The secret life of Bobbie Gentry, pioneering artist behind ‘Ode to Billie Joe’

Published 12:48 pm Monday, June 3, 2024

By Tara Murtha

Rolling Stone Magazine/Aug. 21, 2017

How the singer-songwriter who knocked the Beatles out of the Number One spot 50 years ago quietly revolutionized country music

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July of 1967, Capitol Records released “Ode to Billie Joe,” a spooky wisp of a song by an unknown artist named Bobbie Gentry. Industry wisdom said “Ode” was too dark, too long, too different to get played on the radio.

It was a smash hit. With no special promotion, the song unexpectedly climbed up the charts past the Doors, Aretha Franklin and the Beatles, ultimately knocking “All You Need is Love” out of the Number One spot. By August, the mysterious tale of Billie Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge was ubiquitous, the inescapable sound of the darkening days of the so-called Summer of Love.

“That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today,” Gentry sang. “Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday/Oh, by the way said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge/And she and Billie Joe was throwin’ something off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” 

Listeners wanted to knew two things: What did the song’s narrator and Billie Joe McAllister throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? And secondly, who the hell is Bobbie Gentry?

Fifty years later, neither question has been answered. Most people guess it was a baby, a ring, or some other symbol of secret love that dropped into the dark water, though Gentry repeatedly said that question missed the point, which was indifference. “This boy’s death did not get his neighbors involved,” she explained at the time. She explained that the object thrown off the bridge was just a way to establish motivation for Billie Joe’s suicide. “I left it open so the listener could draw his own conclusion.”

As for the question of who Bobbie Gentry really is, she tried to tell us, but we wouldn’t listen to that answer, either.

For years after leaving Capitol Records, Bobbie Gentry plainly stated that she produced “Ode to Billie Joe.” She said it onstage, in industry magazines like After Dark, and on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Producing a hit record was only the beginning of her pioneering career. Gentry was the first woman to host a variety show on the BBC (later, she hosted her own show on CBS). She was a DJ on Armed Forces Radio. It’s widely believed she painted the portraits used as the covers for her albums Fancy and Patchwork. After leaving Capitol, she headed to Las Vegas, where she spent a decade creating and starring in shows critically acclaimed for over-the-top set design, outrageous costumes she often designed herself and stellar choreography – including a gender-bending tribute to Elvis Presley, performed in a skintight glittering pantsuit.

The real Bobbie Gentry was not a country bumpkin pin-up who lucked into one big hit, as she was sometimes described in profiles that read as condescending from a modern perspective. Bobbie Gentry embraced the success of “Ode to Billie Joe,” but spent the rest of her career trying to transcend the hillbilly persona that was created with it. Onstage, before performing “Ode to Billie Joe,” she’d explain that the song was authentic because she did indeed grow up dirt-poor on her grandparents’ farm near the Tallahatchie Bridge in Chickasaw County, Mississippi – but also, she’d been studying music and performing since she moved to California at 13 years old.

In the early Eighties, less than 15 years after her breakout success, Bobbie Gentry stopped trying to explain what her work meant, or who she really was. She vanished from the spotlight, and continues to turn down requests for interviews and invitations to perform.

Despite her absence, Gentry’s influence still runs deep and keeps tracing new paths. In an era when collective cultural memory seems to run as deep as the last Internet meme, young musicians, writers and producers continue to cite Gentry as a major influence and inspiration.

Dave Cobb is a 43-year-old Grammy Award–winning producer with a golden hand in some of the biggest hits out of Nashville in recent years. Cobb has worked with artists Jason Isbell, Anderson East and Sturgill Simpson, whose 2014 breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, like Ode to Billie Joe, stylishly tweaked a classic country approach.

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“[Ode to Billie Joe] was one of the records that drove me to Southern music more, because you realize there was no boundaries on Southern music,” Cobb tells Rolling Stone. “It’s such an odd melting of psychedelica, true Southern music, folk and hippie culture, all in one swoop, and very progressive at the same time.”

