August 26, 2009
HOLY MUSICIAN, BATMAN…
“Okay swingers, now that we’ve ditched the squares, hang on, ’cause Jackie’s gonna do it to you like you’ve never been done before!”
-Jerry Lincoln, liner notes of Jackie Shane Live
I tend, in my writing about music, to focus on the vocalist and to delve into biography. I try to remind myself to conjure up the nuance of a drum brush or a chord struck on the Hammond organ at just the right moment, but it always comes back to the frontman. I like instrumental music, and a perfect hook or nasty bassline can drive me wild. It’s just that when someone has not only a unique sounding voice and interesting phrasing, but brings a wildly fascinating persona to their song, it becomes that much more relatable. It’s what I always loved about listening to cover after cover of the same old soul song, driven by the vocalists, each with their own inflection and character; each with their own lament. And it’s why I always figured that guts and attitude can translate into excellent musicianship: done right, they have the potential to push a piece of music or a whole body of work into the realm of mythology. And no one had guts and attitude like Jackie Shane.
As with many of life’s big discoveries, my unearthing of Jackie Shane’s music was a total accident. I was looking for video footage of William Bell’s “Any Other Way,” a sweet country-soul song that came out on Stax in 1962. In “Any Other Way,” Bell is singing to a friend who’s been sent by his ex-girlfriend to check on him after a breakup. “I think you better go now/or you might see me cry,” sobs Bell, “but when you see my baby/here is what you say/tell her I wouldn’t have it any other way.” His earnest, clear-voiced treatment of this poorly-disguised heartbreak made for just about the saddest song I’d heard in a while, but damn it, I couldn’t find any performance footage online. Instead I stumbled upon this haughty, sauntering version of “Any Other Way” by some draggy-looking Canadian with tadpole eyebrows and a bouffant hairdo. And then another version, recorded by the same guy at some Toronto nightclub called the Sapphire; eight minutes littered with sassy banter. “Diamonds on my finger/I can’t get no more on there!” This was far from the lovesickness I’d been drawn to on the original, but man, was Jackie Shane entrancing.
Jackie Shane was a cross-dressing Canadian soul singer who recorded a couple of 45s and one live LP, Jackie Shane Live in the early 1960’s. Breathy, dissolving into wisps beneath a languishing canopy of horns, Jackie’s voice on “Any Other Way” is a curl of smoke. He didn’t jump on a note. No, instead he’d come in late on a phrase and just hang there.With his feline looks and boisterous sensuality, Jackie was, as a fan once wrote, “Little Richard meets Prince meets Eartha Kitt!” He pushed the boundaries of what was sexually accepted at the time, and his Canadian audience loved him both for it and in spite it.
His versions of songs were often the opposite of what you’d expect: Rufus Thomas’s blaring “Walking The Dog” turned mincing, William Bell’s driving, tormented “Any Other Way” became almost celebratory. When Bell sang “Tell her that I’m happy/tell her that I’m gay,” he was covering up his hurt, but when bewigged, spangled Jackie sang it, especially with that added chuckle, suddenly the song became about something entirely different. His live album is full of spoken bravado and fast-talking riffs (“I get money…and I can sing sexy too!”), but behind them he often delivered a real message. “Because the mean things people say about you, baby/Can’t make you sad/cause Jackie’s never lost a friend that I’ve never had.”
Beyond his strong Toronto following – and a television appearance on Soul Train “Night Train,” which you can see below – Jackie never achieved commercial success. And though celebrated on a few websites dedicated to queer musicians, his music has, for the most part, been lost to time. In fact, Jackie disappeared in the late sixties, and while there’s been speculation about a violent death in Los Angeles, no one really knows what happened to Jackie Shane. Yet here he was, this brief spark, pushing limits way ahead of his time, and it’s this lost moment that makes his music seem all the more enchanting.
I recommend you look into Jackie Shane, and that you remember, if nothing else, his words: “I live the life I love and I love the life I live/And I hope you’ll do the same.”
by Erin Sheehy