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
==> #66. Paulette Carlson (Highway 101)
Wow! A brave statement about the womens’ movement! I don’t even think a female singer of today could get away with saying such a strong supportive statement. It would have to be veiled, at least.
After reading the comment thread on the Kenny Chesney post, I’ll try to make a point of commenting more regularly on this feature.
And this is a good place to start: I love Bobbie Gentry. Her catalogue has so much more depth than just “Ode to Billie Joe” and “Fancy,” though both of those are the kind of exceptional, dense songwriting that stands in stark contrast to the bulk of what Nashville produces these days. I’d rank both in my top 100 country songs of all-time, without hesitation, and I definitely prefer Gentry’s grittier reading of “Fancy” to McEntire’s bombastic one (though that one has its selling points, too… just ask my uncle, who uses it as his drag anthem).
The reissue of Local Gentry and The Delta Sweete on a single album is, I’d argue, more essential than the stylistically scattershot Fancy, in that those two albums capture Gentry’s songwriting at its most literate and most compelling (the black humor of “Casket Vignette” is another of my favorites) and her soulful interpretive singing at its most effective (she makes “Eleanor Rigby” work as a Southern Gothic character sketch, and her reading of Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” is beyond any of the genre’s current A-list “vocalists”).
Her marketing as a pop crossover bombshell certainly set important precedent, as well, but there’s a clear through-line from her best work to some of the most gifted modern alt-country / americana / whatever artists like Neko Case, Carolyn Mark, and Gillian Welch. The fact that she first broke through with a song that became nothing short of a cultural phenomenon and her own reclusive early retirement both lead directly to her standing as one of the genre’s most consistently under-appreciated talents. She’d be much, much higher on my list both for talent and ongoing influence (at least on the the genre’s fringes), but I’m glad to see Gentry included here.
Good to hear from you, Jonathan! Your comments were getting caught in the spam folder earlier this year for some reason.
Gentry really is awesome. She’s much higher on my personal list than she is on this list. I’ll check out those albums you mentioned, as it sounds like I’m missing out on some good stuff!
I agree that Gentry is something of an Americana mother figure. It’s hard to imagine someone like her getting massive airplay these days. Then again, I can’t even picture a Rosanne Cash or Mary Chapin Carpenter finding an audience today if they were just starting out. It’s kinda weird that the only smart singer-songwriter woman that’s getting any airplay these days is Jewel, who crossed over from pop/rock.
Gentry’s time on the radar was very short – I was living in London when “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” hit #1 on the BBC . By the time I got back to the US in August 1970, she was completely gone as far as radio airplay was concerned. Her duet album with Glen Campbell was good but it was a one-off
Bobby Gentry was married to Vegas casino entrepreneur Bill Harrah for a while and reportedly got considerable funds from her divorce settlement, She was also married to singer-songwriter-comedian Jim Stafford for a short while
Just one minor correction here: The movie “Ode to Billie Joe” was a theatrical release as I saw it in a theater back during its short release period. I was a fan of actress Glynnis O’Connor and went just to see her in the film. The movie was unique in that it was written and directed by Max Baer Jr. who’s claim to fame was playing Jethro Bodine on the Beverly Hillbillies TV series in the 1960’s. The movie itself really threw me for a turn with the homosexual story line angle, but with Max being part of the Hollywood scene I could see where he could get his inspiration from. A bit too “Deliverance” for my tastes the film was not very good (to put it mildly) and was a bit of tarnish on the reputation of a great song…
BG was a one off expression of that rarest of talents. a country poetess who plays guitar, writes great stories and has a glorious voice. BG wrote three bonafide classics of true power and insight that will forever ensure her place in a selct glaxiy of stars. okolona river bottom band, mississippi delta and the ode to billie joe.
While I’m glad Bobbie made your list, your article is riddled with errors. First of all, her last television performance was in May of 1980 on an NBC mothers day special hosted by Ed McMahon. She sang the broadway song ‘ Mama A Rainbow’. She also presented at the 1980 acm awards show. She was never dropped by Capitol Records. This myth persists but she was offered a second tier contract with the label in 1973. Having just signed the first of many seven figure deals in Vegas, she refused the offer even though she was in the process of completing a new album for the label. She won the grammy hall of fame award for Ode to Billie Joe in 1999 and by 2009 her entire Capitol catalog is back in print.
