Jackie Shane was a gay black cross-dressing androgynous rhythm and blues singer who rose to fame in the early 1960’s in Montreal and mainly Toronto. Though his rise to fame can be credited to his devout Canadian following, Jackie was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. He grew up around music. While Nashville is famous for its roots in country music, there was a growing jazz movement throughout the 1950’s and in his teenage years, he lived with Marion James, Nashville’s Queen of the blues.
Jackie attracted many R&B enthusiasts not only because of his talent, but also because of his appearance. In one instance he is described as a cross between Little Richard, Prince and Eartha Kitt. In another, he’s described as Judy Garland meets James Brown. He was backed by well known dual trumpeteer Frank Motley and his band. Before he tasted fame, Jackie was the protégée of Little Richard and when he became famous, he was part of the Etta James review.
Jackie was also known for his sassy banter and double entendres. In his 1963 hit, ‘Any other way’ he can be heard crooning the lyrics “Tell her that I’m happy; tell her that I’m gay; tell her I wouldn’t have it any other way”.
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 his openly gay and cross dressing lifestyle 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.
He disappeared in the late 1960’s and though there have been many rumours about his death, after the airing of a documentary on his life on Canadian radio station CBC, he was located and is said to be alive and well
Jackie never received commercial success beyond his hit record “Any other way” and his strong Toronto following. Although not much information is available about his life, what little evidence of his presence that exists proves that he is not only a queer pioneer but also a hero to the gay black community.
For this reason he deserves to be celebrated this black history month and recognized by generations to come as a source of inspiration.