Although Bobbie Gentry's career as a country and pop music performer was short-lived, her "Ode to Billie Joe" remains one of popular music's all-time classics. The mystery of the song inspired a movie of the same name, and even 35 years after the fact, listeners continue to ask what Billie Joe threw off of the Tallahatchie Bridge. Although Gentry remained a onehit wonder in many people's minds, she enjoyed several smaller hits, including a version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" that topped the charts in England. She also recorded several durable albums and was a pathbreaker as an ambitious female songwriter.
Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1944 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Her parents divorced, and she grew up in poverty on her grandparents' farm in Greenwood, Mississippi. At seven, she showed her inclination toward music by writing her first song, "My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog," and taught herself to play the piano. The hardship of her early life and of the Mississippi landscape would later permeate her music. When Gentry was 13, her family moved to Palm Springs, California. She learned to play guitar, banjo, bass, and vibes, and sang at a local country club while she was in high school. Gentry also sang in nightclubs to save money to attend college, allowing her to enroll in philosophy courses at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and then to transfer to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.
Following graduation Gentry borrowed her stage name from Ruby Gentry, a 1952 film starring Jennifer Jones as a heroine born into poverty but determined to make a success of her life. The name change not only confirmed Gentry's determination to be successful in show business, but also showed that she, unlike many other women singers of her time, would take charge of her own career.
Moving to Las Vegas for a time, Gentry briefly joined the nightclub revue Les Folies Bergere. She teamed with rockabilly singer Jody Reynolds to make her first singles in 1964, "Ode to Love" and "Stranger in the Mirror." Her career failed to take off, however, and she continued performing in nightclubs until Capitol Records executive Kelly Gordon heard a demo she recorded in 1967. Although Capitol staffer rejected "Ode to Billie Joe" because he believed the lyrics were about abortion, Kelly offered Gentry's publisher $10,000 for the song. Capitol released her first single, "Mississippi Delta," but disc jockeys preferred the B-side, which was "Ode to Billie Joe." By August of 1967, the song rose to number one on American pop charts and remained there for the entire month. "Ode to Billie Joe" would also win Gentry three Grammy awards for Best New Artist, Best Vocal Performance (Female), and Best Contemporary Female Solo Vocal Performance.
In many ways "Ode to Billie Joe" was quite different from the usual country song of its the day. First of all, it was over four minutes long, and the musical production was spare, allowing Gentry's husky voice to take center stage. "The song sounded to me like a movie," producer Jimmy Haskell told Robert Webb of the Independent. Unlike many story songs, the lyric of "Ode to Billie Joe" was elliptical, neither offering a reason why Billie Joe committed suicide nor revealing the relationship between Billie Joe and the narrator. The unreleased demo ran for seven minutes, perhaps filling in more details, but despite much speculation, the song remains a mystery. "Whatever the story's secret," wrote Webb, "Gentry has kept her silence."
Gentry's career moved slowly after her first hit, but she nonetheless fashioned a number of artistic successes. Her second single, "I Saw an Angel Die," never reached the charts, though she had a minor hit with "Okolona River Bottom Band" in 1968. Despite the weak performance of her single releases, Gentry excelled in the studio, cutting fine albums such as The Delta Sweete and Local Gentry. "She later maintained she helmed the sessions herself," wrote Ankeny, "drawing on her Mississippi roots to compose revealing vignettes that typically explored the lifestyles, values, and even hypocrisies of the southern culture." Gentry also recorded with Glen Campbell, and the pair had a top 20 hit with "Let It Be Me."
Gentry recorded another well-received album in 1969; Ankeny contended that "Touch 'em With Love is Bobbie Gentry's finest studio effort, a fascinatingly eclectic and genuinely affecting record that broadened her musical horizons far beyond the limitations of the Nashville sound." Although her singles continued to struggle on the charts in the United States, her version of "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" reached number one in England, and the single's success prompted a short-lived BBC television show. As her chart presence dwindled, Gentry turned her talent toward mounting a revue in Las Vegas, a variety show in which she starred, and for which she also helped to develop the costumes and choreography. She married Bill Harrah, manager of the Desert Inn Hotel, in 1969, but the marriage only lasted three months.
For the Record . . .
Born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1944, in Chickasaw County, MS; married Bill Harrah, 1969 (divorced); married Jim Stafford, 1979 (divorced). Education: Attended the University of California at Los
Angeles and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.
Signed to Capitol Records, 1967; recorded debut album, Ode to Billie Joe, 1967; recorded Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell with Glen Campbell, 1968; released last Capitol album, Patchwork, 1971; hosted short-lived television series in United Kingdom; hosted four episodes of The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, 1974;
co-wrote script for television movie, Ode to Billie Joe, 1976.
Awards: Grammy Awards, Best New Artist, Best Vocal Performance (Female), and Best Contemporary Female Solo Vocal Performance, 1967; Academy of Country Music, Best New Female Vocalist, 1967.
Gentry recorded Fancy in 1970 and followed it up with her last Capitol album, Patchwork, in 1971. In the summer of 1974, she appeared in four episodes of The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, a CBS summer replacement series. In 1976 she received a co-writing credit for Ode to Billie Joe, an intriguing television movie that suggested that repressed homosexuality lay behind the young man's suicide. The movie also provided its own answer to the question of what was thrown off of the Tallahatchie Bridge: a rag doll. In 1979 Gentry married performer Jim Stafford, but the marriage ended 11 months later. By the end of the 1970s, Gentry had quietly left the music scene behind and dropped out of public view, reportedly working behind the scenes in television production. "She just disappeared," Lucinda Williams told Rolling Stone, "and I heard she married some rich guy in Vegas. It just adds to the mystery of it all."
Ode to Billie Joe, Capitol, 1967.
The Delta Sweete, Capitol, 1968.
(With Glen Campbell) Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, Capitol, 1968.
Local Gentry, Capitol, 1968.
Touch 'em With Love, Capitol, 1969.
Fancy, Capitol, 1970.
Patchwork, Capitol, 1971.
Independent (London, England), October 31, 2003, p. 14.
Rolling Stone, October 30, 2003.
Tennessean, June 3, 2001, p. 45.
"Bobbie Gentry," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November, 10, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
"Gentry, Bobbie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/gentry-bobbie
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