Originally "Le Moribond" ("The Dying Man"), this was written and performed in French by the Belgian poet-composer Jacques Brel in 1961. The American poet Rod McKuen translated the lyrics to English, and in 1964 The Kingston Trio released the first English-language version of the song. This is the version Terry Jacks heard, which became the basis for his rendition.
In a Songfacts interview with Terry Jacks, he said that after his version was released, he had dinner in Brussels with Jacques Brel, who told him about writing the song. "It was about an old man who was dying of a broken heart because his best friend was screwing his wife," Jacks said. "He wrote this in a #####house in Tangiers, and the words were quite different. The song originally he used to do on stage and it was in a march form, like, 'Bom ba DUM, bom ba DUM.' Quite a different thing. This old man was dying of a broken heart and he was saying goodbye to his priest and his best friend and his wife, who cheated on him. Her name was Francoise, and it went, 'Adieu, Francoise, my trusted wife, without you I'd have had a lonely life. You cheated lots of times but then I forgave you in the end, though your lover was my friend.'"
The original version by Jacques Brel is rather macabre, but Jacks had an earnest inspiration for his reworking of the song: his good friend developed leukemia, and was given just six months to live. "He was gone in four months," Jacks told us. "He was a very good friend of mine, one of my best friends, and he said I was the first one that he told. I remembered this song of an old man dying of a broken heart, and I liked some of the melody and there was something there. I rewrote the song about him."
Before releasing this song, Terry Jacks had considerable success in his native Canada as half of the duo The Poppy Family with his wife, Susan. He was friends with The Beach Boys, who asked him to produce a song for them - something Jacks was honored to do. Terry played them his arrangement of "Seasons in the Sun" and suggested they record it, since he thought it would sound great with their harmonies and with Carl Wilson singing lead.
Terry flew to Brian Wilson's house and they began working on the song. Wilson had always been their producer, and could spend months working on a song if he wanted to perfect it. These were Terry's sessions, but Brian tried to take over.
"The thing never got finished," Jacks said in our interview. "Brian wanted to get hold of the tape and add some things, and the engineer would have to take the tape home at night so that Brian wouldn't get hold of it. This went on and on, and I was almost having a nervous breakdown because I would put so much energy into this thing and the stress was really getting me. So I said, 'I'm not going to be able to finish this. I can't get you guys all in here together.' So it never got completed."
The sessions weren't a complete wash for Jacks, however. He worked with Al Jardine on the backing vocals and came up with an arrangement he would use when he recorded the song himself.
In 1973, the song was released as Jacks' second single ("Concrete Sea" was his first), and it was a huge hit, going to #1 in America for three weeks and also topping the UK chart.
Terry released this on his own label, Goldfish Records, and was amazed when it became the largest-selling single in Canadian history: more than 285,000 copies sold in a matter of weeks. Bell Records vice president Dave Carrico heard the record, flew to Vancouver, and snapped up the American rights. Bell released the song in the US, and on February 14, 1974, it earned its first RIAA Gold Award for sales of over a million copies. Eventually, it sold more than three million copies in the United States alone. Worldwide, the figure is over six million.
"Seasons in the Sun" is the story of a dying man, bidding farewell to loved ones who have shared his life. Shortly before Terry's recording came out, Jacques Brel retired, at the peak of his popularity. Fans around the world were stunned, but the composer would give no reason. Finally, the truth was revealed: after a quiet, six-year battle against cancer, Brel succumbed to the disease and died on October 9, 1978.
With the money he made from this song, Jacks purchased a boat, which he christened "Seasons in the Sun." He began sailing up and down the west coast of Alaska and Canada, and had some revelations along the way. "I started to realize that this wasn't made by a blob," he told us. "This was made by God."
