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Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”

| July 27, 2013 | 27 Comments

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

From Performing Songwriter Issue 87


Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (27)

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  1. Donna says:

    Robert: Carol Burnett ended each show by tugging on her left ear, which was a message to her grandmother (Nannie) who raised her. This was done to let Nannie know that she was doing well and that she loved her. During the show’s run, Burnett’s grandmother died, but Burnett continued the tradition of tugging her ear at the end of every show as a tribute to Nannie.

  2. global2012 says:

    KEN PARKS see my question below. I’d like to hear more about you memories. Please contact me if you or anyone has any info. about Kelly Gordon and his life.

  3. robert says:

    Carol Burnett used to tug her ear as a greeting to her mother. Most of these artists have a very personal inside story to these songs. The lyrics and music have very little to do with the real story.

    Roberta has always been one of those “still waters run deep” emotional people. I’ve always suspected it wasn’t anything physical that was gone but an emotion

  4. John Miller says:

    I think unconscious cruelty would be demonstrated by the family knowing or realizing she was Billy Joe’s girlfriend, and choosing selfishly to deal with it by pretending they didn’t know. She probably believed they did know. Imagine a family with gorillas like that in the house!

    Does anyone think it may have been a draft card they threw off the bridge?

  5. Cynthia Pease says:

    Just recently I have been studying the civil rights movement right back to reconstruction. While reading the book by Emmett Tills’ mother, I kept thinking about Tallahatchie Bridge and where I’d heard it before. Finally came up with it and was interested to see that other people thought of it. As teens we did our share of speculating about what was thrown off the bridge; it has more resonance for me now because one way or another, white folk in Tallahatchie County went on eating and living and not caring that someone DID throw Emmett into the Tallahatchie River after torturing him.

  6. ken parks says:

    i can’t believe it. the film footage was shot by my father for her short-lived tv show. i haven’t seen it in over 40 years. there was much more to it. we spent 4 days with her and her family where she grew up. kelly gordon was with her, and as he and i (me only 12 at the time)had little to do while filming, we hung out together, riding dirt bikes and a mule of theirs…she was a mult-instrumentalist and her ‘whiskey voice’ sounded even better in person…… in her gran’s living room… at the piano her gran bought from the proceeds of the sale of that cow….i was in heaven

  7. Scot says:

    Anna wrote: “But the song is about ‘Billie Joe’ even though the movie calls it ‘Billy Joe.’ I’m unclear that the original Billie Joe was the male, or that the singer’s character is female (even though it is sung by a woman).”

    It’s my understanding that the song was always meant to be called “Ode to Billy Joe,” and that the feminine spelling “Billie” was the result of a record-label typo.

  8. ricardo san martin says:

    …first the song….after the film….two ways for an amazing song…

  9. Sam Adams says:

    The local scuttle butt here (where Jim Stafford now has a theater) is that he was cruel to Bobby Gentry, convincing her to retire out of jealousy. Good she left him. I doubt there is any way OtBJ could be about Emmit Till. The South was still segregated and they wouldn’t have known. 2.) They wouldn’t have cared. They worked too hard and had too much drudgery to worry about someone else’s mistakes. The proof is in the song. Most likely, given the family’s familiarity of Billy Joe, he was a family member, a cousin perhaps, they were underage and had an inbred child.

  10. Doak says:

    One of my all-time favorite songs! The pictures in the song – you can just see the dinner table, passing the peas, the way she sang is the way her daddy spoke, that melody – haunting as the story of the song. The way they brought the strings to the song – just a masterpiece of writing, producing, singing and yea – the way radio took to the song – we all can have the song playing in our head if we have not heard the song in years! Doak

  11. Jim C says:

    This is one of the very few songs that so depresses me that I usually tune away when it is played … just heard it again tonight on an oldie program.

    I _never_ thought about what Anna posted here, about Emmett Till … could it be that the two teens on the bridge threw Emmett over?

    I’ve always pictured in my mind that Billy Joe was gay, and it had just come out to his girl, and in those years and that place suicide would be a likely result. But that doesn’t explain throwing something off the bridge.

    Oh well, we all see things with the baggage we carry! The song still is so melancholy that it depresses me every time I hear it.

  12. Anna says:

    When I was a girl, I assumed that the story was about the boy getting a girl pregnant, and she either had a miscarriage, or they managed their own abortion, and threw that poor little thing off the bridge into the muddy water (that they could not see through).

    When the movie came out, I assumed that the idea that they would throw such a thing off the bridge was more scandalous than the boy having gay sex. I thought the guy who wrote the movie knew what was really thrown off the bridge, and used the doll as a symbol for it.

    But the song is about “Billie Joe” even though the movie calls it “Billy Joe.” I’m unclear that the original Billie Joe was the male, or that the singer’s character is female (even though it is sung by a woman).

    Later, I realized that the Tallahatchie River in the same general vicinity, is the one that Emmett Till was thrown into, at the age of 14, for whistling at a white woman. That happened in 1955. Emmett Till was thrown into the muddy water with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck as a weight, to make him disappear under the water.

    In the song, the family sits around the dinner (lunch) table, and talks about food and farming, in between talking about the boy who “never had a lick of sense.”

    So many terrible tragedies. And people talked about it around the dinner table, like it was nothing. Maybe there were a few stories all wrapped up in that song, and all about death being hidden in the muddy water, and white people acting like all of it was just not that important.

