The Poppy Family interview with Susan Jacks

The Fabulous Flip Sides column celebrates the 50th anniversary of “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” and the inclusion of “Where Evil Grows” in the new Sonic the Hedgehog film.
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From 1968 through 1973, Canada’s Poppy Family  was led by the married couple singer-songwriter Terry Jacks and singer Susan Jacks. They married in 1967 and divorced in 1973, so The Poppy Family encompassed most of their married life. Solo records followed for both, including Terry’s gold single “Seasons in the Sun” which spent three weeks at No. 1 and Susan’s album Ghosts, which is celebrating its 40 anniversary.

Susan Jacks Billy

GOLDMINE: Congratulations on the 50 anniversary of “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” There is a Beatles trivia question, “When The Beatles’ final single ‘The Long and Winding Road’ hit No. 1 in the U.S., what song was No. 2?” The answer is “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” by The Poppy Family featuring Susan Jacks.

SUSAN JACKS: You know, originally the song was called “Which Way You Goin’ Buddy?” Terry had written if for a guy to sing. Mike Campbell, who used to be on “Music Hop” with me, which was the Canadian national TV show that I was on since I was fifteen, ended up singing it. I thought Mike’s delivery. It was relatively early in our marriage and I didn’t want to hurt Terry’s feelings, but the song was about a guy asking another guy which way he was going and if he could go too, and I thought, what a wimp! I loved the melody. I thought it was awesome, and I suggested that he write it for a woman. It would be more commercial and more of a woman’s song. So Terry did. We had to find a name instead of Buddy and we went through a bunch of names. My brother’s name is Billy, so we ended up using his name. As my brother Billy grew up, he said that he used to get a lot of girls due to that song.

GM: And years later Billy gave you his kidney.

SJ: Well he did. I found out when I was living in Nashville. My husband Ted had lung cancer and we were going to move back to Vancouver. I got checked out up here and it was confirmed that I was in kidney failure. People came forward and it was Billy who was the best match and that was kind of neat. That worked well for a few years but in 2016 my numbers started going off and found that I have an extremely rare kidney disease, with only 200 known cases in the world and no known way to treat it. I went to the hospital on my birthday. I had fallen and there was a concern of a blood clot. I had pneumonia and sepsis and my body stopped. They put me in a coma and on life support, but I came out of it. I was in the hospital for three months and had to learn to walk again. When I came out I had a whole different appreciation for life and changed my outlook forever, where I feel I can take on anything. During that time, my kidney did stop working so I had to go on dialysis. Fortunately I am healthy enough to handle another kidney, so now I am waiting on a list to have another one.

GM: Well we certainly wish you the best on that from my wife Donna and I and my best friend John as well. Talking about them, one of Donna’s favorite songs was your next 1970 Top 40 single “That’s Where I Went Wrong” from the first album and one of John’s is “Good Friends?” from the second album. They both share your similar vocal backdrop of “ah-ah-ah-ah.”

SJ: When we started to record I would do things with my vocals when we were rehearsing or running through a song and it kind of became our signature sound. Terry felt that if something worked for one song, it might work for another song.

2020 film promotional poster

2020 film promotional poster

GM: Then the two of you blend like The Everly Brothers on “Where Evil Grows.”

SJ: That was a fun song and now it is featured in the new Sonic the Hedgehog film with Jim Carrey, which is exciting. As far as harmony goes, to do harmony or even a straight out duet on “Where Evil Grows,” you are singing so closely with someone else and I learned that at first from The Everly Brothers. I love to do harmonies and later on I did harmonies for some pretty big names in Nashville, country singers, just because I loved to do it. I learned how important it is to match somebody else’s voice, so that became so much fun for me. I did my own harmonies for The Poppy Family, so I learned through that experience.

GM: I think harmonies are so important along with accent instruments on records. Our daughter Brianna, who is not only a teacher with a pet hedgehog in her class, plays trumpet and that is a featured instrument on the flip side of “Where Evil Grows,” the song “I Was Wondering.” The structure sounds like Terry was doing a songwriting exercise for musical haiku, with three rhyming lines, all beginning with “I was wondering” and no chorus. Your delivery builds so nicely and has its tender vulnerable moments too.

SJ: We had a wonderful arranger who did the arrangements for our songs. This was so different from where we started with Craig MacCaw and Terry on guitars, Satwan Singh on tablas, and I would play percussion, like tambourine.

Susan Jacks flip

The Poppy Family

Flip side: I Was Wondering

A side: Where Evil Grows

Top 100 debut: July 31, 1971

Peak Position No. 45

London 148

GM: The second side of your Poppy Seeds album ends with such wonderful storytelling on the outside composition from Joe Fahrni called “Winter Milk.” There are a few songs that give me chills, and this is one of them. Your delivery is so believable.

SJ: We recorded it in a little studio. I love this song. It wasn’t the most soundproof studio and you could hear this truck out front, vrrrm, in one of the verses and I didn’t want to take it out because we were really happy with the take. One of the things I loved about this song is that it was written so simply from this girl’s point of view, just a little girl from northern B.C. and Williams Lake, that I sing about, is there. I was just taken by the simplicity and beauty of the song. I could even put myself in Williams Lake and being a girl there, on a farm or a ranch, and meeting some guy. She falls in love and is very sincere, but he is just passing through and that leaves her empty. I loved singing it. It was just wonderful.