Terry became a Christian and began a quest to protect nature. He gave up music and became an environmental activist, fighting the Canadian paper mills, which he accused of dumping toxins and destroying forests. He made some films on the subject, including The Faceless Ones and The Warmth of Love: The 4 Seasons of Sophie Thomas, maintaining a modest lifestyle in Canada financed by his musical achievements.
For Terry, becoming an environmentalist was not just a moral imperative, but a way of dealing with the fallout from this song, which came to define his career. "I got to be known as an environmentalist, which was the only thing that ever got rid of my label," he said. "I was 'Seasons in the Sun' before that."
Rod McKuen, who translated the lyrics, is the credited writer on the song along with Jacques Brel. Terry Jacks made some significant musical changes and wrote an entirely different last verse, but didn't get a songwriter credit, since he never claimed one. Jacks says he didn't think of it at the time, and never anticipated the song becoming a royalty-generating hit.
Jacks' previous group, The Poppy Family, had a #2 Hot 100 hit with "Which Way You Goin' Billy?" in 1970, and also made #29 with "That's Where I Went Wrong" (both songs were written by Jacks). After "Seasons in the Sun" hit, he recorded anther Jacques Brel song with an English translation by Rod McKuen: "If You Go Away." This one has the French title "Ne me quite pas," which literally translates as "Don't Leave Me." It hit #68 in the US.
According to Terry Jacks, a young David Foster played a bit of piano and did some engineering on this song, his specific contributions being the piano arpeggio after the "flowers everywhere" line, and doubling the bass after the "Goodbye papa, please pray for me" line.
Foster, a fellow Canadian, has contributed to numerous hits as a songwriter, producer and musician. A sampling of his credits:
- Producing the All-4-One "I Swear."
- Writing and recording the original version of "Mornin'."
- Co-writing the Chicago hit "You're the Inspiration."
David Lanz, a pianist known for his composition "Cristofori's Dream," claims that he, not Foster, made those contributions to "Seasons in the Sun."
"He describes exactly what I played on 'Seasons in the Sun,' but says David Foster played this part," Lanz told Songfacts. "David was also living in Vancouver at the time, and he was putting together Skylark and also working in Skylark with two members of my previous Mercury Records band, Brahman: Duris Maxwell, drummer, and keyboardist, Robbie King, who played organ on 'Seasons in the Sun.' David was also coming round my apartment at the time looking for songs for Skylark, so yeah, we were all in the same place at the same time, but it just sounds like Terry mixed the two of us up.
David and I were both up-and-coming pianists at the time, and during the session I played on 'Seasons in the Sun,' Terry also had me record piano on one of my songs, which he rewrote a bit, 'Fire on the Skyline,' for the Seasons in the Sun LP.
He had me use a pseudo writers name (Franklin Wesley) to avoid problems with Mercury Records. That track and another of my songs recorded for his wife Susan, were published on his Gone Fishing Music publishing company."
The B-side of the single was a song titled "Put the Bone In," which described a woman in a butcher shop, apparently begging the butcher to "put the bone in" for her because "her doggy had been hit by a car." Near the end, the lyrics say: "Put the bone in, she yelled out once more."
In the UK, Westlife had the 1999 Christmas #1 with their Double-A-side of "I Have A Dream" and their cover of this song. "I Have A Dream" was originally a #2 hit for Abba in 1979. When this topped the UK chart, Westlife became the first act since Elvis Presley in 1962 to have 4 #1s in the same year.
Nirvana did a version of this song, but it didn't appear until 2004 on the With The Lights Out out boxed set.
Terry's talents are in songwriting, production and arrangements - he doesn't consider himself a very good singer, and was never known for his vocal talents. He started singing his own material as a means of expression: when he wrote songs for The Poppy Family, he had to change the gender because they were sung by his wife, Susan.
Despite his perceived deficiencies when it comes to singing, Terry won the Juno award (the Canadian Grammys) for Male Vocalist of the Year in 1974. This song also won for Contemporary Single of the Year and Pop Music Single of the Year, and Best Selling Single.