Ode To Billie Joe
It was 3:00 AM when Bobbie Gentry woke up, inspired to write a song for her first Capitol album. A sentence scribbled on a pad of paper supplied the seed: “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” (1)
Bobbie Gentry (born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1944) spent the early part of her life growing up around the Tallahatchie River in Chickasaw County. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth. Her mother moved to California and Roberta moved in with her grandparents on their dirt farm in nearby Greenwood, Mississippi.
Gentry touched briefly on her rural upbringing, saying, “We didn’t have electricity, and I didn’t have many playthings. My grandmother noticed how much I liked music, so she traded one of her milk cows for a neighbor’s piano,” Gentry said. (2) Watching the piano player at the Baptist church, Roberta taught herself how to play and composed her first song at the age of seven. She eventually also taught herself to play the guitar, bass, banjo and vibraphone.
Another change of life’s direction occurred when Roberta moved to Arcadia, California at age 13. That was a short stopover as her mother remarried and they the new family moved to the Palm Springs area. Perhaps as an attempt to leave her previous life behind her, Roberta saw Jennifer Jones in the movie Ruby Gentry and decided like the movie’s heroine, to leave her life in poverty and make a success of her life. She chose Gentry as her last name and graduated from high school in 1960 as Bobbie Gentry.
Bobbie attended UCLA as a philosophy major supporting herself with clerical jobs while occasionally performing at local clubs. She also found her way to Las Vegas where she performed at Les Folies Bergeres. Bitten by the showbiz bug, she transferred to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to better define her performing and composition skills. By 1966, she was appearing with her own vocal and dance troupe in Las Vegas.
Looking to publish some of her songs, Bobbie signed a deal with Larry Shayne Music with hopes that an established artist would record it. Shayne shopped her songs around Los Angeles and eventually Kelly Gordon, a record producer at Capitol Records was impressed enough with her work to sign her as an artist. He liked her demo of Mississippi Delta and arranged for her to record it.
Stepping into Studio C at Capitol Records on July 10th, 1967, Bobbie recorded Mississippi Delta, slated for the A-side of a single. Needing a flip side, Bobbie offered another self-penned tune, Ode To Billie Joe. Accompanying herself on guitar, Bobbie nailed a keeper take in 40 minutes. 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," Haskell said, "With my strings." (2)
Bobbie is shown in the Capitol studio in 1967 with a promo image from 1969.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
The original version had eleven verses, lasted longer than seven minutes and provided more depth of Billie Joe’s story. Capitol executives realized Ode would have more commercial appeal if they cut the song’s time by nearly half (4:13 is the listed time on the single) before adding the string section. Cutting the length left more of the story to the imagination and it also made the song more suitable for airplay.
“Those involved felt it had a number of drawbacks,” Gentry has said. “They said it was too long, that it couldn’t be categorized and aimed at a specific audience, that I was a female vocalist and soloist and this was the day of the group singers.” (1)
In spite of what Gentry and other naysayers presumably believed, Ode found its place on airwaves as radio programmers preferred the B-Side. Released on August 5th, 1967, Ode climbed its way up the charts and landed on the #1 spot with a bullet on August 26th where it perched for the next four weeks. (3) (4) Billboard Magazine listed Ode as the #3 top song of 1967. (5) The record charted in many countries including Canada and England.
The lyrics of the song raised many more questions than answered. What inspired her to write it, and what was it the girl and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? And why did he jump to his death off that bridge? Answers to these questions and possibly many more are sketchy.
For instance, what did Billie Joe McAllister and companion, throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? “That’s always he first question everybody asks me,” stated Gentry in a November 1967 interview by the Oxnard Press-Courier. “Everybody I meet has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge — flowers, a ring, even a baby. One person asked if it was a draft card. Another wanted to know if they threw away a bottle of LSD pills. Weird!”
Gentry knew what was thrown off the bridge when she wrote the song but insists that the reason isn’t important. If not important, then why include it in the song? “It’s there for two reasons,” Bobbie explained. “First, it locks up a definite relationship between Billie Joe and the girl telling the story, the girl at the table. Second, the fact that Billie Joe was seen throwing something off the bridge — no matter what it was — provides a possible motivation as to why he jumped off the bridge the next day.” (6)
Gentry also claimed what was or wasn’t thrown from the bridge misses the point. “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.” (7)
Ode To Billie Joe led a #1 album and the single garnered to three Grammy Awards in 1968 — Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Contemporary (R&R) Artist in 1968. The song also placed #412 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. (8)
In Money, Mississippi, Bobbie crosses the Tallahatchie Bridge in 1967.
