If you’re asked about the year 1967 where it concerns music there’s a good chance you’ll respond with the Summer of Love, the Monterey Pop Festival, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band whether you were part of that scene or not.
But in the midst of the Summer of Love along came a song steeped in darkness and doom. Its lyrics told the story of a young man named Billie Joe McAllister who ended his life by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The words and music were written by an unknown young female singer/songwriter from Mississippi named Roberta Streeter who was now going by the name Bobbie Gentry. In the summer of ’67, Bobbie Gentry became an overnight sensation with her monster hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” which knocked The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” from the top of the singles charts while the album of the same name knocked Sgt. Pepper off the top of the album charts.
“Ode to Billie Joe” was a story of Southern tragedy that was the antithesis of flower power. Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge. Gentry’s lyrics made you feel like you were pickin’ cotton and baling hay. It evoked comparisons to the William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Indeed, an early handwritten draft of “Ode to Billie Joe” can be found next to the works of Faulkner and Williams at Ole Miss. Even Bob Dylan was inspired to write and record a reply called “Clothes Line Saga” (originally titled “Answer to Ode”) although it would not be released until many years later on The Basement Tapes.
Yet it would neither be fair nor accurate to call Gentry a one-hit wonder. She did have another hit in 1970 with “Fancy,” a risqué song about a young woman who becomes a wealthy courtesan. (Two decades later, “Fancy” would become a big hit for Reba McEntire.) She would record an album of duets with Glen Campbell, become a fixture on TV performing with the likes of Johnny Cash, Bobby Darin, The Hollies and one night even stood between Bing Crosby and Tiny Tim. Now that’s an unlikely trio if there ever was one. Gentry would also star in her own series on the BBC. In one episode, she sings with Donovan on his hit “There is a Mountain.” A short-lived variety show on CBS called The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour would follow. Although she recorded her last album in 1971, Gentry remained in the limelight in the 1970s and became one of the most successful nightclub attractions in Las Vegas. She even incorporated an Elvis impersonation into her act when he was still in the building.
After giving birth to a son named Tyler in 1980 following a brief marriage to fellow musician Jim Stafford (of “Spiders & Snakes” fame), Gentry began to curtail her public appearances and by 1983 had receded from public view altogether. Over time, Gentry has acquired a Greta Garbo like mystique. Music writer Holly George-Warren described her as “the J.D. Salinger of rock ’n’ roll.”
Salinger is an interesting comparison. Like Salinger (whose works will begin to be published posthumously later in 2015), perhaps Gentry has been writing songs and recording them all this time, but these will only see the light of day after her death. Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule ponders this in her 2009 song, “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” Does she still play guitar or write a song or two?/Maybe that was over; she’s got better things to do. Roseanne Cash has also weighed in on the question when in 2012 she produced the BBC radio documentary Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?
Yet the Salinger comparison isn’t entirely apt. Everyone in the world knew that he lived in Cornish, New Hampshire. Only a select few people know where Bobbie Gentry lives and they aren’t talking. Sobule sings, “Up in Alaska, Hollywood, or maybe in Japan/I bet that she’s still beautiful, goes barefoot everywhere she can.” Gentry did leave L.A. for Savannah, Georgia, but has since moved on. Could she have returned to Chickasaw County and become Roberta Streeter once again?
However, Philadelphia-based journalist Tara Murtha views things a little differently. In her new book on Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe album for Bloomsbury’s acclaimed 33 1/3 Series, Murtha writes, “Maybe, ‘Where is Bobbie Gentry?’ is the wrong question. A better one might be, Who was Bobbie Gentry?”
For those of you unfamiliar with the 33 1/3 Series, it is an anthology published by Bloomsbury which began in 2003 with each book profiling a different album. Some of the other albums that have been written about in the 33 1/3 Series include the Beatles’ Let It Be, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds,and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Although Murtha is technically writing about the Ode to Billie Joe album, her book is truly an Ode to Bobbie Gentry.