“Mississippi Delta,” released as the B side to “Ode to Billie,” is a raunchy, swampy rock anthem that Gentry belts out with gravelly voice and no shortage of swagger. “Papa, Won’t You Let Me Go to Town With You” is a slice of Southern life that swings open with Gentry’s signature bossa nova–style strum. Like “Ode,” “Papa” mines the tension between appearances and reality. The orchestral strings whimsically slide and bounce as if scoring an afternoon at the county fair, while the lyrics relay the story of a young girl whose father won’t take her downtown with him, no matter how hard she scrubs the floor.

While working on the songs that would make up her debut album, also called Ode to Billie Joe, Gentry told friends like former bandmate Frank Llacuna that her goal was to make sophisticated country music. You certainly hear that, but also glimmers of her interest in blending Southern Gothic writing into baroque pop compositions, psychedelic rock, and musical theater – elements that define her later work. In her short time at Capitol, Gentry crafted a unique American songbook full of character-driven songs that explore the joys, heartache, and paradoxes of Southern culture, show business – and of being a woman navigating both.

Unsurprisingly, cerebral feminist singer-songwriters like Jill Sobule and Rosanne Cash often cite Gentry as a major influence. In fact, watching Gentry on the Smothers Brothers as a kid in Denver is what inspired Sobule to pick up a guitar in the first place (an experience she wrote about in the introduction to my book about Gentry and Ode published by the 33 1/3 series).

Gentry’s influence runs into expected places, too. Dave Vanian of British punk legends the Damned recently cited Gentry when asked about his favorite artists. “Have you ever listened to Bobbie Gentry?” former Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto asked an interviewer while trying to explain the inspiration behind her new solo record Fake Sugar. Adam Weiner, songwriter and acrobatic frontman for rock & roll revivalists Low Cut Connie, says discovering Gentry opened his mind to music’s ability to transport listeners to another place.

“As a hairy cross-eyed Jewish kid from New Jersey, the deep South was just a remote and hazy fantasy world that I could only access through snatches of music, movies and books,” Weiner tells Rolling Stone. “When Bobbie Gentry sings … I feel like I’m with her in her private world of Southern intrigue and longing, full of sadness, corruption, tragedy and romance.”

Though celebrated for her husky and soulful vocals, Gentry initially didn’t want to sing “Ode.” She had a demo of “Ode to Billie Joe” sent to Capitol Records in early 1967 to sell the song, not to sing it. She only sang on the demo because it was cheaper than hiring someone else, and had Lou Rawls in mind to record it. When Capitol asked Gentry to do both, she agreed – but only so long as performing didn’t get in the way of writing and composing.

“She had a writing style all of her own,” musician Tift Merritt tells Rolling Stone. “All of these records are really driven by her guitar parts. They create the room for the beautiful string arrangements, or call-and-response vocal arrangements, the badass electric guitar, the Muscle Shoals kind of beats. It all comes from that intrinsic phrasing of her guitar and singing.”

Bobbie Gentry had been hustling in the music business for a decade when, on New Year’s Eve 1967, she decided to quit her gigs and do everything she could to get a songwriting deal. A month later, in February, Gentry’s publisher sent her demo to Capitol. The original demo recording of “Ode to Billie Joe” was just Gentry’s guitar and vocals.

At Capitol, that demo landed in the hands of producer Kelly Gordon. According to former Capitol record man David Axelrod, he had to promise Gentry’s publisher that they would not add a rhythm section.

Gordon liked it, but decided it needed something extra. Gordon called composer Jimmie Haskell and asked him to work up an accompanying string arrangement, and to record it quickly with studio time leftover from another artist’s session. When Haskell arrived at the studio, he found four violins and two cellos. To make it work, Haskell hired bassist Jesse Erlich to pluck the cello as a bass. They recorded it that night. According to Haskell, this recording was dubbed on top of Gentry’s tape. She never re-recorded the vocals or guitar at Capitol.