The cma’s really own Bobbie a debt of thanks. In 1967 nbc was set to televise the event for the first time. The network demanded hybrid artists with cross-over appeal to host the show. Capitol artists, Sonny James and Bobbie Gentry(who was nominated for single and album of the year) were chosen. NBC got cold feet at the last minute anyway and pulled the plug. Executives at Capitol wanted their newest superstar, Bobbie Gentry to bow out too without this added exposure. To their credit, both Sonny and Bobbie co-hosted the event getting the fledgling cma’s off the ground. Bobbie’s album of Ode to Billie Joe was first in the history of the billboard charts( male or female) to go #1 country and pop. She is still the only female artist in billboard history to chart top ten r&b and country. In 2003, billboard listed Ode to Billie Joe as the biggest female single in the history of Capitol Records and #10 on their all time hit list. It is also worth noting Bobbie never lost her popularity. Up untill her retirement in 1980, she remained one of the highest paid female star in Vegas. She even refused a multi million dollar extension on her contract and retired to devote herself to her newborn son Tyler, by her brief marriage to Jim Stafford.
Bobbie’s 1971 album titled ‘PatchWork’ was to be her final album for Capitol. She wrote,produced the entire set. The sessions showed her command of all forms of song. From country to blues to standard 1920’s pop, the range was breathtaking. Capitol gave the go ahead based on her banner year of 1970 which saw two big hits in the U.K and the four month run on the U.S pop singles chart of ‘ Fancy’. PatchWork just missed charting on the pop album charts, hovering in the low 200’s for months. By all accounts, it damaged her relationship with the label. The boys club at Capitol were not happy at the amount of control she had on the project. It directly challenged some of their positons and this resulted in lackluster promotion from the label. Between 1967-73 Bobbie earned a top tier 3.5 million from the label. It became public record when musican Bobby Paris sued her for one percent of her royalties based on a verbal agreement. He won the case and Bobbie was forced to pay him 35,000. After the lackluster sales of PatchWork, Bobbie poured her creative efforts into her lavish Las Vegas review. She refused Capitols watered down contract and would remain Las Vegas royality for the entire decade.
While Bobbie’s single ‘Fancy’ peaked at #31 pop for two weeks in 1969, it was still a big hit. It was banned on over 200 radio stations because of content and its chart position was based, in a large part, on sales. It also charted #26 country and #18 adult contemporary and even made the lower rungs of the r&b charts. It would remain on the hot 100 for four months and Capitol Records claimed in an ad in 0ct. 1970( the singles year anniversary) that it had passed the million unit sales mark. The 1976 movie of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ was a big hit too. With a budget of 1 million dollars, it went on to gross over 40 million in the U.S box office. Bobbie’s contract with Warner Brothers gave her a 10% stake in the movie which as late as 2005 was still earning substantial income with a ten show running on the cable station CMT.
I wanted to comment on the expectations that were placed on Bobbie Gentry. Keep in mind, Patsy Cline never had a gold record in her lifetime. Bobbie would have three by the end of 1968. The huge 1.5 million unit sale of her debut album ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ set the bar impossibly too high. Her follow up, The Delta Sweete, produced the single ‘Oklahona River Bottom Band’ At #56 pop it sold 250,0000 copies almost three times the average #1 country hit of the era, yet compared to O.T.B.J(3.5 million copies) it was a failure. ‘The Delta Sweete’ made it to the lower middle of the pop album charts and sold a respectable 200,000 units yet it to did not come close to that massive debut. Even when her duets album with Glen Campbell went #1 country and #11 pop and sold over a million units and won ACM album of the year honors, it failed to match her debut. Bobbie never released a studio album that did not sell at least 100,000 copies. Loretta Lynn would release over 40 studio albums for Universal. Only three of these studio releases would make gold at 500,000 units and she was the Queen of Country music.