This ode wasn’t so easy for Murtha to write. Interviewing people for the book posed a challenge. Many of Gentry’s contemporaries have passed on. In fact, one of the people Murtha was supposed to interview died the day before the interview. Others simply refused to cooperate and one man even threatened to sue Murtha if she dared mention his name. And yet this man had only good things to say about Bobbie Gentry. Many of those who were interviewed asked Murtha not to identify them. Murtha also found that many of the people were just as in the dark as she was to Gentry’s whereabouts. Those who have remained in sporadic contact with Gentry were circumspect in their comments so as to maintain as much of her privacy as possible.
What Murtha does establish is that while Gentry’s roots lie in the South, she really came of age in Southern California where she moved in with her mother after her mother’s divorce in the mid-1950s. For a time, Gentry performed in a duo with her mother. After graduating high school, she moved to Los Angeles to become a songwriter. But Gentry made money by modeling and singing. She even had a stint performing in Las Vegas with the International Four, a quartet specializing in Hawaiian music. That’s as far removed from the South as you can get.
Then again you can take a girl out of the Mississippi Delta, but you can’t take Mississippi Delta out of the girl. It isn’t exactly clear when Gentry wrote “Ode to Billie Joe.” At one point, it is believed that it had as many as seven verses. Legend has it that there is a recording of “Ode to Billie Joe” with all seven verses. Murtha recounts a story from Bobby Craig, “The King of Palm Springs Rock ’n’ Roll.” One day Craig was in a music shop owned by Jody Reynolds, who is best remembered for his 1958 hit “Endless Sleep.” Gentry walks into the store and after some conversation, picks up a guitar and plays “Ode to Billie Joe.” Craig told Gentry, “That is a hit record.” It is worth noting that it was Reynolds who gave Gentry her recording debut in 1963 on two songs — “Stranger in the Mirror” and “Ode to Love.” Murtha does not disclose what year Gentry played “Ode to Billie Joe” for Reynolds and Craig. All we do know is that it took place sometime between 1963 and its release in 1967.
Clearly, Reynolds and Craig weren’t the only ones impressed by the song. Murtha recounts a conversation with Pat Vegas, who would later form the Native American rock group Redbone along with his brother Lolly and have a huge hit in 1974 with “Come & Get Your Love.” Vegas saw Gentry one day in a L.A. nightclub where she was doing a modeling gig. Impressed with her appearance, Vegas approached Gentry and inquired if she could sing. A short time later, she sung him “Ode to Billie Joe.” Upon hearing it, Vegas urged her to record it and saw to it that studio time was booked. Throw in some string arrangements by Jimmie Haskell and in four minutes and fifteen seconds you have one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. Perhaps in gratitude to Vegas, the only song that Gentry didn’t write on the Ode to Billie Joe album was “Niki Hoeky,” which was penned by the Vegas brothers along with Jim Ford (best known for the song “Harlan County”).
When “Ode to Billie Joe” raced to the top of the charts, few people knew what Gentry looked like. Her deep, husky voice made radio stations programmers ask if she was white or black. For her part, Gentry said, “I don’t sing white or colored. I sing Southern.” As it turned out, Bobbie Gentry’s voice resonated with both white and black audiences, country and soul audiences.
As “Ode to Billie Joe” climbed the charts, Gentry recorded the rest of the Ode to Billie Joe album. While it is clear that several of the songs are derivative of “Ode to Billie Joe” (i.e. “Chickasaw County Child,” “Bugs,” and “Lazy Willie”), there are several other strong tracks on the album that stand on their own, including the opening track “Mississippi Delta” (which with its pre-Creedence Clearwater Revival/Tony Joe White swamp rock feel was actually the A-side of “Ode to Billie Joe”), “I Saw An Angel Die,” “Hurry, Tuesday Child” while “Papa, Woncha Let Me Go to Town With You?” has a breezy jazz feel to it. But Gentry saves her best for last with “Ode to Billie Joe,” which still provokes much scrutiny and speculation nearly half a century after it was first released.
Gentry would never again achieve the same commercial success with her subsequent releases. Yet a case could be made that her follow up recording The Delta Sweete, released in 1968,was her most substantive and unified work. A concept album about life in the Deep South, The Delta Sweete combines Gentry originals such as the sultry “Mornin’ Glory” and the precious “Courtyard” with cover songs like John Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road” and Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm.” Despite the range of Gentry’s material, the public wanted a follow up to “Ode to Billie Joe” that she wasn’t prepared to write. Gentry did things her way.
