In May 1981, Bobbie Gentry was one of many guest stars on the NBC special “An All-Star Salute To Mother’s Day.” She sang just one song: a touching rendition of the Broadway tune “Mama, A Rainbow,” dedicated to her own mother in the audience.
What no one knew at the time was that this would be her last onstage appearance ever.
On Sunday, Bobbie Gentry will turn 70 years old. She hasn’t given an interview or public performance in over 30 years and the last time she was photographed was at the Country Music Awards in early 1982. Yet, Gentry with all her Southern charm, sultry looks and evocative hits such as “Ode To Billie Joe” and “Fancy” remains a hugely influential, iconic and enigmatic artist.
It’s true that Gentry may be more of a cult figure these days but back in the late ’60s and early ’70s it was hard to escape this beautiful, big-haired, husky-voiced girl from Mississippi, with her hit singles, TV specials, and even a successful Las Vegas revue. Her brief but startling career in music began in July 1967 when the then-unknown Gentry managed the incredible feat of knocking the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” off the top of the Billboard chart with her debut single. The song that managed this feat was a seemingly simple country/folk tune featuring just Gentry on her five-string acoustic guitar, some atmospheric strings, her distinctive smoky vocals and some intriguing lyrics. “Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” she sang in her conversational tale of a local boy’s suicide and a family’s indifference to the news. Just why did Billie Joe jump off that bridge? And what exactly did he and the girl, who looks just like the narrator of the song, throw off the bridge the day before? Whatever it was, Gentry wasn’t saying and the song went on to rule the airwaves that summer, staying at number one for four weeks, selling more than three million copies and later earning her two GRAMMY Awards. Bob Dylan even recorded an affectionate parody of the song with the Band, first called “Answer To Ode” and later renamed “Clothes Line Saga” when it turned up on The Basement Tapes in 1975.
Bobbie Gentry was so much more than “Ode To Billie Joe” though. To reduce her contributions to just one song is a huge underestimation of her talent and her role as a trailblazer, as one of the first female musicians who wrote, produced and even published her own music. Although she never again achieved the success of her first single, her albums are something of a joy to discover. She only released six solo albums in all, plus a duets record with Glen Campbell, but during her career, Bobbie Gentry never did things half-hearted. She took full control of her own music, starred in TV variety shows in the UK and the States and even when she took up a residency in Vegas, was involved in every aspect from the arrangements to the costumes to the choreography. Then, when she decided she had had enough, Bobbie Gentry was fully committed to that, too, and left show business — never to be heard from again. In fact, when “Ode To Billie Joe” was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, it’s said that they couldn’t even find a contact or address to send the award to.
Although “Ode To Billie Joe” was turned into a feature film in 1976, Gentry’s own life is easily worthy of a movie. Born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, she spent her childhood years on her grandparents’ farm, after her own parents divorced, where she grew up without electricity or plumbing. She discovered her love of music listening to jazz and blues on an old battery-powered radio. “My grandmother noticed how much I liked music, so she traded one of her milk cows for a neighbour’s piano,” she said, sounding like a line from one of her own songs. Gentry learned to play watching the pianist at her local church, and it was on this old piano that she wrote her first songs, aged just seven. She later reunited with her mother when she moved to Palm Springs, California, to attend school and it was here, at 14, that she saw the movie Ruby Gentry, from which she took her stage name. It also was during this time that she taught herself to play guitar, bass, banjo and vibes. Gentry, it seems, was destined for a life in music.
With her new stage name, Gentry began performing in clubs, supporting herself as a UCLA philosophy student, before going on to study guitar and composition at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. In 1967, her demo found its way into the hands of Capitol Records producer Kelly Gordon, who quickly signed her to a deal. He chose to record the rocking “Mississippi Delta” from the demo as her first single, while “Ode To Billie Joe” was almost an afterthought, recorded in just 40 minutes for the B-side. After its release, radio stations preferred the flip side of the single and the rest, as they say, is history.
The album Ode To Billie Joe was hastily recorded to cash-in on the single’s success, but it certainly doesn’t sound it. Expanding on the bluesy, country sounds of her most famous single, it is easily the grittiest and least polished of all her records and actually benefits from this. Gentry wrote all but one of the tracks on the album, which range from the jazzy “Papa, Won’t You Let Me Go To Town With You?” to the sad beauty of “I Saw An Angel Die.” It’s an album no Bobbie Gentry fan should be without.
The Delta Sweete quickly followed in early 1968 and was even more ambitious. A concept album detailing Gentry’s Mississippi childhood, many believe it to be her masterpiece. Although not a million miles from “Ode To Billie Joe” in style, it veers from bluesy ballads to bright country soul to mournful folk numbers, each song flowing into one other. Highlights include the sensuous “Mornin’ Glory,” the brassy groove of “Okolona River Bottom Band” and the dreamy “Courtyard.”