I have done extensive research on Bobbie Gentry’s recording career after she left Capitol records in 1973. In 1974 She did a one off single on Brunswick Records for the film ‘ Macon County Line’ The scored song for the film’ Another Place, Another Time’ received airplay and moderate sales of 40,000 copies. She would record in the late 1970’s under Warner- Curb as part of her deal to option Ode to Billie Joe as a motion picture. Her re-record of Ode to Billie Joe went #65 pop for the label but was sabotaged by Capitol who re-released the original which went #56 pop. Both singles were on the pop hot 100 at the same time and had a combined 1976 sale of 350,000 singles. It is known in the industry that there was major label interest in her after she left Capitol. The sticking point: she demanded to be able to produce and control her own creativity. In this male dominated music era of Owen Bradleys, it was not to be. Her last single, the 1978 Warner- Curb release’ Steal Away’ which stalled before hitting the pop hot 100. With huge contract money awaiting her in Vegas, she could afford not to record and still keep her star status. She would sell out the lavish showroom at ‘ ‘The Dessert Inn’ until she retired in 1980 ,shortly after the birth of her son Tyler by a brief marriage to singer Jim Stafford.
In writing a 200 plus page review of Bobbie Gentry’s career, I connected with many fans from her robust cult following. The first thing I noticed was a large gay following. The potent mix of great beauty and talent and the Greta Garbo vanishing act explained part of this. She also had so many firsts. First country female gold album(there was no platinum award in the 1960’s) ,first country duets album to go gold, first #1 pop and country album ever. She also appeared on over 100 major television programs from 1967-1980. Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett- you name it. She played a huge roll in country crossing over to the masses. She was also a major international star. Her BBC variety show in the U.K (1968-1971),introduced a young James Taylor to the world and had a whos who of major musical talent as guests. Finally, she took control of her own career. Her Gentry ltd. tv production company was among the firsts for women as was her ‘Super Darling’ publishing company( in a side deal with Larry Shayne). How many women were producing their own recording sessions in the 1960’s? She had published over 100 of her own songs by 1975. Today, Beth Ortin, Sheryl Crow, Roseanne Cash and most visably, Lucinda Willams claim her legacy in the development of their own musical voices. She has earned her place in the cannon of great country female recording artists.
Daniel – what you say is true, but you’re giving her way too much credit in terms of her influence on country music.
Yes, Patsy Cline never had a gold album in her lifetime BUT country was a singles oriented genre – it did not focus on albums until long after her death. Actually rock did not become an album-oriented genre until a few years after the Beatles first arrived. Jazz , Classic Pop (think SInatra) and Classical Music were the initial genres to focus on albums.
Gentry undoubtedly took the right career path for herself, becoming a Vegas lounge act. I never had the pleasure of seeing here live act in Vegas; however, several of my friends did see her perform in Vegas – they described it as a pretty good (but not great) show, with the usual flaws of Vegas production bogging it down at times.
I did see her British television show (I lived in England for a few years) , it was okay but nothing special – George Hamilton IV was far more important in drumming up interest in country music in Great Britain.
Truthfully , I never really regarded her as country – I have most of her albums, but they are filed in with the pop albums, not the country albums
I would say that Bobbie sort of used country, with some Southern blues/folk influences, as a basis for her style, but would never place herself in that category in the strictest sense. “Ode To Billie Joe”, incidentally, only actually got to #13 on the country chart and not #1 (where it was on the pop chart for those four weeks in the late summer of 1967).
“Fancy”, to a lot of people I’ve talked to, sounded like an outtake from Dusty Springfield’s 1969 album DUSTY IN MEMPHIS, with its funky Southern sound and brass. It does have that grittiness missing from Reba’s; and Bobbie did cop a Grammy nomination in the Best Contemporary Female Vocal category in 1970 for it (competing with Diana Ross, Linda Ronstadt, Anne Murray, and eventual winner Dionne Warwick).
Eric and Paul, I enjoyed reading your intelligent comments but didn’t Bobbie’s hybrid country style win out in the long run? Shania and Faith owe more to Bobbie Gentry in style and sound than Tammy and Loretta . I have not heard a pure Tammy twangy country song on country radio in decades. When I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, THEY had proclaimed her album ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ as the first country female album to strike gold. Regardless, there has been a serious re-evaluation of her place in music history and country music sure counted her in their camp in the 1960’s. She was on the cover of ‘Country Song Round Up’ a dozen times, her 9 grammy nominations in 1967 were hailed by their critics as a big victory for country music. Yes, Bobbie’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ peaked at #17 country( it was #8 r&b) and her ‘Fancy’ at #26 but all of Brenda Lee’s big pop hits stalled way before going top forty country and on the strength of those hits( not her so-so country songs of the 1970’s) she was put in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I would never place Bobbie’s influence ahead of Patsy, Loretta,ect.. but I would have had her in the top half of the draw.
