Reading the news that legendary R&B performer Jackie Shane had died at age 78, 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 Sapphire Tavern, often with rhythm and blues band Frank Motley and the Hitchhikers . 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 –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. It would be 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 became a bit of an anthem for the Toronto gay scene.
Jackie Shane disappeared from Toronto in 1971 to look after her ailing mother, settling in Nashville and after her mother’s death became a recluse. During this time she had transitioned as a woman. Almost 4 decades after Shane’s retirement the CBC brought her back into the spotlight with a 2017 documentary. A record of her greatest hits soon followed and was nominated for a Grammy. But Jackie resisted all entreaties to perform again, though was apparently flattered that people in Toronto were still interested in the Jackie Shane legend. She told the CBC, “The Canadian people have been so good to me. … They were curious, but when they got to know me and we grew to love to one another — I loved them first. I had to. I could not allow myself to be angry. We became real lovers. I love Toronto.” Jackie Shane, for a few years, epitomized a Toronto that was starting to grow up.