April 26, 2022
Canadian singer-songwriter Susan Jacks, who lit up the airwaves with her band’s 1969 smash hit Which Way You Goin’ Billy? has died at age 73 while awaiting a second kidney transplant.
Jacks made an indelible mark on the Canadian music scene as lead singer of the Poppy Family, which also featured vocals by her then-husband Terry Jacks, most notably on another megahit, Where Evil Grows.
Jacks is being remembered for a smooth, emotive voice that helped her music career soar, but also for the humility that kept her grounded, even as she became a household name through constant airplay and the band’s performances on national TV.
Her older brother, Rick Pesklevits, says Jacks was “always singing” as early as age four. He remembered her belting out the Harry Belafonte tune Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) all over the house and outside, too.
The family moved to Haney, B.C., now a community within Maple Ridge east of Vancouver, when Jacks was nine, and she just kept on singing.
“Singing in school brought her to the attention of various high school bands and so they often invited her as the ‘chick singer.’ Gradually, she became known through that exposure and kind of broke in through the side door,” Pesklevits said.
Their brother Bill, whose name was referenced in his sister’s breakout song, donated a kidney to her in 2010, but recent complications from infections had her on a wait-list for another kidney before she died in hospital in Surrey, B.C., on Monday.
“She was overwhelmed by infection, and her heart stopped,” Pesklevits said, calling his sister a selfless person who “abhorred injustice and lack of sincerity.”
“We talked regularly about what each other was going through,” he said through tears about their phone calls. “Just the sound of her voice, that’s what I miss.”
Jacks became a strong advocate for organ donation after her first transplant and played several concerts benefiting the Kidney Foundation, her brother said.
“She had plans to go back into the studio to record another album, but the progression of her illness prevented that,” he said of Jacks, who’d moved to Nashville and made a career of songwriting before returning to Canada after her second husband was diagnosed with cancer.
Ted Dushinski, a former Canadian Football League star, died in 2005 of brain cancer that metastasized to his lungs, and she devoted herself to caring for him before taking on her own health complications, Pesklevits said.
Even at the top of the pop charts, Jacks remained “quite surprised” by her success and put her family first, he said.
“That was the business, and families have other things to talk about, like each other.”
Craig McCaw, the lead guitarist for the Poppy Family, said the band, which had a turbaned tabla player, was ahead of its time in some respects because it incorporated the talents of a musician who was trained in classical Indian music.
Satwant Singh was recruited to replace Jacks’ tambourine and bean-pod playing when the band decided to forgo a full drum set, said McCaw, who called her a “very serious percussionist.”
“She was very good, but she tried to carry all the weight. She was leaving bruises on her leg like crazy and so we thought we should get some percussion,” he said of the instruments Jacks banged on her leg.
The band recorded its 1969 album partly in England with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Which Way You Goin’ Billy? became the No. 1 hit in Canada that fall.
The song eventually landed at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and Cash Box Top 100 charts in the United States.