It was the summer of 1970 when singer Susan Jacks and the Poppy Family heard the news about their greatest achievement. It was delivered not via telegram or congratulatory phone call, but by a complete stranger driving a car.
“We were down in Los Angeles to do an interview,” Ms. Jacks explained to Canadian disc jockey Red Robinson. “We were in the back seat, chauffeured to the interview. The guy said, ‘Oh by the way, I wanted to let you know that Which Way You Goin’ Billy? sold a million.’ "
Ms. Jacks remembered being “dumbfounded” initially over the development, before quickly grasping the implications of the Canadian band’s international success. “This is the big time,” she thought to herself. “This is it!”
It was. The lovestruck, melancholic saccharine-pop classic written by her husband Terry Jacks became the first million-selling record by a Vancouver act. It reached No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, kept from the top spot by chart-toppers Everything Is Beautiful by Ray Stevens and The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles.
Though the group’s follow-up single That’s Where I Went Wrong generated nearly another million in sales and reached No. 29 in the U.S., the Poppy Family had crested. Mr. Jacks disbanded the Poppy Family in 1973; the marriage of Susan and Terry was over by 1974.
The title of the band’s career-spanning compilation album, A Good Thing Lost: 1968-1973, alludes to the wistful status of a beloved band that came and went too soon.
“The lack of management was our downfall,” Ms. Jacks told The Globe and Mail’s Jana Pruden in an unpublished 2017 interview. “I think you have to capitalize on the things that happen, and we never did.”
Ms. Jacks died of complications from kidney disease at Surrey Memorial Hospital in Surrey, B.C., on April 25. She was 73.
She will be remembered as a clear-voiced siren with a blonde-next-door presence and a doelike innocence. The Poppy Family’s lightweight psychedelia with tinges of East Indian music and its melodic adventures in country-pop sounds included the brooding, darkly cast domestic hits Shadows on My Wall and Where Evil Grows. Mr. Jacks, the group’s producer and chief songwriter, later made a name for himself as a solo artist with the morbid smash single Seasons in the Sun. If Mr. Jacks was having any joy or any fun during the Poppy Family heyday, the lyrics he wrote for the group failed to convey the jubilation.
Ms. Jacks was known as Susan Pesklevits when she met her future husband in the mid-1960s on the CBC television show Music Hop. As a teenager she was a regular performer on the Vancouver-based Let’s Go segment of the national music-variety program that was modelled on Dick Clark’s iconic American Bandstand in the United States.
“Susan was stunningly handsome, a wonderful human being,” said radio and television personality Terry David Mulligan, a friend of Ms. Jacks. “She was brave and upright and talented, and there wasn’t a drop of ego in her at all.”
More than one factor contributed to the Poppy Family’s relatively short lifespan. The band’s manager (the Nashville-based Dub Allbritten, who also looked after the diminutive American rockabilly star Brenda Lee) died in 1971. It was Mr. Jacks who made the infamous decision to turn down an invitation for the Poppy Family to perform its international hit on The Ed Sullivan Show, choosing instead to have the group appear at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan.
The band never fully committed to the road to support its recordings. While Ms. Jacks enjoyed performing live, her husband was less enamoured with the touring lifestyle.
Despite her love of singing, Ms. Jacks wasn’t wired for chasing fame. “It wasn’t for me,” she told The Globe. “I had a song and I would pour my heart into it. If people loved it, that was wonderful. But if you’re looking to be a star, and that’s your goal, you’re not going to give people the best of your music.”
Because her husband wrote and produced the songs, Ms. Jacks’s co-founding role in the Poppy Family’s achievements was underplayed in some, but not all, circles. “Terry was pulling the strings behind the scenes, but the magic of the group was definitely Susan,” said Martin Melhuish, author of Oh What a Feeling: A Vital History of Canadian Music.
As an adult contemporary and country artist on her own, Ms. Jacks released five studio albums, including her 1973 debut I Thought of You Again. Both the album’s title track and the forlorn ballad You Don’t Know What Love Is charted in Canada. As a solo act, Ms. Jacks received three Juno nominations, for female vocalist of the year in 1975 and 1981, and for country female vocalist of the year in 1976.
The 1970s were a challenging time for female recording artists, both inside the studio and out. “After I left my marriage, I applied for a gas credit card,” Ms. Jacks told The Globe and Mail. “They didn’t want to give it to me.”
Credit was just as tough to come by within the music business. “Because I spent every minute in the studio, nowadays I would be considered a co-producer,” Ms. Jacks recalled. “But back then I was simply the chick singer. It was a different time.”
Susan Elizabeth Pesklevits was born in Saskatoon on Aug. 19, 1948, the second of what would be eight children of homemaker Janette Pesklevits (née Wallace) and teacher Dick Pesklevits.
By the time she was seven, she was singing into the microphone at a local radio station on Saturday afternoons. When she was nine, the family moved to British Columbia and settled in the Fraser Valley community of Haney, where she sang in school and church choirs.
