Jay Jackson – Basketball, Baseball and Doo-Wop!
The Toronto soul singer passed away last month, age 78. Here Bill King offers a fond tribute to his basketball-playing comrade, with two other close friends offering their warm memories. Pictured: Jay and Shawne Jackson
By Bill King
Singer Jay Jackson passed September 15 after a long battle with heart complications, age 78. For me, it was near impossible to accept the fact the fleet of foot, skilled athlete I’d known decades could be slowed by anything other than an incoming asteroid. Jackson was always the epitome of good health and seemingly a candidate for eternal life.
The Jackson family legacy has chased most of us through the enduring history of Toronto’s Club Bluenote, much of this before I arrived in Canada. Jay Jackson and I count the ‘80s and ‘90s running the once patchy basketball courts of the JCC (Jewish Community Centre) at Bloor and Spadina our afternoon playground. Jay could run and gun with the best of them – deke, weave, and shoot the lights out. Locker room talk bounced between Jay’s beloved Lakers, baseball, and Jackson’s life-long passion for doo-wop with the singing Ellis brothers. The JCC always had room for the active trio.
It was the long-standing Beaches International Jazz Festival that provided a summer reunion of sorts. The side stage was always reserved for the press and music family. The Star’s entertainment reporter Geoff Chapman would sit spinning a half-chewed cigar about his mouth, as jazz drummer Brian Blade or organist Joey DeFrancesco hit those bonus crescendos. That would be enough action to move Jay out of his chair and high-five everyone up and down the side lanes at Kew Gardens as if he had just scored thirty points. Jay and the festival and the Ellis brothers made it through almost three decades of Beaches Jazz wrap-up family photos and a couple of performances. I can still hear PR person Martine Levy yell, “Where’s Jay, we can’t take a picture until someone finds Jay.”
I caught the tail end of Club Bluenote’s run on Yonge Street. Judging by the activity up and down the sidewalks, rhythm & blues ruled the day and consumed the night life. Proximity to Detroit and the ability to jump the border and hit the record stores in Buffalo for the latest recorded sides made it easy to keep up to date with the hottest soul recordings. It was mandatory any band thinking long term follow the charts.
Jay was a product of the fifties - the softer side of Soul – The Drifters, The Mills Brothers, The Falcons, those singing groups hanging near street corners singing doo-wop. Most of us during our lifetimes rarely escape the music that first snatched our attention and demanded loyalty.
By 1963, Jackson was off to New York City with fellow R&B vocalist Eric Mercury and singing group The Pharaohs as Jackson’s mom Millie was on her way to D.C. to hear Martin Luther King Jr. give the historic I Have A Dream speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Jay along with Mercury entered and won the famous Amateur Night at the Apollo contest performing a cover version of Ray Charles' You Are My Sunshine. With sudden notoriety, the gigs that followed did not match the moment. I was thinking about this watching the Howie Mandel documentary on CTV this past week. One moment you are opening for Diana Ross, the next you are playing a bowling lane, or as a second act to a 300-pound stripper.
Jackson and sister Shawne were part of what was called the “Toronto Sound” as part of a thirteen-piece R&B band The Majestics playing the soul hits of the day, a setlist playing out across North America. If you were performing in the clubs you were jamming Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha, Wilson Pickett, The Four Tops. There were a rare few in-studio recordings for Jackson but for the most part, those efforts collected dust. From 1968 to 1969 Jackson scored a hosting gig Where It’s At, an American Bandstand clone for CBC.
It was in the years after the lure of centre stage had faded that Jackson made his mark, this working for various governmental agencies – Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, Canadian Dispute Corporation, and the Toronto Metro Housing Authority.
As Jay faced the retirement years, he once again hooked up with the Ellis brothers and returned to the music he loved the most – doo-wop and fifties style harmonies. The years that followed were packed with opportunities – most centred around the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. As the gigs flowed so did his passion for Blue Jays baseball where he worked as a crowd-control officer in the Blue Jays bullpen.
More from those closest to him.
The Globe & Mail wrote a lovely tribute to our friend Jay Jackson. It covered much of his life but could not possibly include everything, especially in a life so fully lived. As an addendum to the Globe’s obituary I would like to share another aspect of Jay’s life, his role as lead singer for a group he formed with Bob Ellis, Bob’s beloved brother Roy, Jack Gelbloom (pianist extraordinaire) and Shelley Miller who replaced Roy after his death in 2003. Their name was Take Three Plus One.
The group had rather humble and homely beginnings, singing at backyard BBQs and parties and, most auspiciously, in the showers at the JCC (Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, Spadina and Bloor) after a game of basketball or workout in the gym. They sounded so good that guys who heard them sing every week began to ask them to perform at their family functions – Bar Mitzvahs, Birthday Parties, Wedding Parties, Anniversaries and fundraisers. They performed at the Beaches Jazz Festival and the Tribute to Domenic Troiano. Their career lasted over twenty years and they were always a big hit with the audience, in part due to Jay’s sparkling personality and the obvious fun the guys were having with each other while they performed. It was infectious. They covered all the hits from the ’50s, 60s 70s, mostly R&B with a little jazz thrown in for good measure.
Jay loved to sing, he loved to entertain, and he loved being with his friends. This combination of skill, talent and comradery lasted to the very end with the guys still getting together to rehearse up to a few months before Jay’s death. He never left the music and it never left him. So Take Three Plus One is a part of his legacy that will always be remembered by those lucky enough to have seen them perform or even join in as a background singer from time to time (Aall we diva wives and our do-wop harmony). We will miss him every day.
We met in the early fifties. There was a skating rink at Bathurst and Dundas in an area known as Alexander Park and one of the first artificial ice rinks in Toronto. This is where I met Jay and other kids. We reconnected in high school at Central Tech. Jay played basketball and football. What brought us together was the fact we formed a singing group. Jay was two years younger than me and very confident. There were five voices and Jay sang lead doing that Little Richard stuff like Long Tall Sally and I was managing the group so to speak. It lasted for a while and then we fired Jay. He was a brat. He’d be late for rehearsal, in fact, I was asked to tell him. He comes dressed up and tells us his mother made him go to church. He dodged the bullet that time but was eventually fired. That was the high school years. Before he joined Eric Mercury and the Pharaohs our singing group was called the Fabulous Imperials. There was a place up in the junction called Ascot Hall and artists like John Lee Hooker played there. They brought in Ben E. King and we were asked to back him up and it was a big thrill, in fact we sang background on Stand By Me. We sang around at parties and other activities. That night we’ll never forget.