A new compilation has thrust the legendary soul singer back into the spotlight. Are we finally ready to listen and learn?
It’s just about that time for the star of our revue, ladies and gentlemen, Little Jackie Shane!”
It was the fall of 1967, and Jackie, backed by Frank Motley and the Hitchhikers, was recording an album live from the Saphire Tavern in downtown Toronto. Jackie packed the house, appearing in a shimmering sequin pantsuit, full makeup, false eyelashes and a fabulous do. “I sing sexy, too,” Jackie tells us. “That helps.”
For the last number of the evening, Jackie performed Any Other Way. Jackie started in, slow and seductive, with just the right quaver. And then that enigmatic hook: “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay, tell her I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
This night, Jackie punctuated the song with several spoken lines: “Tell her that I’m happy… be sure and tell her this… tell her that I’m gay.” A moment later, Jackie interrupted again: “I hear them whisper, they say, there Jackie goes with a broken heart… but they’re wrong, darlin’, I’m having a good time, me and my chicken.”
Jackie’s Black-fem fabulosity, the winking double entendre, rhapsodizing about chicken, all in nominally straight clubs in Toronto of the 1960s – the brazenness and bravery astound and impress even today. How many in the audience caught Jackie’s references?
The popularity of Any Other Way and how it spotlights “gay,” then and now, has overshadowed other aspects of Jackie’s identity. Today, Jackie lives as a woman. In many of the historical sources, as well as people’s reminiscences quoted in what follows, Jackie is referred to as “he.” While I believe Jackie properly belongs to a Black, trans past, we need to keep in mind that throughout her courageously unconventional life and career, Jackie moved across a range of gender and sexual identifications, always in complicated relation to race and class, in ways that fascinated many and mystified others.
It’s said that at some point in the late 60s, Jackie left Toronto and wasn’t seen again. True, Jackie did relocate to Los Angeles, where she was also a well-known performer, before ultimately moving home to Nashville, where she still lives today. But Jackie never entirely said goodbye to Toronto. Since then Jackie has made other kinds of returns.
I believe there are other reasons, beyond the significant musical contribution, that Jackie has returned once again. During the 1960s, Jackie Shane dramatized some of the distressing and enduring dilemmas of transgender existence, perhaps especially the public’s prying and persistent demand to know – “is he or isn’t she?”
At the same time, Jackie was a glittering sequin of hope. Today, the blogosphere is sprinkled with testimonials from those who recall their sexual- and gender-questioning youth in the stultifying suburban Toronto of the 1960s. They remember the revelation and validation of seeing Jackie at one of the many teen dance clubs she played in Don Mills, Newmarket and elsewhere.
And then there’s Jackie’s pioneering place in the long line of Black divas, from Elle Mae to Michelle Ross, some of whom began performing in Toronto in the late 60s and went on to play foundational roles in the city’s Black queer communities and beyond.
All this is legacy enough. But there’s more. One standard (read: dominant) account of how Toronto got queer typically begins in the 1950s and 1960s with the emergence of the first (class-stratified and often racially segregated) gay clubs, the gay tabloids and physique mags (with their endless pages of white beefcake) and the (mostly white, male) homophile activists. This early community formation set the stage for the subsequent development (or decline, depending on your point of view) from gay liberation to gay marriage, a decades-long process in which gay was whittled down to signify primarily as white, middle-class, masculine, straight-acting/straight-looking, no fats/no fems.
And, for just as long, this has been at the root of the ongoing political struggles around gender and race within Toronto’s queer communities.
Jackie’s is a truly trans history – in the original meaning of the term – across genders, sexualities, classes and races, a scrambling of boundaries that, in our own time, often seem impossible to cross.
In 1969, on the last single Jackie recorded, she belts out in gut-wrenching, driving soul, “I gotta new way of lovin’ baby… lemme teach you tonight.” Almost a full half-century later, the question is, are we finally ready to really listen and learn?
Don’t miss this week’s cover story: Is Toronto finally ready for Jackie Shane?
Excerpted from Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer (2017) with permission from Coach House Books. All rights reserved by Steven Maynard.