth hanging out at clubs down on Jefferson Street and living in the musical house of blues singer Marion James. She made her way up to hard-partying, sexually liberal Montreal in 1960, taking up residence at the Esquire Show Bar on rue Stanley. Her former bass player, Larry Ellis, told CBC radio, "The Esquire had non-stop entertainment. The other band would do a half-hour, we would do a half-hour, back and forth until 3 o'clock in the morning." It was there that Shane hooked up with the talented trumpeter Frank Motley, who had recently made the switch from jazz to r'n'b with his band Frank Motley and His Motley Crew.

Shane, Motley and the rest of the crew shifted down the old Highway 2 to Toronto and its hopping, r'n'b-obsessed Yonge Street. Somehow, in a town where bars rolled up their carpets at midnight, the cross-dressing Shane found acceptance, appearing at clubs like the Zanzibar, the Blue Note and the Saphire. The inveterate performer was fearless on stage, managing to captivate anyone who saw her. Ellis recalls how "he had a fan club everywhere he went. When he got finished, they were all in love with Jackie Shane."

Not only could Shane break down stereotypes while on stage, she also had a nearly uncanny ability to make a song her own, and that is nowhere more evident than on her biggest hit, a cover of a William Bell's 'Any Other Way' that managed to rise to the number 2 slot on Toronto's powerhouse CHUM-AM. Where Bell's Stax version glided along a fairly upbeat mix of guitar, bass and drums, Shane drew it out to a slower, more languorous pace, with lazy horns and a sad, almost world-weary vocal. What's more, the crafty singer wrested the meaning of the song from Bell without changing a thing as she croons, "Tell her that I'm happy / Tell her that I'm gay / Tell her I wouldn't have it / any other way".

Shane issued a handful of singles in the ensuing years, as well as a full-length set, Jackie Shane Live, before disappearing from Canada sometime around the end of the decade. And just like that other 'lost' singer Sixto Rodriguez, she also left behind a litany of rumours ranging from murder to suicide. But thanks to some hard-digging by the Numero Group, specifically A & R man Douglas McGowan, who tracked her down through a blogger in the UK, Jackie Shane was located, alive and well and living back in Tennessee.

         



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