Even though The Delta Sweete produced no big hits, Capitol was keen for Gentry to keep recording in order to capitalize on “Ode To Billie Joe”’s success. What followed was Local Gentry, featuring Bobbie looking stunning in a tight, red suit on the cover. Unsurprisingly, due to its closeness to The Delta Sweete, there were less original songs on the album, with Gentry only writing four of the 11 tracks, but they show her at the height of her powers.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else writing a song about a funeral parlour director with such humour and insight as she does on “Casket Vignette” (“I understand he was your fiancé, what a tragedy”) and “Sweet Peony” has a cool Southern swagger. The same year also saw the release of probably Bobbie Gentry’s least essential album, although it was a big hit at the time: her duets record with Glen Campbell. The pairing proved hugely popular with the public and earned them several big hits including their cover of the Everly Brothers favourite, “Let It Be Me.”
Touch ‘Em With Love, released in 1969, has to be Gentry’s most soulful album and it definitely warrants comparisons with Dusty Springfield at her finest; in fact, Bobbie even covers “Son Of A Preacher Man” on this record, which may indicate that Dusty In Memphis was an influence.
The album presents Gentry as both a first-rate interpreter of songs and a fine songwriter whose material sits easily with covers of Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach. In fact, it could be said that the best tracks on the whole album are her own songs: the gospel-tinged “Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing” and the rousing “Seasons Come, Seasons Go.” The big hit from the album, though, was her cover of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” which became her only UK number one. The BBC was impressed enough with Gentry to offer her her own TV show, which featured guests like the Hollies, James Taylor and Donovan. Sadly, it’s said only five episodes of the show still exist in the BBC’s archives, the rest falling victim to the Beeb’s policy of wiping and reusing old tapes at the time.
At the end of 1969, Gentry married casino magnet Bill Harrah, who was almost 60 at the time and Bobbie just 26. Predictably, the marriage only lasted four months, but it certainly makes the lyrics of Gentry’s second most-famous song, “Fancy” all the more interesting.
Released around the time of her marriage and arguably on par with “Ode To Billie Joe,” it’s sung from the perspective of a woman looking back at her poverty-stricken youth and her terminally-ill mother’s advice to go out and use her beauty to find a rich man to save her. “I may have been born plain white trash but Fancy was my name… and I ain’t done bad,” she defiantly sings. Once again, it’s a brilliant character study and shows Gentry’s talent as an incredible storyteller. “Fancy is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it. I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that [it stands] for — equality, equal pay, day care centers, and abortion rights,” she explained to After Dark magazine in 1974. It’s by far the best song on the album that followed in early 1970 (and the only original on the record), which was recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio, although her version of Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker” is country pop at its finest, while “Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em, and Forget ‘Em” features one of her best and toughest vocals.
Around this time, she signed a million-dollar contract to headline her own show in Vegas, where other notable acts such as Elvis Presley and Tom Jones became close friends. (It was even reported in the press at the time that she and Presley were briefly an item.) “I write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing. I’m completely responsible for it. It’s totally my own from inception to performance,” she said in a rare interview in the early ’70s, before adding, “I originally produced ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ and most of my other records, but a woman doesn’t stand much chance in a recording studio. A staff producer’s name was nearly always put on the records.”
It was clear Gentry was frustrated with her role as a woman in the music business. Like Dolly Parton, she was unashamedly glamorous, but unlike the country superstar, Gentry largely wasn’t taken seriously as an artist. It probably explains why she took full control — and credit — over her next and final album, Patchwork, in 1971. Again, this was a concept album with each song separated by a musical interlude. Every track was written by Gentry herself this time, and it’s said she even painted the striking portrait on the cover.
Gentry said it was the album she was most proud of, but it’s rumoured that male staff at Capitol felt threatened by her push for creative control and retaliated by failing to give it the promotion it deserved. It’s entirely possible this was the case, as during the last ten years of her career, she was obviously reluctant to continue as a recording artist, never making another album and releasing her last single, “Steal Away” b/w “He Did Me Wrong But He Did It Right,” in 1978.
The final poignant track on Patchwork, “Lookin’ In,” offers an insight into her disillusionment with show business. “So I spend my days thinking up new ways to do the same old thing,” she wearily sings, before going on to tell us, “Seasons come and go without a name, and I spend my nights in the bright spotlights wishing I could let the people know, can’t win or lose unless you play the game.”
During a short-lived marriage to singer and comedian Jim Stafford, she gave birth to a son called Tyler in 1978 (in this interview with Stafford from the mid-1980s, he mentions Gentry and shows a photo of their son). Becoming a mother seems to have reinforced her decision to retire from music, only making a brief re-appearance in 1981 for the aforementioned Mother’s Day TV special.
Since then, there have been rumoured sightings of her and a few phone calls to old friends and colleagues (including one to her old arranger Jimmie Haskell, where she talked about recording some new songs that never came to anything), but Gentry remains as mysterious as her most famous song. It seems unlikely that she will ever come out of retirement now and appears content to live a private life and let her few excellent but underrated albums speak for themselves. Here’s hoping at least for an autobiography someday, but like the answer to what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, she seems happy to let us all continue to wonder.
Happy 70th birthday Bobbie Gentry, wherever you are.