Susan Jacks Seeds

GM: Fifty years ago is when we first heard you singing “Which Way You Goin’ Billy?” Forty years ago, we moved to Dallas, Texas. Work had dried up from Detroit through Pittsburgh, in what became known as the rust belt, which included our hometown of Cleveland. Near Donna’s office in the Dallas suburb of Farmer’s Branch there was a store called Half Price Books and Records. I found a promotional copy of your 1980 album Ghosts, and three dollars later I felt like I owned a Poppy Family reunion album with the final line on the album being, “Produced and arranged by Terry Jacks for ‘Poppy Family Productions Ltd.’”

SJ: Well it really wasn’t a reunion, it was just that Terry produced it, which wasn’t my choice. I was signed to Epic and Terry approached the record label, wanted to produce me and he wrangled it. I had moved on by then and had done the Dream album without him, but because I love to sing, I enjoy the Ghosts album too.

Susan Jacks Ghosts

GM: The album begins with the single, Terry’s composition “All the Tea in China,” which I think is a wonderful song with your gentle vibrato, on this post break-up story.

SJ: Terry approached me. He had a girl sing it and he didn’t like the way she sang it and asked if I would try. I just sang it as a demo and then when it was done is when he approached the record label and that is what led to him being the album’s producer.

GM: “We Had it All” has a nice country sound.

SJ: I always loved that song. David Sinclair, who sadly passed away last year, was the most phenomenal guitar player. The way he handled that song was so awesome and it just drew me into it.

GM: Then Terry’s “Ghosts in Your Mind” is haunting, almost like “Shadows on My Wall” from the first Poppy Family album.

SJ: Terry had previously recorded it as a single and he just reused the old track and put my voice on it.

GM: “Beyond the Clouds” was included, a remake of one of The Poppy Family’s earliest songs and I love this updated version.

SJ: Terry wanted to rerecord it. He is a smart businessman and wanted to have as many of his songs on the album because he knew that is where the money is as a songwriter. I always liked the song. I approached it a little bit differently and there were strings on it which was kind of nice.

GM: I know before The Poppy Family you were making music in the mid-1960s. That is also when we first heard the song “A Young Girl” by Noel Harrison, who I watched on the TV show “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” I like your version of this song on Ghosts.

SJ: Well thank you. I loved singing that one too. I approach each song separately, wrapping myself around the song. That one is so sad and has such a message in it.

GM: Now let’s please go back to a few more of my favorites. In 1973, a year before I could drive, I remember riding my bicycle, holding a transistor radio on the handlebars, listening to CKLW out of Detroit/Windsor and hearing “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” I rode in a small circle to not lose reception. I just love it.

SJ: Oh, thank you. That was from my first solo album called I Thought of You Again. I hadn’t left our marriage yet, so Terry produced it. The funny thing about “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is that Terry and I had a fight. He had a short attention span so I had to condense my words to short phrases for him to not lose interest, so I said, “you don’t know what love is and I can’t understand it.” He didn’t say anything but came back a little while later and said he had written this song, with the same things I had just said. Well, at least we got a song out of it.

1975 original album

1975 original album

GM: Now let’s talk about a couple of flip sides from your Dream album. Chilliwack’s Claire Lawrence produced most of the album and his two compositions became the flip sides of “You’re a Part of Me” and “Anna Marie.”

SJ: Claire was so musical. I loved those two compositions “I Rather Know You” and “Into the Night.” These songs turned out so beautifully. I was thrilled when Dream was rereleased a few years ago on CD and digitally so that people could hear all these songs.

2015 CD and digital release

2015 CD and digital release

GM: 1982’s song “Forever” is another favorite of mine, written by Rafe VanHoy.

SJ: I went down to Nashville looking for songs and this is one that I found. I went to publishing companies and they would play me a bunch of songs. I love “Forever” as well.

GM: Then you lived in Nashville. I know Ralph Murphy from Roadhouse was there too and I remember seeing a photo of you together, like a Canadian reunion.

SJ: I was down there for 21 years. I had met Ralph years ago and sung on some of his songs. We connected and hung out quite a bit. A lot of Canadians move down there and try to get something happening. When you find another Canadian, you end up hanging out together. I hung around with Don Everly too, which was neat because I love those guys so much. Ralph, Don and I would go out and have a beer, and it was just kind of nice. Hearing The Everly Brothers so early in my career and then meeting Don as a person was just so neat. Then you get to see what a person is like versus just as a singer or a musician.

Susan Jacks BC award

GM: What’s next for you, other than the kidney transplant.

SJ: Well, I am partway through an album and I am pretty excited about it. I am so close to the top of the list for a transplant now and it is a harder match for me. I’ve had a bunch of people offer and I am so grateful for that but the criteria for it is pretty specialized. Where some might get ten people who they are compatible with, I may only be compatible with two. I have to be close to the phone all the time so I can’t be in a recording studio. We decided the best thing to do is to put the album aside until after the transplant. I know from experience that after six weeks I can get back at it. It takes a lot of your concentration thinking about songs. You have to have your mind free in the studio and not worry that the phone is going to ring in the middle of your take. We have about five to eight songs pretty well done. I have co-written some of the songs with Roy Hurd and have a couple of songs that are just his compositions. He is one of the hidden treasures as far as writers go. He has gotten some cuts, but not a huge cut yet. I was a staff songwriter in Nashville with a publishing company, so I understand that process.

GM: When the album is ready, I look forward to promoting it.

SJ: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. I look forward to it. After what I went through last time, I was told that I had a thirty percent chance of making it, so I feel that everything else is a bonus. The doctors say that the reason that I am so ready for a transplant is because of my attitude. I love life, am happy to be here and have a positive outlook about everything. So, I will be fine and back to share new songs with you.