    The singer of the song loses her appetite…she cannot take it like it’s not all that important. And she wants the listener to feel the depth of it, too. Bobby Gentry would have been about 11 the summer 14yo Emmett Till was murdered, somewhere near where Bobby lived.

    She couldn’t help but have been painfully impacted by the events of her childhood. And her family may well have talked about poor Emmett Till around the table, as if it was just another thing that happened.

    That the song adds about her father dying the next year from a virus, her mother being distraught afterward, but her brother marrying a woman and opening a store (hm, like the store where the white woman worked that Emmett Till talked to?) all suggest that the song is a pastiche of ideas, put together into one song.

    Picking flowers and dropping them “into the muddy waters off the Tallahatchie Bridge” very well could have been something Bobby Gentry did, after Emmett Till died, when she was a little girl.

  13. Kerry says:

    I love all her songs. I was so in love
    bobby I was only 12 when that song came out And then I work at a movie house and I show the movie at theater and fell in love with her all over again and I’m still in Love with that Pretty lady!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. Evgeny says:

    I really like Bobbie Gentry. I wish her health, friends and appeasement. I think that those who loves music, become better and kinder. Thank her for her talent. Evgeny. Russia. Samara.

  15. Kathleen says:

    I saw Bobbie Gentry in the 70s in Las Vegas. The show was called Diamonds and Demin. She came from beneath the stage on some type of lift and she was stunning! I still can remember the electricity of the show and when the lights came up I think every woman in the auditorium felt somewhat lacking! What an amazing talent.

  16. Daniel says:

    Kelly Gordon died decades ago from cancer. It was written that Bobbie cared for him in her guest house for the last year of this life.

  17. global2012 says:

    can anyone direct me to or give me detailed information on Capitol Records A&R man and OTBJ producer KELLY GORDON? I know he and BG had a thing for a few years, and wrote, performed together too. He supposedly went to school and his family lived for a while in my hometown in KY. I work at the local history museum and we are looking for information about him and his life and death. Thanks!

  18. Doak Turner says:

    One of my all-time favorite songs, the pictures in the songs, I could always visualize that family sitting around the table having dinner, those two kids on a ridge. The entire song paints pictures in my mind – I adapted to scenes I knew in my life growing up in West Virginia.
    What would it take and how could they release that 7 minute version of the song??
    THANKS for the inspiring article!

  19. Scott Strohkirch says:

    She was also married to Jim Stafford who had the One-hit wonder song “I don’t like spiders and snakes” they were married from 1978-79.

  20. Daniel says:

    I’ve been tracing the huge money trail of Bobbie Gentry’s O.T.B.J and was surprised to learn of its importance in the foundation of rap and hiphop music. Master blues musican Lou Donaldson was one of many who recorded an instrumental version of the song in 1967. His musical ‘break’ in the performance is considered by many as the pioneering ‘break’ in rap and hiphop. Some of the artists who have sampled the musical movement include Mary J.Blidge, Cyprus Hill,Kanye West, Jay Zee,Timberland, Madonna and over 80 other recording artists. If anyone is interested in listening to his soulful musical interpretation ,it is posted on YouTube.

  21. Sylvain Metz says:

    It was the song that seemed to never stop playing in Mississippi after it came out. People probably forget that writer and director Max Baer (who played Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies) brought the song to the silver screen in 1976. Even then, what was thrown was just a writer’s best guess. They held the opening at the Paramount Theater in Jackson, Miss., where Ms. Gentry, along with the two co-stars, Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor, attended. Nice to remember it again.

  22. What I love about Bill DeMain’s piece is that great reminder of the song’s true power, as express by Ms. Gentry herself, is in the “unconscious cruelty” of others. We think of this as a classic story song, but there’s so much life between the lines.

    I’ve heard that the mystery around what was thrown of the bridge is actually explained by the verses that were cut by Capitol to reduce the length of the track to 4 minutes. And I’ve heard she’s going to her grave with the answer.

    But “Ode to Billy Joe” was the first 45 I ever bought, I’ve played it at gigs probably 100 times, and covered it on my first CD (stream away right here: Such is its power over me.

  23. Daniel says:

    Bobbie Gentry did not ‘check out’ in 1975. 1976 was a huge year for her. The film adaptation of Ode Billie Joe earned a whopping 50 million at the box office on a 1 million dollar budget. Gentry’s lucrative contract with Warner Brothers gave her a 10% ownership stake in the film. She sold 350,000 records that year too with the single re-issue and album soundtrack. She would hold down mult-million dollar contracts at Howard Hughes casinos for the rest of the decade with lavish performances at The Frontier’ and ‘The Desert Inn’. She turned down an extension on her contract in 1980 to devote herself to her newborn son. Her last television performance was in May , 1981 on an N.B.C mothers day special hosted by Ed McMahon. She sang the broadway song, Mama A Rainbow’ to her own mother ,Ruby, in the audience.

  24. Daniel says:

    There was far more to Bobbie Gentry than her massive debut(which has sold near 50 million records on a 100+ covers). Her composition, Fancy, has also become a classic thanks in large part to being included on 4 Reba McEntire cd’s with 20 million in sales. The song also has a dozen other covers. Jazz master pianist, Bill Evans, turned her composition’Mornin’ Glory’ into the signature song of his last years. It was the opening track on his historic’Live In Toyko’ concert and album and was said to be one of his all time favorites.

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