It’s ironic that the group that epitomized Canada’s flowers and beads scene almost didn’t happen, as it was always expected Terry Jacks would follow in his family’s footsteps and get into some form of construction or architecture field. But while studying at UBC, he sidelined part-time with The Chessmen, who laid claim to a string of mid 60s singles for both London and Mercury’s labels, three of which cracked a local radio station’s Top 10.
He met future wife, Susan Pesklevits on the set of CBC’s “Music Hop” program, but didn’t play together for over a year. At 18, she was in need of a guitar player for a show in Hope, BC. “When none of my guitarist friends were free on that night, one of them suggested I call Terry Jacks because his band had broken up and he may be available to accompany me. I had met Terry only once, on “Music Hop,” and his local band had made a guest appearance on the show. As it turned out, Terry was available to accompany me,” Susan explained.
At first they continued their separate ways. Susan formed The Eternal Triangle with Claire Lawrence and Howie Vickers, both whom would later form The Collectors and then Chilliwack. They performed a few shows at coffee shops around Vancouver, when they brought in guitarist Craig McCaw.
“I then began to dedicate my time to the trio and, with the exception of an occasional solo television appearance, essentially gave up solo performances,” Susan said. The band was briefly called Powerline in its earliest inception, but Susan noted they chose the name somewhat unconventionally. “Terry, Craig and I chose the name The Poppy Family while taking a break from a rehearsal and thumbing through magazines, newspapers, and eventually a dictionary, in search of ideas for a group name. It was in the dictionary where we found “the poppy family varied species of flowering plant, etc”. We all knew it was perfect for us.”
McCaw later introduced East Indian tabla player, Satwant Singh, to the group and the Poppy Family sound was complete. Terry wrote only occasionally in the early days, but wrote more as time went on. “Once Satwant joined the group, our musical direction was created through our collective creativity, enthusiasm and desire to be unique in our musical approach. Initially, almost all of our songs were cover tunes and, as Terry slowly began to write more songs, we added them to our repertoire. Terry sang very little on stage so cover songs were still needed for a few years to fill a show,” Susan said.
Terry and Susan were married in ’67, and a year later reps at London Records (who handled Terry’s old band The Chessmen) in late fall of ’68 were convinced to release a pair of singles recorded on a shoe string budget. Both “Beyond The Clouds” (which reached #75 in Canada on the top 100 singles chart and #3 on the Canadian Content chart), and then “What Can The Matter Be” (reaching #53 on the top 100 chart in Canada and #2 on the Canadian Content chart) got respective airplay.
The Jacks travelled to LA, still in search of a contract. London released their breakthrough single, “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?,” which went on to score #1 in Canada (the biggest selling Canadian single at the time) and #2 on Billboard south of the border. With “Endless Sleep” as the b-side, the song eventually helped sell over 2 1/2 million copies worldwide and earned The Poppy Family four Junos that year, including Best Produced Single.
“The song was originally called “Which Way You Goin’ Buddy?”. A friend of mine, and fellow “Music Hop” alumni, Mike Campbell had sung the demo. The song was virtually the same but I felt it was not strong enough coming from a male’s point of view so I suggested it be re-worked for a woman to sing. Of course, we would need to change the name from “Buddy” to something more appropriate so we went about looking for a male name to substitute. I have six brothers so it seemed a good place to start and, as we tried the names, my brother Billy’s name turned out to be perfect,” Susan explained.
Eventually the label execs signed the band to a deal, and started billing them as The Poppy Family featuring Susan Jacks. Recorded in London, England in late ’68, and now with a deal in hand, they released the album WHICH WAY YOU GOIN’ BILLY? the following spring. A mix of folk and pop with East Indian rhythms and the occasional classical string piece compliments of the London Symphony Orchestra, the album was 12 songs (including the four tracks from the previous two singles) of harmonies, held together with Susan’s soon to be unmistaken vocal distinction. Blending moody soft pop with light psychedelia, they struck a vein of honest melancholy that made sadness sound sensual.