I wanted to comment on Bobbie Gentry’s”lounge act” at the Frontier and Dessert Inn. She became the first female to sign a million dollar Vegas contract in the early 1970’s . She was voted most popular female act in Las Vegas year after year. Only Ann Margret rivaled her popularity. In a 2003 article on Bobbie for Mojo Magazine Tom Jones talks about himself Bobbie and their Vegas relationship with Elvis(another lounge act!). He states” she was great looking, fantastic, outspoken but she was more like one of the guys a star in her own right” “She and Elvis got along well” He goes on to talk about the three of them singing with Elvis in gospel jam sessions that would go on all night after their headlining Vegas shows. In 1972, word got back to Elvis on Bobbie’s Dessert Inn review where she would dress in Elvis male drag and sing some of his greatest hits. Concerned it might be a paraody instead of a tribute, he caught the act and was blown away by it. This began a deeper friendship from the two Mississipi natives that according to some newspaper sources included a brief engagment. It was a revelation seeing Bobbie dressed like Elvis singing hits like ‘HeartBreak Hotel’. It was also amazing seeing Bobbie come down from the ceiling at the Dessert Inn singing a rousing performance of ‘ Fancy’ that would always bring the house down. I remember decades later seeing Reba McEntire borrow huge chuncks of Bobbie’s stage act in her own top notch review. When Bobbie retired in 1980 ,after completing another successful Vegas run, she had turned down another multi million dollar extension on her contract.
I was going through my pile of Billboard chart books today to find the first female country singer to have a certified gold million selling single. Skeeter Davis hit the benchmark with her#2 pop hit’ End Of the World’ but that was a pure pop sounding record. Brenda Lee had three gold singles with her huge load of hits including’ I’m Sorry’ which stalled in the bottom half of the country singles charts. Bobbie Gentry sold 3.5 million singles with her#1 pop hit Ode to Billie Joe in 1967 and Jeanie C. Riley scored the biggest selling country female single with her #1 pop and country ‘Harper Vally PTA’ at 5 million plus in 1968. Patsy Cline got close with ‘Crazy’ peaking at #8( her only top ten pop hit) and selling 850,000. Is there someone I’m missing from this early era after the riaa started tallying sales?
In going through my archive of music material, I found a ‘Look’ magazine article on Bobbie Gentry from 1967. It states her debut album ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ sold over 500,000 copies in three weeks knocking the Beatles ‘St. Pepper’ from the #1 spot( her single of O.T.B.J toppled the Beatles ‘ All You Need is Love’ from the top spot and prevented the Supremes’ Reflections’ from going #1 too) The average hit country album of this era could not muster 100,000, this was massive and changed the landscape on expectations for #1 country albums. I believe too, that she was the first female with a self penned #1 single and the first female to score a #1 single and album debut. In her debut year of 1967, Bobbie Gentry sold over 5 million records. In the article her booking agent ‘ Willam Morris Agency bragged about booking her over two years in advance. I believe this hectic international pace played a role in her reasoning for retiring early.
Perhaps the most infamous carrer caper happened to Bobbie by way of Bob Dylan. His quote from 40 years ago” there is not one major female poet in the English language” He went a step further at the expense of Bobbie’s masterpiece ‘Ode to Billie His savage parody’ Answer to Ode: Clothsline Saga’ was finally released on the ‘Basement Tapes’. Taking aim at her massive international success, there is a strong, sexist, demeaning current in the work. Most artists would be glad the great Dylan stood up and took notice. Bobbie dismissed the joke as irelevant praising his mastery of the songwriting craft. To date, O.T.B.J has been covered by over 200 artists, including Chet Atkins, Tammy Wynette, Tina Turner, Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles and the famous King Curtis instrumental cover of 1967 which went #6 r&b and #26 pop rivaling the future Rock&roll Hall of Famers ‘Memphis Soul Stew’ as his biggest hit.
