To this date, the exact reason why the iconic country star Bobbie Gentry, whose popularity erupted in the late 1960s, suddenly vanished from the spotlight remains unknown. Her case was considered as country music’s biggest puzzle still unsolved. Although recent reports provided some information as to her whereabouts, the two huge mysteries about her didn’t change. Also, it’s unlikely that this chasing for answers and clues that would unlock the big enigma would fade soon. It’s been over five decades since Gentry’s breakthrough in country music. And, more than three decades had passed since her unexpected desertion. Yet, we continue to talk about this mysteries surrounding her even up to this age and time. It’s worth it, I guess. Bobbie Gentry is worth it. Thus, this week’s editorial features this mysterious female country crooner who hailed from Mississippi.
The Delta Queen from Mississippi
Bobbie Gentry, born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1942, originated from Chickasaw Country, Mississippi. It was unfortunate for her that her parents separated shortly after her birth. As a result, her grandparents took the responsibility in raising her. She’s still lucky, indeed, to have such loving and caring grandparents. Bobbie grew up on the farm. One day, her grandmother traded one of the family’s milk cows for a neighbor’s piano. This ignited her interest in music. Can you believe Bobbie wrote her first song at the age of seven? And if you’re wondering what that song was, it’s called “My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog.” Amazing, isn’t it?
Jazz and blues music is the first love of young Bobbie. She would listen to them out of New Orleans on a battery-powered radio. Soon, she began picking out melodies on the piano her grandma gave her. When Bobbie attended school in Greenwood, Mississippi, she had the chance to learn how to play other musical instruments, including the guitar, bass, banjo, and the vibraphone.
At the onset of her teenage years, Bobbie moved to California to live with her mother. It was here where she started performing in local country clubs. She took the stage name Bobbie Gentry from the 1952 film Ruby Gentry. Perhaps she considered herself exactly alike with the heroine in the movie – a young southern girl who was born into poverty but determined to become successful in life. This inspired Bobbie to take and use the movie star’s family name.
Bobbie continued performing at nightclubs to support herself. At this time, she’s already in college taking up Philosophy at the UCLA. Later on, she transferred to Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to hone further two of her musical skills – composing and performing.
The Mysterious Song of All Time, “Ode to Billy Joe”
In July 1967, Bobbie Gentry took the country music industry by storm when her label Capitol Records released her self-penned song “Ode to Billie Joe.” The acoustic tune became a smash hit and gave Gentry her breakthrough single. That’s notwithstanding the fact that the song was only a B-side to “Mississippi Delta,” a country-fried tribute to her homeland.
“Ode to Billie Joe” reached popularity both in the U.S. and in Europe. That catapulted Gentry to international fame. The song instantly climbed the charts surpassing hits of other big names including Aretha Franklin and The Beatles. Moreover, it knocked “All You Need is Love” out of the No. 1 spot and spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In addition, the track’s album which bears the same title snatched The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s 15-week reign at No. 1 on Billboard 200. More than that, the song earned Gentry not just one but three accolades from the Grammy Awards. These include a Best New Artist title.
The Song’s Mystery
While the song became enormously successful, this did not overshadow the mysteries surrounding it. Yes, the record that captivated the entire country in 1967 was as mysterious as its singer. That’s why many described it as an “eerie” or “cryptic” song. Over the decades, “Ode to Billie Joe” continues to haunt listeners and wonder for two things. What did Billie Joe McAllister and the song’s narrator throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge that summer day and why did Billie Joe jump from the bridge to his death?
Most thought it’s a baby or something that symbolizes a secret love that the couple threw into the water. However, when asked before, Gentry repeatedly explained that the object thrown off the bridge was only a way of establishing motivation for Billie Joe’s suicide. She further mentioned,
“I left it open so the listener could draw his own conclusion.”
As to Billie Joe’s suicide, Gentry’s often answer was short and not precise:
“This boy’s death did not get his neighbors involved.”
Bobby Gentry’s Other Notable Recordings
Although Gentry reached worldwide fame with “Ode to Billie Joe,” she’s not a one-hit miracle. As a matter of fact, she has recorded several songs other than her breakthrough hit.
Bobbie Gentry was barely 22 years old when she recorded this song. She wrote the tune as a homage to her homeland. It’s one of the compositions drawing heavy reference to her Mississippi roots. Hence, she’s dubbed as the “Mississippi Delta Queen.” “Mississippi Delta” appeared on Gentry’s 1967 album Ode to Billie Joe. The record was her debut studio album and first release with Capitol Records. The track’s B-side was the intriguing Southern Gothic narrative “Ode to Billie Joe.” There was little information provided regarding “Mississippi Delta”, particularly on its commercial success. Nonetheless, there’s certainly that many know who the great artist is behind it.
In 1970, Gentry received another significant recognition for her composition of “Fancy.” Another Gentry-penned song, “Fancy” is about a woman named Fancy and her journey to becoming a successful courtesan. Gentry’s version of “Fancy” became a Top 30 country hit in the U.S. reaching No. 26. Also, the song was a minor crossover hit peaking at No. 31 on the pop chart.