Photo courtesy of Life Magazine.
Perhaps there’s an even bigger mystery regarding Ode To Billie Joe. Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry? She recorded 15 albums for Capitol from 1967-1983. (9) She hosted her own TV series in 1968-69 in England for the BBC. She became a regular headliner in Las Vegas, starring in her own $150,000 nightclub review, with a million-dollar contract. "I wrote and arranged all the music, designed the costumes, did the choreography, the whole thing," she reported. "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." (10)
Three marriages all ended in divorce including the last to singer Jim Stafford, which was finalized in October of 1979. According to Billy Watkins of the Clarion-Ledger located in Jackson, Mississippi, “From everything I’ve been told by people in the music business, from Los Angeles to Nashville to Muscle Shoals, Gentry is living a secluded life in Los Angeles. Her last known performance was on Christmas night 1978 on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and on Bob Hope’s 1981 “All-star Salute to Mother’s Day.” (11)
Legendary record producer, Rick Hall of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama who produced Gentry’s 1970 album Fancy, remembered her well. “When she came to Muscle Shoals to record, she arrived in a Learjet, which Harrah (her first husband) had bought for her, and had a five-carat diamond ring on her finger that just about covered her hand,” said Hall. “She was an artist, too. She was painting pictures that were selling for $20,000 apiece. But none of that changed Bobbie Gentry. She remained a genuine, Mississippi girl who just happened to have made it.” (11)
Hall also gave a glimpse as to why she chose to become a recluse. “I can sort of understand why she quit music and went into seclusion,” Hall said. “She had a lot of bad memories of the music business. She didn’t like the way things worked with record companies and all that. Didn’t like what she was getting paid.” (11)
Part of the mystery as to Gentry’s whereabouts has been solved. According to Washington Post reporter, Neely Tucker, Bobbie Gentry lives about a two-hour drive from the site of the Tallahatchie Bridge that made her so famous, in a gated community, in a very nice house that cost about $1.5 million. Her neighbors, some locals and some real estate agents know who she is, although it’s not clear which of her many possible names she goes by. And there was contact — sort of. (12)
“I found myself looking at a phone number on my computer screen for several seconds. No reporter, to the best of my knowledge, has spoken to Gentry in decades. I punched the numbers. After a few rings, a pleasant woman’s voice said: ‘Hello.’ I introduced myself from the newspaper and said I was looking for the person whose name appears on the property owner’s record. There was a dead pause of several seconds. My fingers clenched open and closed. ‘There’s no one here by that name’, she said, finally. I apologized and started to read back the number, to make sure I had dialed it correctly, and she hung up.” (12)
Aside from the Post report, it’s still been three decades since anyone publicly heard from Bobbie Gentry. There are reports that Gentry reaches out to friends, producers or others with hints of returning to music, only to repeatedly decline to follow up on the idea. Says Philadelphia journalist Tara Murtha, who has written a book on Gentry, "I do hope," Murtha said with a laugh. "I'll keep my phone's ringer on a little more now than I used to. I do respect her privacy, but I also sense that there seems to be some tension between her wanting to maintain full radio silence, and her interest in her legacy. She does make phone calls and sets up appointments with people from time to time, but always cancels them. So maybe one day the mood will strike." (13)
Ode To Billie Joe was performed live on BBC in 1968.
1) Bronson, Fred, The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, 1985, Page 229.
2) Murtha, Tara, Rolling Stone, The Secret Life of Bobbie Gentry, Pioneering Artist Behind 'Ode to Billie Joe', August 21, 2017. Link.
3) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 276.
4) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
5) Billboard Magazine, Top Records Of 1967, December 30, 1967. Page 42.
6) Oxnard Press-Courier, November 19, 1967. Page 42. Link.
7) Hutchison, Lydia, Performing Songwriter, Bobby Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe,” Link.
8) Wikipedia, Bobbie Gentry, Link.
9) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Albums 1955-2001, Pages 329-330.
10) WebCite Biography, Bobbie Gentry, Link.
11) Watkins, Billy, Clarion-Ledger, Whatever happened to singer Bobbie Gentry? June 1, 2016, Link.
12) Tucker, Neely, The Washington Post, Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry? In search of country music’s great vanished star. June 2, 2016. Link.
13) Lewis, Randy, Los Angeles Times, New '33 1/3' book explores life of mysterious chanteuse Bobbie Gentry, January 20, 2015. Link.
Photo courtesy Getty Images/Michael Ochs Galleries.