In a 1974 ‘ After Dark’ interview Bobbie explained another reason for her leaving Capitol Records’. She recounts the pressure,year after year, the label put on her to glean a similar song of O.T.B.J out of her. She states she resisted the pressure not wanting to dilute the power of her modern masterpiece and felt it was best ” to move ahead”. Time has shown the wisdom of such thinking. In recent years artists have added over a dozen covers of her classic. Over a decade after Harper Vally PTA, Tom .T. Hall wrote a follow up song for Jeanie C. Riley. It quickly sank into oblivion as a move of desperation on the singers behalf.
Linda Ronstadt #21 on this list and also in the top 40 on cmt’s list awhile back. Does she deserve it? Well, yes but… Bobbie Gentry has received criticism for not being country enough despite writing two bonafide classic country hits and having two #1 country albums. Linda would abandon country all together on many studio albums ( case in point: the awful attempt at punk rock,’ Mad Love’) Linda was also silly putty in the hands of producers like Peter Asher and Nelson Riddle. She played the boys club corporate game of her era well while Bobbie demanded an ever increasing amount of control. Yes, it worked for Linda, lots of top forty pop hits to Bobbie’s clutch of four and a decades long career( inspite of playing Sun City in South Africa in the heart of apartheid) Olivia Newton John, Ann Murray, Linda Ronstadt all get a pass yet Bobbie Gentry who was there before any of them and promoted the genere at the acm’s and cma’s still has somthing to prove?
I wouldn’t frame it as Bobbie Gentry still needing something to prove over these other women. It’s not like they got into the music business and worked toward the goal of earning the highest position possible on Country Universe’s 100 Greatest Women list.
Incidentally, while I certainly won’t begrudge any of Bobbie’s accomplishments, which I think are very big ones over the long term, I don’t think it is remotely fair, let alone necessary, to prop her up while slamming someone like Linda Ronstadt, who worked like a fiend to get to where she got and was NOT silly putty in the hands of ANYBODY. That kind of incendiary language minus the facts really burns me.
Erik :point taken but look at her album ‘ Mad Love’ It was nothing more than an attempt to cash in on the growing popularity of punk rock in the early 1980’s. Linda singing Elvis Costello was pathetic. She was the the biggest female star on the planet, she did not have to do what the label thought was the new cash ready trend. Her gigs at Sun City speak for themselves. I’m sure she felt the sting of sexism like all women who had a recording contract in this era did. Bobbie recorded what she wrote and what inspired her. When her album ‘ Local Gentry’ tanked in the States she told ‘Rolling Stone'” Nobody bought it, but I didn’t lose sleep over it. I never try to prejudge public taste”
In all good honesty, with respect to Linda, she was very much her own woman; and whatever she did sometimes went against the grain of her record company, but she succeeded. As for the South Africa thing–well, back then, it looked like a wrong move for sure. But apartheid ended eventually, and the UN’s cultural boycott that Linda broke had little, if anything, to do with it.
But back to Bobbie–in reading all the posts about her here, I think it is quite clear that she was a force to be reckoned with during the active recording period of her career, and that she is still an influence on others. It’s also perhaps for the best that she came along when she did in that period of 1967-1970, when a lot of different roots-oriented styles were converging in the pop music world, and had her biggest success then. She’d probably be far too good for country radio now, and probably would be categorized as “Americana”–which isn’t too bad in itself.
Jimmie Haskell Bobbie’s long time arranger(who himself won a grammy for Ode to Billie Joe in 1967) left another mystery about Bobbie in his 2003 interview for Mojo magazine. He claimed in the late 90’s or early 2000 Bobbie contacted him to arrange a number of songs she had recently written. Sadly, he was booked with other projects and could not make the commitment to her. He never heard from her again. In the 1980’s, when Bobbie was living in the exclusive resort of Skidway Island ,off the coast of Georgia, three men shipped a grand piano to her home. They tell the story on YouTube how she offered them lunch and even sang some songs for them. It is clear music has remained an important part of her life story. One hopes her latest songs will someday see the light of day.
