Bobbie Gentry was one of the biggest country stars of the late 1960s. She’s the genius behind the massive, international, number-one single Ode to Billie Joe. Her country-folk music came at just the right time, and her fame brought with it her very own TV variety series as well as a duet album with Glen Campbell.
However, by the 1980s, Gentry had vanished from the public eye, and for the past five decades, not much has been said about this reclusive star. Her disappearance got the fans wondering – what in the world happened to Bobbie?
She Grew Up With No Electricity
Born in 1944 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Bobbie Gentry was given the name Roberta Lee Streeter. In one of her early interviews, Bobbie touched briefly on her rural childhood, saying, “We didn’t have electricity, and I didn’t have many playthings.”
Bobbie’s family didn’t have electricity, but they did have music. From old folk tunes to the sounds of the Baptist church in town, Bobbie’s house was filled with harmony. “My grandmother noticed how much I liked music, so she traded one of her milk cows for a neighbor’s piano,” Gentry shared.
She Wrote Her First Song at Age Seven
Bobbie instantly took to the instrument and wrote her first-ever song at the young age of seven, a sweet tune called “My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog.” At 13, her parents divorced, and the young teen moved to Palm Springs, California with her mom, who quickly remarried.
Now, with the family in a better financial situation, Bobbie could afford to buy herself more instruments. She taught herself guitar, banjo, and bass. She started playing small gigs at a local country club, taking the stage with her new moniker – Ruby Gentry, named after a film about a poor, rural seductress.
She Studied Composition at UCLA
Upon graduating high school, Bobbie flew to Las Vegas, where she worked as a dancer and singer. Afterward, in the mid-’60s, she moved to Los Angeles where she enrolled at UCLA, landing at the Conservatory of Music to study composition and arranging.
Bobbie was talented; there was no doubt about it. The people at school took notice of her, and word spread on campus that there was a beautiful, raven-haired talent singing and playing to her heart’s desire. Finally, a demo tape she recorded landed on the desk of Kelly Gordon, a man working at Capitol Records.
“No One Will Ever Hear It Anyway”
Her song “Ode” was recorded in the summer of 1967. Playing the guitar, Bobbie nailed a hit single in just 40 minutes. Jimmie Haskell, the arranger who worked with Bobbie on the song, told interviewers, “I asked Kelly [Gordon], ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Just put some strings on it so we won’t be embarrassed. No one will ever hear it anyway.'”
But Jimmie didn’t agree with Gordon. In his opinion, the song sounded like a movie. It had wonderful lyrics. “I had a small group of strings—two cellos and four violins to fit her guitar-playing. I was branching out in my own head for the first time,” Jimmie added. “Creating something that I liked because we thought no one was ever going to hear it.”
The Finished Version Was Seven Minutes Long
The original version of “Ode” was over seven minutes long. But Capitol Recordsdecided it was too long and edited it down to a more manageable length of four minutes. They placed the song on the flip side of “Mississippi Delta.”
Lo and behold, like so many iconic hits, the B-side became the A-side. “Ode” sounded like nothing else playing on the radio at that time. Bobbie’s husky voice seemed to invite listeners into a world that was dark and exotic.
An Unconscious Cruelty
Bobbie Gentry was once quoted saying that, “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty.” But to her surprise, the listeners seemed to be more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they were with the thoughtlessness of the people described in the song.
“What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important,” she insisted. “Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off it − flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”
It Knocked the Beatles Off the Charts
In the first week of its release, “Ode” sold a whopping 750,000 copies, kicking The Beatles and their hit single, “All You Need Is Love” out from the top spot on the Billboard chart. “Ode” stood proud as number one for four consecutive weeks.
The song won Bobbie three Grammy Awards, including the Best New Artist award, making her the first Country artist to ever take the prize home in this category. When she was interviewed about it, she humbly responded, “I just sing southern.”
The Start of an Established Career
“Ode” was the kind of song you could build a whole career around, and Bobbie knew it. Apart from her hypnotizing voice and intriguing lyrics, Bobbie’s style and appearance also boosted her already growing reputation.
Bobbie’s clothes were her own designs, and her raven hair matched her brown doe eyes beautifully. Knowing how to capitalize on her talent and looks, Bobbie ended up with her own BBC TV series, as well as an album with Glen Campbell.
