Reading the Globe story about legendary R&B performer Jackie Shane brought back memories of the Toronto music scene in the early 1960’s. I was on hiatus from high school in Chatham having flunked Grade 12 and decided to join my brother in Toronto where he was working as a junior banker. The only job I could find was an evening shift with the CNR so weekends on the town were eagerly anticipated.
There was a unique after hours club scene in Toronto then, most notably the BlueNote at Yonge and Gerrard where one could hear the best in Toronto’s Rhythm and Blues, It was a mixed race scene that became popular with major American R&B and soul performers when they were in town. The Bluenote later spawned the career of Canada’s George Olliver. Jackie Shane was a regular performer at the he Sapphire Tavern, often with rhythm and blues band Frank Motley and the Hitchhikers (later, you guessed it..the Crew). Another hot spot at the time was the Upstairs Club—around Yonge and King. It was there that I first saw Jackie Shane. We were actually leaving the club heading down a long staircase, when Jackie and friends were coming up. We paused to get past each other. I had never seen a man in drag before, coming from the farm town of Chatham–where there was no shortage of scandal, but not that kind–but Jackie was spectacular in a pair of Gold lame capri pants, stiletto heels, a white fur jacket and a platinum blond wig. My friends whispered reverentially—“that’s Jackie Shane…”
It was Toronto 1963. Five years before Pierre Trudeau legalized homosexuality. Toronto was only beginning to show the first inklings of the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic place it is today. And yet …in the midst of all this Protestant repression, Jackie Shane, not only survived, but thrived as a performer and person-about-town who was adored by straight and gay alike. His talent and his flamboyance seemed to create a kind of bubble of tolerance around him. He was cool.
His best known song, Any other Way, is still a must-have on any oldies collection. The line “tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m GAY (at that time the word was only beginning to be used to describe homosexuality) became a bit of an anthem for the Toronto gay scene.
According to the Globe Jackie Shane, now in his mid-70, and transitioned as a woman, is living a reclusive life in her native Nashville; refusing offers for a comeback tour, but apparently flattered that people in Toronto are still interested in the Jackie Shane legend. Jackie for a few years epitomized a Toronto that was growing up.