The mystery of Bobbie Gentry
She was born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27th 1944 to Portuguese parents in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler, and it was left to her grandparents to raise her. They lived on a farm in Chickasaw County - Mississippi Delta country. "We didn't have electricity, and I didn't have many play things," Bobbie recalled. "My Granddaddy liked possum stew, so whenever he caught one, he'd cut off the tail for me to play with."
At 15, Bobbie Gentry was performing in a local country club, an act which was caught - and apparently encouraged - by Bob Hope and Hoagy Carmichael. Straight out of high school, she worked in Las Vegas as part of a nightclub review called Folies Bergere to raise a little cash, which then saw her through a degree in philosophy at UCLA. Transferring to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music she studied guitar, majoring in theory and composition. All this time, Bobbie was playing in local venues, scrabbling for cash, some of the time as part of Hawaiian musician Johnny Ukulele's troupe of girls. Her only known recordings from the period were Ode To Love and Stranger In The Mirror, two 1964 duets with singer Jody Reynolds, who had scored a hit in 1958 with the death disc Endless Sleep.
Ode To Billie Joe, truncated to four minutes and made eerier yet by Jimmy Haskell's string arrangement, entered the Billboard Hot 100 on August 5th 1967. Two weeks later it was in the top ten: a week after that it was number one, dislodging the Beatles' utopian All You Need Is Love. No other debut single had made the top faster. No question, it was a unique record, and even the flower-waving underground had to be riveted by the narrative. Elliptically evocative, loaded with mysterious place names like Choctaw Ridge and the Tallahatchie Bridge, this smalltown apocalypse came across like The Waltons in reverse. It sounded entirely believable, autobiographical even. The central mystery of the song - probably lost in the edit - was what exactly the young couple threw from the bridge. After much discussion in the press, in cafes and pubs (it made the UK Top 20 in the autumn), the least controversial conclusion was an engagement ring.
This didn't affect the huge sales of the album, or the year-end impact of her number one single: after selling 3 million copies it won Bobbie three Grammy awards, including Best New Artist (she was the first country singer to win in this category); Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World nominated her most promising new vocalist; and Nashville's Country Music Association asked her to co-host their awards show with Sonny James. Life magazine even ran a feature on her grandparents' farm - the money she'd made from the hit had enabled Bobbie to buy them new trucks.
Capitol took swift action - they weren't about to let such a hot property slip off the map, and Bobbie had two more albums out by the year's end. Local Gentry compromised some of her best songs (the saucy Sittin' Pretty, and deceptively airy, black-humoured Casket Vignette) with a bunch of more contemporary covers, including Fool On The Hill which became another flop single. There was also a definitive, curled-up-in-a-cosy-cabin take on Kenny Rankin's Peaceful. The striking red trouser suit and confident stance on the cover must have shifted a few copies of Local Gentry, too. Stanley Dorfman at the BBC was certainly impressed and offered Bobbie her own series, with guests including The Hollies and Donovan. Hits or no, at home she also regularly featured on TV. Something of a good luck charm, she was the maiden guest on Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, and Bobby Darin's variety shows.
The Gentry live show was by all accounts more of a rocking affair than her records let on, and the 1969 album Touch 'Em With Love certainly shifted up a gear. The polished brass of the title track failed to chart as a single, but a version of Bacharach and David's I'll Never Fall In Love Again - with Bobbie's voice straining in an endearingly high register - charted all over Europe, making it all the way to number one in Britain. This was followed by the Top 3 All I Have To Do Is Dream, another Everlys-originated duet with Glen Campbell. Back home, Bobbie got hitched to casino magnate William F. Harrah - she was 25 and he was 58. It lasted three months. According to Mojo magazine Harrah, who was none too impressed with his young wife heading out on tour, followed her to a theatre and caught her in flagrante backstage. Maybe he should have listened to Courtyard before he signed the wedding contract*.
In 1970 Johnny Cash introduced her on TV, singing Fancy, as "our Mississippi River Delta Queen, Bobbie Gentry." Internationally, she had now consolidated after her first instant rush of fame and was a genuine star. In Vegas she had a million dollar contract. "I write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing," she said. "I'm completely responsible for it. It's totally my own from inception to performance. 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." Fame doesn't get more glamorous than aftershow parties with Elvis, yet a melancholy single called Apartment 21 that summer suggested she was beginning to feel trapped by it.
It's hard to believe that Bobbie couldn't have found a new recording contract if she'd wanted to - we just have to assume she considered that she'd left her mark and wanted to move on. A compilation called The Sounds Of Christmas featured her renditions of Scarlet Ribbons and Away In A Manger, and EMI released two budget albums Sittin' Pretty and Tobacco Road. Otherwise, Bobbie was quiet until the summer of 1974 when she launched The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour on CBS. It ran for four episodes, and a single called Another Place Another Time (the theme for Max Baer's film Macon County Line) slipped out at the same time. A couple of years later Baer made a movie based on Ode To Billie Joe (re-spelt Billy Joe for some reason) and Bobbie re-recorded the song. Both the new and original versions charted in the summer of '76. Another shortlived marriage, to Jim 'Spiders And Snakes' Stafford, resulted in a son called Tyler. On Christmas Eve 1978, she was a
guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Since then Bobbie Gentry has never performed, sung, or given an interview.
Supermarket sightings are frequent enough these days. Starstruck fans report that her raven mane is still unmistakable. She's no hermit**. It's just that Bobbie Gentry knows exactly how to keep her legend bottled, her image unruffled, and her music timeless.
* It is often assumed that Bobbie managed to retire a wealthy woman after she divorced Harrah, receiving a $3.5 million settlement. Accusations of gold-digging are derailed by the fact she made over $3,000,000 in royalties from Capitol alone. Bobbie also made millions from her Vegas stints which lasted on and off until 1980, and an alleged $4,000,000 when Warner Brothers optioned Ode To Billie Joe.
**Here is a comment on a Bobbie Gentry thread from Tom Ewing's Popular blog: "I heard a touching story about Bobbie from the 1980′s. A couple years after her retirement, one of her Vegas male dancers became ill with AIDS. His lover told me they were penniless and about to be evicted from their home. Even though she was raising a newborn son as a single mother, she stepped in paid the bills and got her friend the medical care he needed. In an era when some people would not touch somone with AIDS she came to the hospital, held his hand and comforted him. She even paid the funeral expenses and made a terrible situation a little more tolerable for a dear friend. "