Her Songs Were Difficult to Pin Down
Sheila B, a DJ from New York, said that in her opinion, Gentry’s “songs and style were difficult to pin down.” This confused the music industry, and the fact that “she looked like a Greek goddess” made her even more of an enigma.
Bobbie was also involved in tasks usually performed by men, like writing and arranging her own material from A to Z. “In 1967, America was clearly not ready to roll out the red carpet for the female artist who wrote, played, and produced her own material,” Sheila added.
Men Felt a Bit Slighted
Throughout her career, Bobbie intimidated men. There was Bobby Paris, one of the producers who worked on Ode to Billie Joe, who reportedly kept photos of Bobbie with her face scratched out.
There was also Jim Ford, an ex-partner who claimed he had written Ode to Billie Joe. He backed up his claim by saying that she never wrote another song that was as huge and successful (even though, neither did he).
She Liked to Work Alone
Bobbie wrote, produced, and designed her sets and costumes. In other words, she did practically everything and was known to be a solo artist who liked her privacy. John Cameron, the arranger for her BBC shows, said:
“She was pretty much the alpha female in the group – [producer] Stanley Dorfman’s assistant Kate and choreographer Flick Colby were the only other prominent females in the crew. She certainly didn’t have a support group like Dusty [Springfield].”
She Inspired People to Write
American rock singer Tony Joe White (known for songs like Rainy Night in Georgia and Polk Salad Annie) gushed over Bobbie Gentry’s talent, crediting her with turning him into a singer-songwriter. “I hadn’t started writing yet. I was listening to the radio one day and I heard Ode to Billie Joe.”
Tony continued, “Man, this girl with a great voice, playing a cool guitar, and I thought: ‘How real can you get?’ I thought, I am Billie Joe; I’ve picked cotton, and been in the river and been in the swamps. I thought if I ever write something it’s got to be as real as Ode to Billie Joe.” Not long after, Tony started writing Polk Salad Annie.
A Woman in a Man’s Field
Not everyone was Bobbie’s fan. In 1974, a writer by the name of Morag Veljkovic questioned the singer’s feminist credentials, writing “Didn’t the tight dresses and teased-up hair contradict a bra-burning stance?”
In response, Bobbie said calmly, “Did you know that I took Ode to Billie Joe to Capitol, sold it, and produced the album myself? It wasn’t easy. It’s difficult when a woman is attractive; beauty is supposed to negate intelligence – which is ridiculous. Certainly, there are no women executives and producers to speak of in the record business.”
The Sassy Story of Fancy
In 1969, Bobbie released Fancy, a song recorded with Rick Hall. Listening to the lyrics, the song seems autobiographical. Bobbie never said much about it, but the tale of a girl who “might have been born just plain white trash but Fancy was her name and I ain’t done bad” sounds like a sly confession.
Moreover, the painting on the album cover was actually a self-portrait. So was her painting on the album cover of 1971’s Patchwork. It showed Gentry sitting on the stoop of a shack, peering out into the distance. Patchwork was her last album.
Patchwork Didn’t Sell as Well
Even though she was finally given production credit on her album (something many artists didn’t get at the time) Patchwork didn’t sell very well. Among the songs on the list was Your Number One Fan, a tune dedicated to her devoted groupies.
The lyrics of the closing track of the album, Lookin’ In, suggest that she had had enough by that point. She would soon ignore the charts and spend all of her time performing in Vegas. Her look also dramatically shifted. “No leather fringes allowed,” her choreographer Donald Bradburn recalled.
After Bobbie returned to Vegas, she dedicated a spot in her shows to Elvis and would go on stage dressed in tribute to him. Her choreographer, Donald Bradburn recalled her “karate-style, bell-bottomed jumpsuit” with its bedazzled high collar.
Just like Elvis, Bobbie would remove the scarf from her neck every night and hand it to someone in the crowd. Bradburn also revealed that Bobbie was present during the auditions for her backup dancers.
Masculine Guys With Good Figures
“We selected very masculine guys with good bodies … they were often shirtless,” Bradburn mentioned. Together, they created extravagant shows. Among the flashier performances they pulled off were “a Mardi Gras show with six carnival floats built on golf carts so they could move about the stage” as well as a Sgt. Pepper segment “that ended with Bobbie in a star-decorated trapeze flying above the stage for Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
Over seven creative years, the duo pulled off seven new shows, always themed. “We always had a southern swamp opening, lots of hanging Spanish moss … one number, she entered on a raft pulled by one of the dancers across a dry ice stage.”