The Poppy Family received two Maple Leaf awards in 1970 after the release of “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”- for Best Selling Single and Best Example of Canadian Creativity, as well as as well as two Moffatt Awards, for best production for the album and the single. “Terry and I spent hours in the studio finding new sounds and approaches to record in order to create as unique a sound in the studio as we had on stage. Some of the songs from the album were songs that Terry had performed with his previous band but the collective input from the Poppy Family gave the songs new life, bringing them into the psychedelic/pop sound of the day,” Susan said.
“That’s Where I Went Wrong” was the next single, and climbed to #9 in Canada. The song was recorded in England, but once returning home, Terry took the tapes to Nashville, where a studio musician re-did the guitar parts for the single’s American release. “Shadows On My Wall” followed, reaching #8 on the adult contemporary chart at home. The album peaked at #9 on Canada’s charts, and #29 in the US.
The band received a bigger push from the growing exposure they were getting on TV variety programs, including Kenny Rogers’ new show “Rollin’ On The River,” but an offer to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was turned down. “Terry would lip-sync the harmonies, though they were actually sung by me. With Terry lip-syncing the harmonies, there was more of a “group-like appearance”. Satwant and Craig only appeared on two very early local television shows. Terry made the decision that only he and I would appear on television,” Susan explained.
But Terry was increasingly becoming unhappy on the road, and was embracing the concept of solo careers, and a sporadic tour schedule at best got even smaller. Following their appearance at the 1970 Expo in Tokyo, Satwant Singh and Craig McCaw were released from the group. “We toured very little from this point on and hired musicians to travel with us when we did the occasional live performance.I was essentially a solo artist from that time on, aside from a duet or two, and Terry no longer played rhythm guitar on the sessions, although he continued to use the Poppy Family name for my recordings,” Susan said.
Now effectively a duo, they returned in 1971 with POPPY SEEDS, accompanied by session players. The album made it to #12 in Canada, but didn’t make the top 40 in the US, although the first single “Where Evil Grows,” (featuring David Foster on keyboards) peaked at #45 Stateside, and #9 in Canada. The next singles “No Good To Cry” and “Good Friends” also cracked the top 20 in Canada. Other noteable tracks included remakes of “I Started Loving You Again” by Merle Haggard, and Tom Slater’s “Living Too Close To The Ground.”
Terry and Susan divorced in the spring of ’73. But the two had formed their own label, Goldfish Records, releasing both of their first solo albums, Susan’s I THOUGHT OF YOU AGAIN, and Terry’s SEASONS IN THE SUN, both released later that year.
A & M Records released POPPY FAMILY’S GREATEST HITS in 1989. Like albums before it, the jacket stated “featuring Susan Jacks,” and contained the same three songs from her first solo album that A GOOD THING LOST did. Many of Terry’s albums over the years were only partially his solo recordings, as they too milked The Poppy Family name, as Terry Jacks and The Poppy Family (featuring Susan Jacks). Confused yet?
While Susan went on to score with several singles over the years, Terry also saw bigger success as a solo artist, including tinkering with Jacques Brule’s “Seasons In The Sun” and translating it into English, which became a Canadian classic in ’74. “Terry and I had earlier gone to LA where Terry was going to try to produce the song “Seasons In The Sun” with our friends, the Beachboys, but the project was never finished and we returned to Vancouver. I convinced Terry to record the single himself, where I produced his vocals and wrote and sang the background vocals for the single as well as the rest of his album,” Susan said.
In 1996 A GOOD THING LOST was released, a compilation record. Along with selections from the two albums, it also contained the previously unreleased “Evil Overshadows Joe,” “Another Year, Another Day,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “I Thought Of You Again” from Susan’s first solo record, and the US version of “That’s Where I Went Wrong.”
After living in Nashville for the last 20 years, working as a publishing company manager and COO of a telecommunications company, Susan returned to Vancouver in 2004. Diagnosed with potential kidney failure in 2005, her kidneys gave out in the summer of 2009. Her brother Billy, whose name was used for the song “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” donated one of his kidneys to her and she has since returned to the stage and recording.