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Queer History Month - The Legacy of Jackie Shane

Posted by Unison on October 31, 2021
jackie shane

Queer History Month happens every October to support the 2SLGBTQIA+ community– raising awareness and increasing visibility of the lives, histories and experiences of queer people by recognizing their contributions, and making sure that their stories get told, as they often slip through the cracks of time.

While QTBIPOC have a long and visible presence in Canada, our history of music by queer and trans people who are Black, Indigenous, or of colour (QTBIPOC) remains largely unwritten and unarchived.

Today, we are highlighting Jackie Shane, the Nashville-born soul singer and one of—if not the first transgender artist to hit the Canadian charts. Shane dominated the Toronto music scene in the 1960s, helped to define the “Toronto sound,” and was a precursor to the queer glam era of rock and roll. 

Born in the south during the Jim Crow era, Shane knew from an early age that she was a trans girl, though that terminology would not exist for another 60 years. Shane was drawn to music at an early age, singing in church choirs and school glee clubs. At age 13, she formed her first band, playing the drums while singing. She quickly began touring around the South and eventually joined a traveling carnival troupe that brought her to Canada. 

In 1959 or 1960, she moved to Montreal — still fully presenting as a man. During the summer of 1959, Shane was performing in Montreal when she stumbled upon Frank Motley (known for playing two trumpets at once), and The Motley Crew. That began a decade-long collaboration that would rocket Shane to the top of the music world in Toronto and establish herself as a musical force and a beacon of queer visibility.

Shane had a commanding stage presence and routinely donned drag, never seeking to conform — even in an era when homosexuality was illegal in Canada. Her 1962 single “Any Other Way” became a top 10 hit in Toronto, At its peak, the single hit position #2 on the local CHUM radio charts.

In the chorus, she sings: “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay, tell her I wouldn’t have it any other way.” This lyric is doubly interesting given the dual meaning of the term ‘gay’ in vernacular at the time. In fact, Shane’s music often included terms and expressions unique to Toronto’s underground LGBTQ2+ community. Though the lyrics were originally not a reference to her sexuality, Shane subverted the original meaning of the song to reflect her identity.

After the single’s success on the local charts, Jackie Shane continued to perform in downtown Toronto, but in 1971, Shane vanished from the public eye, and from much of music history. For decades, speculation abounded as to what had happened to Shane, but in reality, she had grown weary of the life and returned to Nashville in 1996 after the death of her mother.

Her legacy was explored in the 2014 short film Whatever Happened to Jackie Shane?, and in 2016, a larger-than-life mural of the singer was emblazoned on Yonge Street in Toronto. Shane died in early 2019 at age 78, but not before a two-disc project culled from her old recordings earned her a Grammy nod for best historical album. 

Jackie always walked to the beat of her own drum, never bowing to the pressures and dictates of society or of the industry. Some say that Jackie kickstarted the queer culture in Toronto, unapologetically demonstrating what it meant to be Black, queer, and trans. Many say she influenced and inspired the sound of queer artists in Toronto who came after her. What is for certain is that she continues to be a queer icon of Toronto to this day.