“It’s her demo,” Jimmie Haskell told me, “With my strings.”

The result transcends the sum of its parts. The mystery at the song’s center slowly boils beneath Haskell’s lush, swirling strings. Gentry’s vocals are masterfully nuanced, opening the story on just another dusty Delta day. By the time mama says she got some news from up on Choctaw Ridge, however, we know it can’t be any good. As Gentry closes in on the awful truth beneath the water’s skin, her voice deepens, constricting around the vowels like a snake on a tree branch: “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

“Ode” was originally supposed to be the B side to “Mississippi Delta,” but after the strings were added, it was moved up to the A side.

The original 45 credits Gordon and a man named Bobby Paris, a musician and producer who helped Gentry record the professional “demo” that contained the bulk of her debut record. According to Bobby’s widow Judith, Paris recorded her demos in exchange for session guitar work. As was revealed in the lawsuit that followed, Paris and Gentry struck a deal that cut each other in on potential profits from any collaboration. In court, Gentry testified that she called off the deal because, she said, Paris misrepresented his role in landing her deal at Capitol.

At the time, Paris was working of the Whitney Recording Studio in Glendale, a go-to recording spot for Christian and gospel singers. Though the studio is long closed and records lost, retired Whitney studio engineer Frank Kejmer confirmed he recalled them working together, a recollection corroborated by another person close to Paris at the time. Due to the fallout, Paris’ name was scrubbed from the credits of “Ode to Billie Joe” by the time the LP was released. Bobbie Gentry never received producer credit on it at all.

When the song exploded up the charts in July, Capitol decided to record the rest of what would become Gentry’s full debut album, and to get it in stores by August 21st. The foundations of most of the songs were on Gentry’s tape, with just some “sweetening sessions” scheduled at Capitol. When Capitol ordered 500,000 advance copies, Ode to Billie Joe became the most anticipated record in Capitol’s history, crushing the previous record of 100,000 copies ordered of 1964’s Meet the Beatles.

“Twenty-three year old Bobbie Gentry is anything but the hillbilly folk singer you might expect,” is how one review went. “If she didn’t have a Miss America type figure (37-23-37) you might call her an intellectual.”

Decades after Bobbie Gentry came and went, country music’s women problem is a well-documented crisis. After allowing for a range of voices in the late Nineties and early 2000s, country radio has regressed to the point where they’re even refusing to play female voices that sell hundreds of thousands of records. In 2014, women sang eight percent of songs on country radio.

Outlaw country musician and producer Angaleena Presley, best known as a member of the Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, has been called a “whistleblower” for addressing the grim situation with clever lyrics, witty defiance and sad resignation on her recent release Wrangled.

“It’s sort of a man’s world,” Presley tells Rolling Stone. “You are just a girl in the midst of a testosterone sausage fest.”

After co-producing her debut solo record with her husband in 2014, Presley teamed with Oran Thornton to produce Wrangled, a critically acclaimed record about country radio rejecting women that has been meta-rejected by country radio.

“The first question first people ask is, ‘Who produced it?’” Presley tells Rolling Stone. “When I say me, they say your ‘Bless your heart, you little thing.’”

Presley says that friends tell her “Mama, I Tried,” off Wrangled, is her “Fancy,” the Gentry classic famously covered by Reba McEntire. Bobbie herself said “Fancy” was her strongest statement for “women’s lib,” while friends of Gentry have told me it was her take on record business. In both songs, the women liken themselves to prostitutes, but come to different conclusions. Presley sings it’s getting too hard to keep hanging on, while Gentry defiantly declared, “And I ain’t done bad.”

In 1983, Bobbie Gentry, for the first time in her career, canceled a show – a gig she was scheduled to perform with Mac Davis. A self-declared workaholic, Bobbie Gentry worked through broken bones, broken hearts, and sheer exhaustion. Aside from a few industry events, Bobbie Gentry never appeared in public as a performer again. She simply hung up her heels and vanished, leaving us only her music and everything she already told us, for anyone who wants to listen.