Gentry considered the song her “strongest statement for women’s lib.”
“Fancy” is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it. I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for — equality, equal pay, day care centers, and abortion rights.”
Almost two decades after Gentry recorded “Fancy,” another female country star covered it and even brought the song to the chart’s Top 10. The Queen of Country Reba McEntire recorded a version of “Fancy” in 1990. Released on her album Rumor Has It, the song gave the Oklahoman singer a Top 10 hit.
Revolutionizing the Entertainment Industry
Most of Gentry’s fans probably knew her only as a singer-songwriter. She wrote and recorded songs and even produced her debut studio album. She worked solely on her hit record, though she did not receive due credit for its production. But that was only the beginning of her ground-breaking career. Other than music, Gentry played important roles in the entertainment industry. She was the first woman to host a variety show on the BBC. Soon enough, she began hosting her own variety show, The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, on CBS. Moreover, she served as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio.
Sudden Withdrawal from the Spotlight
After her breakout success with “Ode to Billie Joe,” Gentry went on recording more songs. Her duet album with Glen Campbell named Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell, as well as her 1969 record Touch ‘Em With Love, both reached high acclaims. After this, she became one of Vegas’ most bankable artists. Gentry was at the height of success when all of a sudden, she vanished from the spotlight, disappeared just like a ghost into the southern fog. She never announced any plan to retire. She just stopped performing and recording songs.
Living a Reclusive Life
“Why did Bobbie Gentry leave fame behind and chose to live a reclusive life?” is a question that was left unanswered. And maybe, it will remain as such unless the contrary happens. But, only time can tell when will that be.
Gentry seemed to be totally decided to live her life away from the spotlight. This became apparently certain when the singer never appeared in an interview with the press. Most probably, she turned down every invitation from the media thrown at her. Given the substantial impact that Gentry had on the music industry and in the lives of her supporters, no one could just ignore her abrupt withdrawal from the public without saying a word. As a matter of fact, searching for Gentry has become an industry in itself.
There have been several search strategies created on the internet all for one purpose – to locate where in the world is Bobbie Gentry and find out why she left just like that. Billy Atkins, a reporter of USA Today claimed that there’s no any other person who had chased down Gentry longer than he did in his entire journalism career. Meanwhile, some 170 devoted fans resorted to Facebook and created a group in the hope that the singer will make another public appearance. On the other hand, another group of Gentry’s supporters called Superfans have set up Google alerts for them to be informed immediately if there are updates about their favorite Delta Queen.
In June 2016, the long search for Gentry finally ended. Thanks to Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker who shared the story of tracking down Gentry’s whereabouts. Tucker wrote that she located Gentry to a $1.5 million house in a gated community. The place was about a two-hour drive from the location of the Tallahatchie Bridge. The infamous bridge had collapsed in 1972. However, Gentry showed no interest in talking.
Despite Gentry’s absence from the limelight, her influence continues to thrive and creates new directions. Even in this age and time, where collective cultural memory is defined by the most recent internet memes, many new and budding musicians look up to Gentry. They do so by citing her name and music as huge influence and inspiration.
We can cite the Grammy Award-winning producer Dave Cobb as an example. He specifically liked “Ode to Billie Joe” and went on tweaking the classic country in a fashionable manner. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the 43-year-old producer said,
“[Ode to Billie Joe] was one of the records that drove me to Southern music more, because you realize there [were] no boundaries on Southern music. 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.”
Even in expected places, Gentry’s influence runs deep. Recently, the lead singer of the punk rock band The Damned, Dave Vanian, mentioned Gentry as one of his favorite artists. Additionally, Adam Weiner of Low Cut Connie considered knowing Gentry as a huge instrument to his understanding of the ability of music to bring listeners to another place.
“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.”
Meanwhile, other female country artists who consider Gentry their idol include Lucinda Williams, Sheryl Crow, and Shelby Lynne.
Longing to Perform On Stage Again
Although the mystery of Gentry’s location has been solved, members of the press continue chasing her down for that elusive interview. To find some insights into why she vanished abruptly from the spotlight and why she declines to face the press seemed to be everybody’s appeal. Due to her refusal to talk, some members of the media have already come up with their most possible explanation for this. Some would say, Gentry simply grew tired of the music business and she never really wanted to be on the limelight. Others claimed that she’s not happy with what she’s getting from the record companies. To recall, Gentry was one of the first female country artists to write and produce her album. Yet, she never got the credit for producing her material.
However, there have been reports that Gentry had contacted her old acquaintances in the music and, maybe, expressed interest in recording again. The only problem was that she cancels her appointments all the time. As a result, nothing happens and Gentry remains a big mystery to her fans. Whatever reason she has for such, she’s certainly entitled to her right to privacy. Just the same, her fans remain hopeful and excited to hear Gentry’s sultry voice and the next story she’s going to tell them.