She began performing professionally at 14, singing at Legion hall dances for a dollar a night. At age 15 she became a member of the Let’s Go Revue on CBC’s Music Hop.
In 1966, she met her songwriting, guitar-playing future husband. Quickly married, they performed under the name the Poppy Family featuring Susan Jacks for the first time at a small coffee shop in Blubber Bay, B.C. The Poppy Family was essentially a duo, with accompanying musicians. The longest-lasting unit included Craig McCaw on lead guitar and sitar and Satwant Singh on drums and tablas.
Not only was Ms. Jacks the lead singer, she handled percussion duties enthusiastically. “She’d be wearing her miniskirts and you’d see bruises on her leg from her tambourine,” Mr. McCaw recalled. “She was a trouper.”
Recorded at a cost of $125, the single Which Way You Goin’ Billy? sold nearly four million copies worldwide and won two Juno awards. The story behind the title is under dispute. The Vietnam War-era song was initially called Which Way You Goin’ Buddy? before it was reworked to reflect the point of view of a woman whose man left her behind. Ms. Jacks has said that she suggested the name of one of her six brothers, Billy, to be used.
In an interview by Liisa Ladouceur for SOCAN Words & Music magazine in 2015, Mr. Jacks dismissed his former wife’s account as “absolutely ridiculous,” explaining that Billy came from the song Billy, Billy Went A-Walking by the Beau-Marks.
“I wrote the song, I know what it’s about,” Mr. Jacks said. “I know how I named it.”
Despite the communal nature indicated by the group’s name, the Poppy Family was not known for its kumbaya-style camaraderie. “It wasn’t always a lot of fun,” Mr. McGraw said. “There were some bad vibes.”
Mr. Jacks had a reputation for being controlling and highly driven as a bandleader.
“We would be on stage and Terry would be ragging away on Susan, and she’d leave the stage in tears,” Mr. McGraw recalled. “She’d throw the tambourine at him and just run off.”
After only two studio albums (1969′s Which Way You Goin’ Billy? and 1971′s Poppy Seeds, both on London Records), the Poppy Family was pooped by 1973. “We had enough money to retire,” Mr. Jacks said in the book Making Music by Alex Barris and Ted Barris. “But we were losing touch with our music. I was losing interest. So, I went off fishing.”
In 1977, the divorced Ms. Jacks cast a line as well, marrying former B.C. Lion and Saskatchewan Roughrider football player Ted Dushinski, who took on the management of his new wife’s career.
Ms. Jacks would later say that her time with the Poppy Family was artistically unsatisfying and had left her with a “wimpy” image. “I was a lost little girl singing lost little love songs,” she told The Globe. Still, she turned to her ex-husband to produce her 1980 comeback album Ghosts, a recording that Maclean’s magazine writer Marsha Boulton said was so middle of the road that one could “practically hear the white line.”
The album’s single, All The Tea in China, earned Ms. Jacks a Juno nomination.
Seeking a radical makeover, Ms. Jacks turned to West Coast rock music maestro Bruce Allen, the manager whose résumé at the time included professional relationships with such acts as Loverboy, Prism, Bryan Adams and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. A no-nonsense type, Mr. Allen told his new client to “lose 20 pounds and buy a new wardrobe,” according to Ms. Jacks. He then partnered her with Powder Blues band producer Tom Lavin to come up with a more vibrant style for the 1982 album Forever that included a cover Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.
“He saw something in me that not many others had seen, and that was that I was a lot stronger than people were giving me credit for,” Ms. Jacks said in 1982, referring to Mr. Allen. “He brought that strength out in me, and really made me want to get going again on my career.”
In 1983, with her husband and their son, Thad, Ms. Jacks moved to Nashville, where she worked as a staff songwriter for a Nashville publishing company. Embracing her Ukrainian heritage, she even opened a restaurant that specialized in perogies.
“People loved them,” Ms. Jacks said in 2009. “We deep-fried them, though. Everything down south has to be deep-fried.”
In 2004, she returned to Vancouver. Her husband died of lung cancer a year later, around the time Ms. Jacks was diagnosed with kidney failure. In 2010, the singer received a kidney donation from her brother Bill.
In 2014, Ms. Jacks reunited with Mr. McCaw and Mr. Singh at Vancouver’s Khatsahlano Street Festival. Dubbed the Poppy Family Experience, the trio was joined by young musicians including drummer Kurt Dahle of the indie-rock stalwarts the New Pornographers.
Years earlier, Mr. Dahle had sent a message to a Juno Awards committee hyperbolically threatening to kill himself if the Poppy Family wasn’t inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. “I never got a reply,” the drummer later told Vancouver’s alternative weekly newspaper, the Georgia Straight.
After losing her transplanted kidney owing to an infection in 2016, Ms. Jacks died while on the waiting list for a new organ.
Ms. Jacks leaves her son, Thad Dushinski; siblings, Rick Pesklevits, Gerry Pesklevits, Wayne Pesklevits, Bill Pesklevits, Jim Pesklevits and Cathy Cosh; and half-siblings, Alex Pesklevits and Tony Pesklevits.