April 29, 2008
M-I-Double S-I-Double S-I-Double P-I.
Bobbie Gentry’s swampy vocals came straight out of the Mississippi Delta where she was born and raised. She was born in Chicksaw County, Mississippi, and spent most of her childhood there.
It must have been a culture shock when her family abruptly moved to California when she was thirteen, but she found quick success after high school playing the country club circuit. She had a big cheerleader in show business legend Bob Hope, who encouraged her to perform in Vegas.
Amazingly enough, she chose to go back to school after her time there, and majored in philosophy at UCLA. The music bug kicked in again, and a tranfer to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music helped her develop her singing and songwriting crafts. Before long, she had put together a demo tape that landed her a deal with Capitol in 1967.
The label issued her first single “Mississippi Delta,” which featured a growling vocal and that catchy “M-I-Double S I” hook. But while that first single would end up being her breakthrough smash, it wasn’t the “A” side of the 45 that did it. Radio stations chose to play the B-side, a mysterious story song called “Ode to Billie Joe,” which centered around a southern dinner table. A young girl copes with the news that her boyfriend Billie Joe has committed suicide, and her family’s reaction is gossipy and callous.
Gentry’s intent was to spotlight the insensitivity of the family, but in one of the later verses, her Mama says that the girl was seen with Billie Joe “throwin’ something off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” An instant nationwide fascination exploded, with debates raging on about just what was thrown off of the bridge. The song not only topped the country charts, it was a four-week No. 1 pop hit. It sold more than three million copies along the way. She won three Grammys and an ACM award in the wake of the song’s success.
In the shadow of this massive hit, Gentry carved out an interesting career path. Though her debut album, Ode to Billie Joe, sold briskly, its follow-up The Delta Sweete didn’t produce a hit, and made little impact. Gentry went to London to record her third set, Local Gentry, which was critically-acclaimed but also faded quickly.
Back in the States, Gentry made a comeback when she teamed up with Glen Campell for a duet album. Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell produced country and adult contemporary hits in “All I Have to Do is Dream” and “Let it Be Me,” two Everly Brothers covers. She then had the biggest overseas hit of her career when she recorded “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” which was a hit for Dionne Warwick in the States. It was a No. 1 smash in England, where “Ode” had peaked at #13.
It wasn’t a big hit at the time, but Gentry’s most well-known song today might be “Fancy,” thanks to Reba McEntire’s 1990 version of the classic tune. The rags-to-riches saga of a Louisiana girl who is pushed into prostitution by her mother, Gentry’s version is grittier than McEntire’s. When an interviewer suggested that her glamorous image was offensive to the burgeoning feminist movement of the early seventies, she replied:
“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. Actually, I’ve had no problems with [feminists], perhaps because they recognize that I’m a woman working for myself in a man’s field.
Gentry turned her attention to the U.K. when Capitol chose not to renew her contract. She toured Europe, building up a significant fan base that still exists today. She headlined a Vegas revue and starred in her own network variety show, The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, which ran in the summer of 1974. She began to work behind the scenes in television production, and did scoring for television movies, including one based on her most famous song. In the TV movie version of Ode to Billie Joe, the titular character commits suicide over his homosexuality.
And then, she was gone. She retired from the entertainment business in 1978, making her final public appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on Christmas night. She hasn’t performed in public since. In a sense, she’s surrounded these days by as much mystery as her character Billie Joe once was. Thankfully, fervent fan interest remains, particularly in the United Kingdom, where excellent compilations have been released that document the highlights of her brief but dazzling career.
- “Ode to Billie Joe,” 1967
- “Let it Be Me” (with Glen Campbell), 1969
- ”I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” 1969
- “All I Have to Do is Dream” (with Glen Campbell), 1970
- “Fancy,” 1970
- Ode to Billie Joe (1967)
- Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell (1968)
- Touch ‘Em with Love (1969)
- Fancy (1970)
- Grammy: Best New Artist, 1968
- Grammy: Best Vocal Performance, Female – “Ode to Billie Joe,” 1968
- Grammy: Best Contemporary Solo Vocal Performance, Female – “Ode to Billie Joe,” 1968
- ACM Top New Female Vocalist, 1968