I owe the acquaintance with today's artist to our good friend, the Record Man. He was also the one who made me realize that our previous subject, Bobby Marchan, was gay. Jackie Shane was a secret waiting to be discovered. I hope that his discovery will be as satisfactory to you as it was to me.
Shane was born in Nashville, Tennessee in the early 1940s. in his teenage years, he lived with Marion James, Nashville’s Queen of the Blues. In 1960, he went to Montreal and connected with a band, Washington, DC's R&B Jazz outfit Frank Motley & the Motley Crew who had found a sweet spot in Toronto as Frank Motley & The Hitchhikers. Motley learned the rudiments of trumpet playing from Dizzy Gillespie and developed a novelty technique of playing two trumpets simultaneously, thereafter being known by the nicknames of ‘Dual Trumpet’ and ‘Two Horn’ Motley.
The city had strict laws about selling alcohol late Saturday night and Sunday, and even about dancing. At that time, R&B and Soul bands in town for a show would go to after-hours clubs where artists such as Shane performed. In this conservative, uptight, white community, Shane was an openly gay black man who wore sequins and makeup. Yet his music and his charisma on stage made people forget their questions about gender, according to one of his bandmates.
In Shane’s music, you can hear Little Richard, Ray Charles and the Stax sound that combines the South, Soul and Gospel. With Dionne Warwick-like good looks, Vegas-style shows and a voice that was the very definition of sweet soul music, he cut an impressive figure on stage.
Shane became a sensation in Toronto, packing nightclubs of the time such as the Zanzibar, Club 888 and The Blue Note, but he didn't limit himself and frequently took his choreographed show into the US. While at an engagement in New York, he caught the attention of Henry 'Juggy' Murray, owner of Sue Records, who at one time or another boasted The Righteous Brothers, Lee Dorsey, Jimmy McGriff, and Ike & Tina Turner on the label. His first single for Sue, released in 1962, was also his first charted record, a cover of William Bell's Any Other Way, distributed through Phonodisc in Canada where it landed the #2 spot on the then mighty CHUM Radio Chart in the spring of 1963. It remained in the charts for 20 weeks with a second version featuring a lyrical rewrite that included the lines, "Tell her that I'm happy, tell her that I'm gay/ Tell her that I wouldn't have it any other way". It was one of the first gay empowerment songs, at an era when the word 'gay' was little known outside the circuit. I've listened to the song for 2-3 times only, and I already love it. Here it is:
The B-side was Sticks And Stones:
His next single was a cover version of the Barrett Strong Motown hit, Money (That's What I Want):
The B-side was I’ve Really Got The Blues:
Money wasn't a hit. The next single, In My Tenement (1963), was better than Money, but while it received some airplay in upstate New York, it did not chart elsewhere in the US or Canada, and Shane did not record again for several years:
The B-side, Comin' Down, was as good as the A-side:
Yonge Street, Toronto was described as the entertainment district during the R&B movement with clubs on almost every corner. Canada was considered to be less racially prejudiced than the States. The fans were also incredibly accepting of him being openly gay and a cross dresser during a time when homophobia was widespread. To his critics, Jackie would say “I live the life I love and I love the life I live; and I hope you’ll do the same”
Jackie often travelled back to his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee where he would visit different Soul and R&B clubs. During one of these visits, he was featured as a guest on America’s first all black TV show, Night Train. There he performed Walking the Dog. This is the only known performance footage that exists of Jackie.
In 1967, Any Other Way was reissued and became a modest hit across Canada, peaking at #68 on the national RPM chart in March. Shane subsequently returned to recording later that year, issuing the single Stand Up Straight and Tall:
The B-side was a cover of the evergreen You Are My Sunshine:
The renewed interest in Shane's music also led to the recording of his only LP, a live album recorded in 1967. On it, you hear his sound, his rhythm and his attitude in the banter between the verses. It's a really very good live album, and Shane's presence can be described as Judy Garland meets James Brown. Here you can listen to it in its entirety:
If you don't have 41:27 to spare, here are the album's highlights. Eddie Floyd's hit Knock On Wood was one of them:
This long live version of Money improves on his studio original:
Another of Jackie's favorite ballads, was the old Dee Clark hit, Raindrops. His chauffeur, Steve used to love this song. So naturally, it was included in a set each night.
Another standout track was his cover of Bobby "Blue" Bland's You're The One (That I Adore):
Jackie's cover of the Ben E. King hit Don't Play That Song was always a favorite with the audience, whether at the old Broom and Stone club or the Sapphire or the other clubs he filled every time he appeared in Toronto:
Given his vocal style, covering James Brown's huge hit Papa's Got a Brand New Bag was a natural - and successful - choice:
The album rightly closes with a tour de force 8-minute version of his only hit and gay anthem, Any Other Way. It's as good, if not better, than the studio original. Definitely worth listening to:
Shane recorded two more singles: in 1968 there was Knock On Wood:
In 1969 he recorded his last single, Cruel Cruel World, backed with New Way of Lovin'. Here's the latter:
As the Sixties rolled into the Seventies, Shane's style of music fell out of fashion and bookings became slim. Although he continued to tour, he drifted out of the scene after returning to the US and briefly touring with other R&B-based little big bands led by the likes of Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, and Johnny Jones & The King Casuals.
For awhile it was widely rumoured that he'd died a violent death in Los Angeles, when in fact he had moved from Toronto, eventually retiring from music all together and returning to Nashville.
In 2005, a bandmate talked to Shane, who said that he was still living in Nashville. When the musician called again, a stranger answered and said he didn’t know Jackie Shane.
During the 2000s, Bruce McDonald's TV doc and Elaine Banks and David Dacks' 2010 radio biography brought Shane's contribution to the Toronto music scene back to light, around the same time that compilation albums from various artists featuring Shane started surfacing on different labels. Shane's sole live album from 1968 was re-released in 2011 on Vintage Music, wrongly titled Jackie Shane Live '63.
In 2015, the Polaris Music Prize committee shortlisted Jackie Shane Live as one of the nominees for the 1960s-1970s component of its inaugural Heritage Award to honour classic Canadian albums, but the recording lost out to Joni Mitchell’s internationally famous 1971 classic album, Blue. The other nominees were The Band, Leonard Cohen, Robert Charlebois and Louise Forestier.
One of his bandmates called him the grandfather of Glam Rock, a precursor to Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Lou Reed. He was ahead of his time as an openly gay Canadian pop singer from the South. He found his voice and his audience before the music business in Canada was ready for him. “No one ever really took him to where he could have gone,” he said.
So, when you flip through dusty piles of records at estate sales and thrift stores, take a chance on an unknown artist. You never know what you might discover.