She Left on Her Own Terms
In 1981, not long after giving birth to her firstborn, Tyler, and just after she started caring for her ex-partner and first producer, Kelly Gordon who became seriously ill, Bobbie quit performing and walked out of showbiz.
Kelly Gordon passed away shortly after, at the age of 48. At that point in her life, it’s quite understandable that Bobbie found other things to do, other things that would grant her more satisfaction than constantly coming up with new routines and new costumes. She quit on her own terms.
She Flipped the Script on Fame
Bobbie’s biographer, Tara Murtha, believes that Bobbie Gentry set out a blueprint for women in music today. “She flipped the script on fame,” Tara noted, “successfully shedding it when she no longer wanted to be in the spotlight.”
Bobbie Gentry navigated a tough, male-dominated system that was built to exploit women just like her. While many fans were left baffled and disappointed by her departure, Tara Murtha said she doesn’t begrudge her “for her silence. I’m rooting for her. I think it’s fantastic.”
Taylor Swift Wrote a Song About Her
Bobbie made seven albums in a brief period between 1967 and 1971. Despite being out of the public’s eye for years, her name is still being thrown around. Country stars such as Kacey Musgraves and Nikki Lane have credited her for inspiring them to pursue a career in music.
In addition, young country star Taylor Swift has possibly made Bobbie the star of her song The Lucky One. The lyrics read “They still tell the legend of how you disappeared, how you took the money and your dignity and got the hell out.”
Fans Were Worried
Bobbie Gentry retired from the recording studio in 1971 and from the stage a decade later in 1981. To her fans’ dismay, she hasn’t done anything, not even an interview, in four decades. It’s a rare act of disappearance that’s caused many to wonder whether something went wrong.
To our best knowledge, Bobbie is alive and well. But her reluctance to appear in the media has enhanced the mystique surrounding her persona. She came in with a bang only to leave without saying a word.
She Was Only 22
Ode to Billie Joe was chosen by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 500 hits of all time. It peaked at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 and cracked the Top 10 on the R&B charts. Billboard also crowned it their number three song of 1967.
Incredibly, Bobbie Gentry was only 22 when she wrote and recorded her iconic single. The song earned Bobbie three Grammy Awards — Best Pop Vocal Performance, Best Solo Vocal Performance, and Best New Artist.
Gentry and Campbell Had Two Major Hits
While working together, Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell landed two major hits: “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” which peaked at No. 6 on the Country chart, and “Let It Be Me,” which reached No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Their album peaked at an incredible No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Top Country chart and at No. 11 on the U.S. Billboard Top LPs chart. In Canada, they peaked at No. 8 and in the U.K., their record peaked at No. 50 on the OCC Albums Chart.
Her Management Team Is Clueless
Because Bobbie was such a star, people couldn’t accept the fact that she had just disappeared. They thought, well, surely her management team knew what was up with her, right? Wrong. When asked by journalists, they responded:
“We haven’t heard from her in years and have no idea where she is. If you find her, please tell her to call us. We would love to talk to her.” Creepy, right? Some rumors claim that she’s living a quiet, serene life somewhere in Los Angeles.
Most of Her Team Isn’t Alive
What makes finding Bobbie even more difficult, is that most of those who worked with her on her song Ode to Billie Joe are deceased, including her arranger, Jimmy Haskell. Luckily, one journalist managed to talk with Norbert Putnam, a bass player who once jammed with her.
“I did one session with her in Muscle Shoals,” Norbert revealed. “She came in, waved to us. She was very professional and smart and really focused. We recorded ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.’ The song did nothing in the U.S. but was No. 1 in England… But I wasn’t around her any more than that. Just that one session and I regret I didn’t get to go to dinner with her and talk music.”
Rick Hall Nearly “Ran Off the Road”
Rick Hall, a producer at Muscle Shoals, produced her last single, Fancy in 1969. He told interviewers, “First time I heard Ode to Billie Joe, I was in my car and nearly ran off the road… The song hit me that hard. I was like, ‘Gracious, that’s me in that song.’”
The feeling Hall described is basically the secret of the song. “It’s real-life that people in the South can absolutely relate to. Like the line ‘pass the biscuits, please.’ Where else have you heard that? But that resonates with 99 percent of the people from the South,” he added.
He Knew He Wanted to Produce Her
From the moment Rick Hall heard the song, he knew he wanted her on board. Bobbie Gentry possessed the rare gift of good songwriting. “As soon as I heard that song, I knew I wanted to produce her. Then once I saw a picture of her, I really wanted to work with her,” he revealed, laughing.
