The Poppy Family ‘A Good Thing Lost’ Album Review by Brian Miller
Vivoscene rating 9.0
Thirty seconds into “Beyond The Clouds” the leadoff track from The Poppy Family‘s 1996 remastered compilation A Good Thing Lost, I have one thought only. The music world has seriously underrated the talents of Susan and Terry Jacks. The track is a softrock pyschedelic masterpiece, with Susan’s ethereally perfect vocals soulfully projecting heartbreak and despair over love gone wrong. I had always admired her vocals but thought her material was far too MOR for my own supposedly eclectic tastes. I could not have been more wrong; the Poppy Family’s hits “Which Way You Goin’ Billy”, and “That’s Where I Went Wrong” were well-produced, melodic and even inventive, but at the time I was into The Stones, The Doors and The Beatles. Well, just goes to show you that sometimes it takes decades for the truth to finally settle upon a self-declared muso. Evidence the second cut on the album that yes, could well have come from Lennon-McCartney. Entitled “Free From The City”, it contains both masterful lyrics and some very tasty psychedelic guitar. Like the rest of the group’s material in their short-lived two album existence, the song was written and produced by none other than Terry Jacks, who is primarily known, and unfairly so, for “Seasons In The Sun”, a tune that shackled his reputation to the most sentimental of the softrock cliches.
You can stream the entire album A Good Thing Lost below:
The facts are that Terry Jacks is probably the most talented pop producer ever to come out of Canada, and Susan Jacks is a vocal talent equal to, if not better than, the likes of Karen Carpenter and Linda Ronstadt. She is infinitely more soulful than either, with qualities of diction, expression and inherent emotional range that outdo Karen and Linda in spades. And get this, folks, The Poppy Family has been near forgotten in Canada for decades! Even this compilation, beautifully remastered by Terry Jacks, failed to spark the attention it deserved some sixteen years ago.
For some reason, The Poppy Family never commanded the accolades or the marketing budgets that their superb recordings called for. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Terry didn’t much like live performances, or that Susan did, and their marriage fell apart and they went their separate ways via solo recordings that yes, sold well enough, but for the wrong reasons. Terry was a master of psychedelia and innovation; Susan excelled at delivering acute melancholy in an upbeat tempo. The two were further supported by Craig McCaw on guitar and Satwan Singh on drums. Terry dismissed Craig and Satwan when he decided he didn’t like touring or performing and the group dissolved in 1973.
Their best material is actually fairly dark: “You Took My Moonlight Away” and “No Blood in Bone” and “Shadows On My Wall” are prime examples of brilliant production and terrific vocals wedded to thoughtful and even disturbing images. And as for “Where Evil Grows” – how could this ever have been treated as your average pop song? In fact the lyrics and delivery belie the beautiful melody and infectious tempo so well that the true genius behind the song was overlooked. Maybe only The Doors or The Left Banke were as innovative as The Poppy Family, but the sweet voices and understated, subtle productions of Susan and Terry Jacks disguised the intent and significance of the lyrics.
Susan also had a deep feeling for the plainest lyric, in the same deep dark way that Patsy Cline did. Witness “I Was Wondering” – a major treasure of country-inflected pop that is devastating in its purity and revelatory emotion. It was probably this predilection that later led Susan to a songwriting career in Nashville, and while she scored a few minor writing successes there, various wranglings over ownership of her solo recordings accounted for the lack of any major recording recognition.
Not that she lost her talent; far from it. Until very recently she retained the vocal chops that distinguish her as one of the best female pop singers ever. After being diagnosed in 2005 with potential renal failure in 2005, a couple of years ago she underwent a kidney transplant (via a donation from her brother Bill) , and thankfully is now back performing in her native Vancouver in great vocal form.
As for Terry, he has long been dedicated to environmental causes, having given up the music biz. Jacks has worked in documentary film and video, producing several shorts on environmental themes including The Tragedy of Clearcutting, The Southern Chilcotin Mountains and The Warmth of Love (The Four Seasons of Sophie Thomas). The video production The Faceless Ones earned an Environmental Gold Award from the New York International Film Festival.
In the late 1970s, Jacks married his manager Margaret (Maggi) Zittier and gradually withdrew from the music world. The couple had a daughter, Holly Michelle Jacks in 1985. Jacks became involved in the environmental movement, focusing on pulp mill pollution issues in Canada. His environmental work has earned him several awards including one from the United Nations Association of Canada and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. He lives near Vancouver today.
The videos below show a young Susan and Terry on their TV show, with a surprise appearance by The Everly Brothers in an unscripted interview. Susan and Terry’s version of The Everlys’ “The Price Of Love”, about eight minutes in, is a rocked-out marvel of one of the Everlys’ most covered songs. But don’t rush ahead to that: the opening track, featuring Terry and Susan with a cover of The Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” that should dispel any thoughts you might have of The Poppy Family’s being an MOR act. Also, Terry’s delivery of the famous Bob Lind track “Elusive Butterfly” is a terrific demonstration of Terry’s superb musicianship. The man could sing!
And the second vid, which shows a live appearance on the Kenny Rogers Show, is a superlative performance of “Where Evil Grows”.
And I will not sign off until I mention how radiantly beautiful Susan Jacks was, and is.
Canada, it’s past time to celebrate, and elevate, two of your greatest musical talents of the 20th century: The Poppy Family!
Watch: The Poppy Family with The Everly Brothers
Watch: “Where Evil Grows” live on the Kenny Rogers show here