Poppies in the Fall

I am not one of those people who’s bothered by the days growing short in the fall. Many of the memories I carry of particular times and places involve the angle of the light, and so many of my memories of autumn involve twilight or  darkness, crowding around. Neither am I bothered by the colder weather. Wearing a sweater around the house or a jacket outside, or awakening in the middle of the night to pull the blanket up, provides a feeling of security that’s welcome after a long summer without it.

Another source of security is the familiar songs that sound like autumn to me. I’ve written about several of them here over the years. Some provided the soundtrack for a particular autumn. Others just sound like they belong. The list is always growing, because every now and then, I’ll discover—or remember—another one that fits.

Susan Pesklevits and Terry Jacks met in British Columbia, Canada, in 1966, and got married in 1967. He was a guitarist and she was a singer. They formed a group in 1968; at first they called it Powerline and later Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nob. Finally they settled on the Poppy Family after selecting the word “poppy” at random from the dictionary. (So it’s not a drug reference, as you might reasonably expect.) They scored a couple of minor hits in Canada before the shiveringly gorgeous “Which Way You Goin’ Billy” broke through in the States, hitting Number Two in the summer of 1970. Their second single was “That’s Where I Went Wrong.” It was no “Billy,” reaching Number 29 in Billboard, but it got a ton of airplay in September and October of 1970—there are 112 listings for it at ARSA, where it was a Top-10 hit in Detroit, Saginaw, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Norfolk, Birmingham, Tampa, and a few other places. In Chicago, it was a Top-10 hit on both WCFL and WLS.

It would be a year before the Poppy Family scored another significant hit. “Where Evil Grows” missed the stateside Top 40 in the early fall of 1971 despite going Top 10 in Canada-adjacent markets like Detroit and Buffalo, and some far removed from the Great White North, like Wichita and Modesto. (That was the year Terry Jacks declined an invitation for the group to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show—Susan told a journalist in 2006, “I’m still trying to figure that one out.”) With that, the Poppy Family’s run was about over. Susan and Terry divorced in 1973 and released solo albums; his was called Seasons in the Sun and produced that gazillion-selling 70s icon. Susan stayed in the entertainment business, released a single called “All the Tea in China” that I can remember playing on the radio in 1980, married a Canadian football player, and became a contract songwriter in Nashville. She’s still around today. Terry is too, but he’s more reclusive.

Despite its deceptive up tempo, there’s a definite autumnal vibe to “That’s Where I Went Wrong.” Maybe it’s that ghostly backing vocal, or the image of the brokenhearted girl on a bus, showing her ring to a stranger and telling her sad story. You can almost see her there, small in the seat, buttoned up in a big old army-surplus coat, carrying everything she owns in a cheap little suitcase, headed for nowhere in particular. The scene couldn’t possibly take place on a sunny afternoon in the middle of summer. It could only happen in the encroaching dark of an autumn night.

9 thoughts on “Poppies in the Fall

  1. porky

    Excellent post. I love the tune in question, one I heard growing up (on one of those Chicago stations) but didn’t realize it until it came back in a serependitous way and my brain remembered every lick. Strange phenomenon that. In his list of essential/notable records Greil Marcus lists this tune in the appendix of “Mystery Train.”

  2. I enjoy all three of the singles you mention. And you’re right. “That’s Where I Went Wrong” does sound like autumn, which is something I’d never thought about before. (The reliance on minor chords helps, I think.)

  3. Steve Elders

    A great single that should have been as big a hit as “Which Way You Goin’, Billy.” It did chart on KHJ in Los Angeles, though, so I heard it a lot that late summer. And the Poppy Family is one of the few artists I know of besides the Rolling Stones to be on London Records. (I know Noel Harrison was another.) Loved that label with the different shades of blue. Incidentally, the mono 45 mix has a guitar overdub that’s not in the stereo mix; the latter’s guitar is more laid back, while the mono’s has more flourishes.

  4. Christina

    Hi, I like your blog a lot and read it regularly. I did not know the name of the song or who sang it but enjoyed listening to it back in the day. It was played quite a bit on KXOK. It was very nice reconnecting to a song I like..

  5. Yah Shure

    Not to mention that the U.S. London 45 is a different version than the Canadian single.

    I was just exchanging correspondence over the last few days with the music director who preceded me at our college station, and we both agreed that Janis Ian’s very Fall-flavored single, “The Man You Are In Me” (issued in May, 1974) would have been better served by being held back for release that Fall. Or better still, being re-released after “At Seventeen” hit it big the following year.

  6. John G

    With the Canadian stations influence big here around Lake Erie and Erie, PA, I loved “Where Evil Grows.” The 45 is drier than the CD version which has echo added.

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  8. mikehagerty

    Wow. Brilliantly written. I’m another one who really welcomes autumn.

    Just a note on “That’s Where I Went Wrong”—as Steve Elders notes, it got airplay at KHJ in Los Angeles, which is where both he and I heard it, but it did more than that. While “Which Way You Goin’ Billy” peaked at #2 in Billboard and #5 at KHJ, “That’s Where I Went Wrong” significantly outperformed “Billy” by comparison—#29 Billboard, #13 at KHJ. It is far and away my favorite of the three Poppy Family singles (in the same sense and for the same reason that “Rainbow” by Marmalade hits me more directly than “Reflections of My Life” did).

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