Capitol Records finally arranged for Hall to meet with Bobbie in 1969. He flew to California, and the two went out for dinner. “I was expecting this Southern, backwoods, Delta woman. She was anything but that. Sophisticated. Bright,” he noted.
Married to a Multimillionaire
After a fun dinner, Hall offered to work with Gentry. “Great, where can we start?” she asked. At the time, Gentry was headlining in Vegas, along with Tom Jones and Elvis Presley. She was also dating casino millionaire William Harrah, with whom she tied the knot later in 1969.
Bobbie was 25 when she married. William was 58. Their marriage lasted a little over three months. “When she came to Muscle Shoals to record,” Hall revealed, “she arrived in a Learjet, which Harrah had bought for her, and had a five-carat diamond ring on her finger that just about covered her hand.”
She Was Also an Artist
Not many know this, but Bobbie Gentry was an artist as well. Apart from singing and songwriting, Bobbie painted pictures that sold for $20,000 a piece. But despite all the fame and riches, she didn’t let it get to her head.
Nothing seemed to move or change Bobbie Gentry. She stayed a genuine, humble, Mississippi girl who just happened to have made it big in the industry. She approached every new project with awe-inspiring humility.
Her Last Hit
Bobbie Gentry’s final album, Fancy, consisted mainly of cover songs. However, she wrote the title track, and at the start of the ’70sp, it reached No. 8 on Billboard’s Contemporary chart. It also earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance.
The song would be her final hit. Later, she married country singer Jim Stafford in the fall of 1978, and they had a baby boy. Sadly, their marriage ended quickly. They lasted just 11 short months, not even a whole year.
She Won’t Accept Any Calls
Rick Hall confessed that he can kind of understand why she vanished. “I can sort of understand why she quit music and went into seclusion,” he noted. “She had a lot of bad memories of the music business.”
According to Hall, Bobbie Gentry didn’t appreciate the way things worked with record companies. She also didn’t like what she was getting paid and believed that she should be better compensated. Finally, Hall said he tried his best to talk to her but “she simply won’t accept calls.”
Her Original Handwriting Is Part of a Collection
Bobbie’s original handwritten draft for her song Ode to Billie Joe is now part of the collection held by the University of Mississippi; she donated her draft to the University’s Faulkner room back in the early ’70s.
In the song’s original draft, a girl called Sally Jane Ellison is part of the story, and rumor has it that she may hold the key as to why Billie Joe jumped from the bridge in the first place. Another fun fact: in the draft, Billie Joe is spelled Billy Jo.
Ode to Billie Joe: The Movie
In the summer of 1976, Warner Brothers Studios released a film that was inspired by Bobbie’s timeless song. The movie’s trailer promised that it would show you precisely what the song didn’t tell you.
The film featured Robbie Benson as Billie Joe McAllister and Glynnis O’Connor as Bobbie Lee Hartley. The narrator in the script was never named in Bobbie’s song, so the name Hartley was invented by the scriptwriter.
Why Does Billie Throw Himself off the Bridge?
In the film, Billie Joe throws himself off the bridge due to guilt. He beats himself up over an intimate encounter with another man after a few drinks. What’s thrown from the bridge is the narrator’s doll, perhaps the filmmakers’ way of symbolizing the loss of innocence.
Bobbie was involved in the making of the film. She told the writer, though, that she had no idea why the Billie in her song had committed suicide. This allowed the writer of the film’s screenplay to invent his own tragic story.
She Let the Listener Decide
Bobbie always preferred letting the listener decide what was thrown from the bridge. She was asked in almost every interview; however, she refused time after time to reveal what was tossed. The compelling story drove fans wild with curiosity.
For Bobbie, what was more important than the mysterious object being thrown from the bridge, was the dissociation at the table, when two people discussed the young man’s death with a frightening indifference.
The Tallahatchie Bridge Collapsed
In June of 1972, the Tallahatchie Bridge referenced in the song collapsed after being lit on fire by unknown vandals. Thankfully, it was later rebuilt. Needless to say, a lot of people were drawn to the bridge after Bobbie’s song was released.
For that reason, the county instituted a $100 fine for anyone who jumped from the bridge. Because the bridge was just about 20 feet above the water, it was unlikely that anyone could have committed suicide by jumping from that height.