Susan Jacks – Against All Odds

Ever tune in to one of those classic pop stations that play golden oldies  when they start playing a song from Vancouver’s Poppy Family, either `Which Way You Going Billy’ or `Where Evil Grows’ and you think to yourself, “I wonder whatever happened to Susan Jacks?” Well, Susan Jacks is alive and well… barely, and appreciates your concern.

To say the past few years have been unkind to Ms. Jacks would be an understatement. First, she lost her husband, former Saskatchewan Roughriders CFL football star, Ted Dushinsky to cancer. This comes after she was diagnosed with kidney failure but thankfully, she received a successful donation from one of her brothers, only to lose another brother to cancer in July of this year.

“I’m getting back into things,” informs the Saskatoon native. “The past few years have been a little difficult, to say the least. I was a primary caregiver to my husband Ted when he was stricken with cancer and two months after he died, my brother, Bruce was diagnosed with leukemia so I ended up being the primary caregiver to him. And then I had my kidney transplant, (donated by brother Billy) so I’m just kind of getting back into the swing of things now.”

“I suffered from anemia from the kidney transplant medication which made me weak for the longest time but I’m raring to go. I’ve done a few shows around Vancouver that have been well received and I’m dying to get back into the studio to record some new songs as soon as I’ve built up enough stamina.”

Yes, it’s been 45 years since the former Susan Pesklevits, then a regular on a national TV show, Music Hop, recruited local Vancouver guitarist, Terry Jacks to accompany her on a couple of songs during a club booking at Hope, B.C. At the time, Pesklevits was in a band called Eternal Triangle with Howie Vickers and Tom Northcott, two talented musicians in their own right. “Terry and I started to work together with Craig McCaw, a lead guitarist and soon we were developing a new band,” reflected Jacks. “At first we called our band Powerline because we played Whistler a lot and they were just installing the ski hill’s first power line. Then we came up with the name The Poppy Family out of a dictionary. It’s kind of trippy which seemed to fit those psychedelic times.

Although only 18 years old when she asked Jacks to join her on stage (in 1966) Susan married Terry one year later and when McCaw brought tabla player Satwan Singh into the band, this unusual group began to take shape. Their debut album, “Which Way You Goin Billy”, released in 1970 went to No.1 in Canada and No 2 on the U.S Billboard charts, selling three million copies, fuelled by the self-titled single, which should have led to scores of television appearances and concert performances. But according to Susan “Terry didn’t want to tour much or do anything live, he even turned down The Ed Sullivan Show. I was devastated when he turned that showdown. That show was by invitation only, that directive came directly from Ed Sullivan himself- but Terry turned him down. That would have opened up so much more exposure for us in the States”

In retrospect, Susan thinks Terry’s reluctance to do the show stems from his decision to fire both McCaw and Singh, while the band was touring in Japan – reducing The Poppy Family back to just the pair of them. “I couldn’t believe Terry fired Craig and Satwant just like that, no warning. They were an integral part of The Poppy Family. I believe Terry thought that if we all appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show together, our image as a four-piece band would be cemented and he wouldn’t be able to fire Craig and Satwant in the future.”

Now reduced to a duet, fronted by Susan’s lead vocals, The Poppy Family were history after just two albums. “The fact is, Terry was not a prolific songwriter,  he was not a lead guitar player and he didn’t sing much, just a couple of duets,” reflected Jacks. “I remember he was going to call our first hit, “Which Way You Goin Buddy”! sung from a male’s perspective. I said that’s unrealistic, the song should be from a female’s perspective so it was my idea to come up with “Which Way You Goin Billy”. I knew that women would relate to this song and it was women who were buying the majority of the records at that time.”

The Jacks’ home life wasn’t much better than their studio sessions. “Terry was very difficult to work with and very difficult to live with,” revealed Jacks. “This consequently meant I could only stay with him for five and a half years before we split.” Jacks says all will be revealed in an upcoming autobiography but she did say that Terry used to torment her on stage. “Terry is a strange dude! I’d be on stage singing and he’d walk behind me and say that I was singing like shit or that I sounded like crap. I’d say; `Why are you doing this to me.’ I wouldn’t take this to heart because I know what my standards are and I couldn’t figure out why he was doing this stuff. Even when I was getting standing ovations, he’d be trashing me!”

The final straw occurred when Terry started disputing her claim for artist royalty payments from the record label. “We built The Poppy Family together. He may have written or co-written the songs but I sang them!,” fumed Jacks, “Now he’s claiming that the Poppy Family was all about him! I got some money but nothing like the amount I should have received”

“In retrospect, I was a naive 18-year-old who just wanted to sing and make records,” explained Jacks, “I loved to perform and couldn’t understand why Terry didn’t want to do those things.”

The split came when they recorded separate albums in 1973, Terry recorded his “Seasons In The Sun” album with Susan releasing her “I Thought Of You Again” release. “Even while I was recording Poppy Family songs, Terry was releasing his solo material. I’m thinking what’s with this? As it was I co-produced his hit song “Seasons In The Sun” and sang all the backing vocals.”

After a financially damaging relationship with an ex-manager (events recorded in her forthcoming book), Jacks met Dushinski in 1978 and in 1980 they were married and had a son together.

Moving to Nashville in 1983 with a recording contract, Jacks was soon honing her developing songwriting skills when her record label bit the dust and she began working as a staff songwriter for a Nashville Publishing Company. Sadly, Dushinski contracted lung cancer in 2004 and the family returned to Vancouver so he could be closer to his family, eventually passing away in October 2005.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Jack’s kidneys, which had begun to weaken while they were in Nashville, failed completely when she returned to Vancouver and although she appointed herself as primary caregiver to her brother Bruce who contracted leukemia, Jacks eventually received a successful kidney transplant with a kidney donated by another brother Billy in 2010. Unfortunately, Bruce succumbed to his cancer in July of this year.

Still struggling with anemia from the effects of her kidney medication, Jacks summoned the stamina to stage a few concert performances and one particular show, staged on April 17th, 2011 at the Red Robinson Theatre in Vancouver, a charity gig for the Canadian Kidney Foundation, received rave critical reviews.

“I appreciate that this industry has changed with all the social networking developments but I don’t feel like a new artist coming into the business,” noted Jacks. “I am biting at the bit to record just a few songs to see what happens with them on iTunes. It would be great to attract a new audience but I know, I have a lot of people who have stayed loyal to me over the years. These are the people who continue to support me.”

Yes, things have been rough for Susan Jacks over the past few years, but at the age of 65, she is determined to get back in front of an audience and make up for a lost time.

Although things have been tragic, some of the life lessons I have learned have been amazing,” concluded Jacks. “Sometimes it takes these kinds of knocks to make you aware of life but I certainly came out of it a much stronger person.”

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