Murtha’s book conveys a Bobbie Gentry who knew what she wanted and then went about to get it. For the past 30 years, Bobbie Gentry has wanted to be left alone. The closest Murtha gets to Gentry is when she tries on an old fur coat of hers that ended up in the closet of her step-brother in Oregon, who only met Gentry once. This isn’t nearly enough for Murtha:
Like Jill Sobule, and god knows how many other people, I wrote Bobbie Gentry a letter. I tucked it inside a Christmas card. Please help me get this right, I wrote. Could you kindly answer a few questions? She declined, of course, although very graciously. Our intermediary assured me that Bobbie enjoyed reading my letters, and contemplated my offer — but her interest in maintaining privacy won out. I was disappointed but not surprised. She’s rejected requests from celebrities and high-profile music writers for decades. For a while, I was happy just that I managed to reach her. She liked my letters! I comforted myself with the thought: She almost said yes!
As days passed, images of all the people who excitedly told me the same thing — she almost said yes! — whirled around my head like the pivotal scene in a bad movie. Then I thought about “Ode to Billie Joe.” At its core, it’s a comment how social graces can be wielded like a weapon, imitating intimacy while enforcing solitude. I realized that Bobbie Gentry didn’t almost say yes to any of us.
The woman just knows how to say no.
I say let her be. Sure, it would have been wonderful to see Gentry make a surprise appearance at the Academy Awards and perform her old friend Glen Campbell’s Oscar nominated song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” instead of Tim McGraw. Maybe Shania Twain could coax Gentry for a duet in her forthcoming final tour. If she should ever decide emerge from seclusion with a new album, tour, or even just a one off appearance, then that would be wonderful, but there is little reason to believe this will come to pass.
Gentry is now in her early 70s. (Her year of birth is listed as 1944, but Murtha contends she was actually born in 1942). Whatever her age, Gentry might very well prefer people to remember her at the peak of her powers. One can understand not wanting to be reminded by online trolls that you aren’t 25 anymore. Yet given the online world in which we live, it is quite impressive someone who was once so famous has somehow managed to stay off the grid for all this time. So unless she chooses otherwise, let’s leave her in peace. There’s nothing stopping us from enjoying her music she’s already given us. Why ask for anything more?
The book’s only discernible flaw is that Murtha’s feminism occasionally gets in the way of an otherwise excellent read. Murtha argues that much of the press treatment Gentry received was sexist. There is no doubt a kernel of truth here, but the condescension directed towards Gentry was as much due to her Southern upbringing as to her gender, as a headline like “Top Composer-Singer Not the Hillbilly Type” would suggest. But Gentry finds herself in good company. Even the Beatles faced their share of condescension from the media upon their arrival in America before winning them over with their charm and street smarts.
Given Gentry’s groundbreaking success, it is understandable that Murtha would admire her. For Gentry’s part, she did embrace the feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After “Fancy” hit the charts, Gentry said she characterized the song as her “strongest statement on women’s lib” and was aligned with feminists on issues like “equality, equal pay, day care centers and abortion rights.” This statement came some three years before Roe v. Wade and three years after “Ode to Billie Joe” topped the charts (some have speculated that the narrator and Billie Joe McAllister threw a fetus off the Tallahatchie Bridge). Yet at the same time, Murtha notes that Gentry, who briefly studied philosophy at UCLA, was also an admirer of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.
Of course, it’s quite possible the Bobbie Gentry of 2015 has a different worldview than she did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But at the height of her commercial success, Gentry was a feminist who did not see herself as a victim of the patriarchy. While Gentry certainly realized that the music business was run almost exclusively by men, she didn’t let that deter her one iota. Gentry did not demand quotas, file lawsuits, or declare there was a war on women. To be sure, Gentry attracted the attention of men with her physical beauty. But she sustained their attention with her skills as a singer, songwriter and producer as well as her business acumen; she spoke a language these men understood and was accepted as one of the boys. Bobbie Gentry was a self-made woman in the best sense of the term.
Tara Murtha’s accessible and engaging book is a welcome addition to the 33 1/3 Series. I believe her Ode to Bobbie Gentry will succeed in attaining renewed attention and interest in her music. It just probably won’t get the attention or interest of Bobbie Gentry.
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