In August 1967, Lyndon Johnson announced that he was sending 45,000 more troops to Vietnam. Black power advocate Stokely Carmichael called for violent revolution in the streets. Beatles manager Brian Epstein died from an overdose of sleeping pills. But around water coolers, the hot topic was what Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
The mystery created by Bobbie Gentry in her debut single “Ode To Billie Joe” cast a spell over the entire country. Set to a backing of spare acoustic guitar chords and atmospheric strings, Gentry’s sensual, Southern-fried voice relates the story of two Mississippi teenage lovers who share a dark secret that eventually leads to the boy’s suicide. And over 40 years later, despite cinematic details in the song’s lyric, we still don’t know exactly what happened up there on Choctaw Ridge.
Bobbie Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1944 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. In the few interviews that she gave, Gentry touched briefly on her rural upbringing, saying, “We didn’t have electricity, and I didn’t have many playthings.”
She did have music though. From the gospel sounds of the local Baptist church to old folk songs, Bobbie was fascinated. “My grandmother noticed how much I liked music, so she traded one of her milk cows for a neighbor’s piano,” Gentry said. Taking to the instrument immediately, she wrote her first song at age 7, a ditty called “My Dog Sergeant is a Good Dog.” After her parents divorced, 13-year-old Bobbie moved to Palm Springs, Calif. with her mother, who quickly remarried. With the family’s improved fortunes, Bobbie taught herself guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. As a teenager, she started playing gigs at a local country club, taking her stage name from Ruby Gentry, a movie about a poor, rurual seductress.
After graduating high school, Bobbie, by then a raven-haired beauty, went to Vegas, where she worked in a Folies Bergere–style review, dancing and singing. In the mid-’60s, she moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, finally landing at the Conservatory of Music, where she studied composition and arranging. A demo tape she made ended up on the desk of Capitol Records A&R man Kelly Gordon.
“Ode” was recorded on July 10, 1967 at Studio C in the Capitol tower. Accompanying herself on guitar, Bobbie nailed a keeper take in 40 minutes. Arranger Jimmie Haskell told MOJO, “I asked Kelly, ‘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.’ The song sounded to me like a movie—those 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, creating something that I liked because we thought no one was ever gonna hear it.”
The finished version of “Ode” was over seven minutes long. Capitol edited it down to a more manageable four minutes and stuck it on the flip side of “Mississippi Delta.” But those were the days when DJs still had minds of their own, and as in the stories of so many classic hits, the B-side became the A-side.
It sounded like nothing else on the radio, Gentry’s husky voice inviting listeners into a world that was as dark and exotic as a Flannery O’Connor story. Not long after the song’s debut, the water cooler talk started.
As Gentry told Fred Bronson, “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important.
“Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—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 the 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.”
In its first week of release, “Ode” sold 750,000 copies, knocking “All You Need Is Love” out of the top spot on the Billboard chart. It stayed there for four weeks. The song won Gentry three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist (she was the first Country artist to ever win in this category).
The enigma of her best-known song is nothing compared to that of Bobbie Gentry herself. In the early ’70s, she was riding high—headlining in Vegas, duetting with Glen Campbell on several hits, hosting her own TV series. Then around 1975, after contributing music to a movie based on “Ode,” she simply checked out. She has not been heard from in over 35 years. All requests for interviews, recordings and performances have been denied. She is said to be living in the Los Angeles area.
— By Bill DeMain