Jackie Shane – Any Other Way (Numero)
“Jackie’s story is one that a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t begin to invent,” writes Rob Bowman in the liner notes to this long-overdue anthology that encapsulates the career of one of the biggest mysteries in the history of Canadian music.
The story of Jackie Shane, a Nashville native who was one of Toronto’s top club attractions in the 1960s, is one that involves, says Bowman, “kidnapping, carnival side shows, con artist ministers, professional gambling, careers as a drummer, vocalist and dancer, fame in Toronto, Montreal and Boston… and a disappearing act to rival that of Houdini.” So far, that sounds like a great story. But what makes the ballad of Jackie Shane an important story is that she was “a black American woman born in a man’s body who had the courage, strength and soulfulness to lead her life in an open and honest manner at a time when doing so was extremely risky business.” That she did so in Toronto is even more surprising.
Jackie Shane was fearless. She started cross-dressing in public at the age of 13, got her start as a drummer, and was once kicked off a tour with Jackie Wilson in Florida for upstaging the headliner. Growing up queer in the American South in the 1950s, she took the advice of her friend Joe Tex, who told her, “You have everything that anyone could possibly want as an entertainer and as a musician. Get out of here if you really want to make it. You’re class, you got what it takes, but you’ll never make it here.”
So Shane joined a travelling carnival act. After a week in Cornwall, Ontario, she split and headed for Montreal, where she was amazed at the amount of nightlife on St. Laurent Boulevard, compared to her comparatively sleepy hometown of Nashville. She was 19. That bustling scene, she soon found out, was run by the Montreal mob; one gangster kidnapped her and smuggled her back across the border, promising to make her a star. She told him she was underage; that was enough to change his mind, and she soon settled comfortably into the Montreal scene. She met South Carolinian trumpet player Frank Motley, who invited her to front his band. They played all over the Eastern Seaboard, with Boston and Toronto their best markets. Toronto soon became home: the Brass Rail, the Sapphire, the Concord. “We had never seen anything up close like that in Toronto,” said Toronto-born Stax Records artist Eric Mercury. “It was like a tornado coming through the place.”
Shane did not spend much time in recording studios, and a series of bad business deals left most of her singles in obscurity. The exception was “Any Other Way,” which was a huge radio hit in Toronto and Boston; it sold 10,000 copies in Toronto alone, which is miraculous on several levels. She had some great musicians around her; note Chester Petty’s organ on “Stand Up Straight and Tall,” which appears on this lovingly curated compilation for the first time since its release. She turned down a chance to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, because the producers didn’t want her to perform with makeup. Atlantic Records and Motown were interested, but she gave them the cold shoulder as well.
For years, the only true recorded testament to her power was Jackie Shane Live, recorded at Toronto’s Sapphire Club in 1967, on which one gets a clear sense of her power over audiences. On both “Any Other Way” and a cover of Barry Gordy’s “Money,” she embarks on extended monologues extolling tolerance and everyday extravagance. Jackie Shane lived large, and she wanted her audience to do the same, on a live-and-let-live basis. One can only imagine what a galvanizing effect she must have had, in the early 1960s in WASPish Toronto, on those in her audience that weren’t as “square” as the rest of the town. Her entire recorded output is here, with her full participation, on the most important archival release in this country since Native North America and Jamaica to Toronto.
Shortly after the release of Jackie Shane Live, she was fed up with her bandleader, an increasingly drunk and belligerent Frank Motley, and told the rest of the band to follow one or the other. They chose her. Shane continued to tour and to play around town for four more years, including an opening slot for her friend Joe Tex at Massey Hall. In 1971, after spending a fair amount of time in Los Angeles with her mother, she returned to Toronto and reconciled with Motley, but that didn’t last long. At one fateful gig, he pulled a knife on Shane and refused to pay her after she said she was leaving him for good. Jackie Shane made her last Toronto appearance that December, and never came back. No one knew where she was. A vital piece of Canadian music history was missing.
Grammy-winning historian and York University prof Rob Bowman found her alive and well at the age of 77 in her native Nashville. In the thorough liner notes in this package, she have him her full story. “I hope I gave them something they will always remember,” she told him. “Something not only about the dancing and the laughing and that, but about life. I gave what I had. I talked to them and I was simply saying, ‘Live and let live. We all want a little piece of it and we all should have a little piece of it.’” We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Stream: “Any Other Way,” “Stand Up Straight and Tall” “Money (Live at the Sapphire)”