It is my supreme hope that Bobbie Gentry will someday join Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her credentials are impeccable. In 1997, the Storyteller, Tom T. Hall proclaimed in ‘Country Weekly’ that ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ was the greatest country story song of all time. It was one of only a handful of country songs that made Rolling Stones top 500 of all time. Covered over 200 times ,with sixty still in print, the song has generated over 100 million dollars in revenue and sold forty million records. N.A.R.I.S gave her the Grammy Hall of fame award for O.T.B.J IN 1999. Her classic song, Fancy, now has about 20 covers( the first in 1970 by Lynn Anderson rivals Reba’s) and over 15 million in record sales. Other great songs by Bobbie ,including Mississippi Delta, Oklahona River Bottom Band and Morin’ Glory( several great jazz covers) have also been covered, attesting to her songwriting prowess. There is even a new hold on her powerful song ‘ Refractions’ from the album ‘ Local Gentry. If she makes it in, she will be only the third country female singer-songwriter to achieve this honor.
In 2008, Bobbie Gentry joined Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, and Elvis as a country music inductee in the Mississippi Musicans HOF. It is considered one of the most prestigous state halls with the rich musical traditons of the deep South and the Delta.
Country Universe states Bobbie’s song Fancy was “not a big hit at the time”. Are you kidding? #31 pop, #26 country #18ac in the States with four months on the pop singles chart. In Canada, the single was #1 country,#8ac and #26 pop. It sold a global million copies.
To give an idea on how big a single Bobbie Gentry’s 1969 single of Fancy was lets do a comparison with Loretta Lynns classic ‘ Coal Miners Daughter’ Loretta went #1 country and #82 pop with her classic song. It sold 250,000 singles. More importantly for Loretta, was her #1 country album of the same name, which of Fancy went #31 pop for two weeks despite being banned on several hundred radio stations. More importantly for Bobbie, it had legs on the pop hot 100 with a four month run. It would sell over 800,000 singles in the states, another 100,000 in Canada alone. Her album of the same name went #96 pop and sold 250,0000 copies. It earned Bobbie her third straight top female vocal nomination at the acm’s and a grammy nomination. Both songs generated about the same income and both songs are great country classics. Reba would send Fancy over the top in the early 90’s. It would become her signature song and would find a place on over 15 million Reba albums. It pushed her’ Rumor’s Have It’ album to double platinum in 1992, a first for Reba.
Sorry, a sentence disappeared during the submission. It should have read, more importantly for Loretta was her #1 country album ” which went gold at over 500,00 copies”
Daniel R Drown/Sky Torch,
Please stick to one name in order to keep the integrity of this comment thread intact.
Anyone who doubts the lasting integrity of this artist should read this 2008 quote from Tony Joe White”I heard Bobbie Gentry do ‘ Ode to Billie Joe, said God I know that life.Told myself if I ever do write anything, Im gonna do like her and write something I know about. It wasn’t too much longer when ‘ Polk Salad Annie’ and ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ came out”. ps…while I certantly do not have a problem posting my full name, I was following the advice of recent e-mails, from several websites, to stop posting it for security reasons.
…you should stop sitting on that skytorch-thing.
For those interested in an in depth study of Bobbie Gentry and her career ,there is a new web-site called’ The Talented Bobbie Gentry’. It contains home movies of Bobbie, many reviews of her albums and Vegas shows and fasinating copies of her fan club pages from 1968-1975.
Just purchased Bobbie Gentry’s 1969 tv special on dvd titled ‘The Sound And the Scene’. Her guests included Brenda Lee,Charley Pride and Herlin Husky. It was produced by 20th Century Fox. Like all my other Bobbie Gentry internet purchases its bootleg but the quality is good and the show is great. I actually remember watching it as a kid of 12. Bobbie was the first artist who brought me to love country music. Raven Records has promised a cd of Bobbie’s un-released Capitol Records tracks. They are combing the vaults and have come up with some gems including her great take on Billie Holidays standard,’ God Bless the Child’. Look for a future release date.
The University of Mississippi has posted a rough draft of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ on their web site that has original lyrical verses that were cut from the final recorded version. Written in Bobbie’s own hand, it is a indepth look at the construction of a song that has remained relevant for over four decades. Just go to their site and do a search on Bobbie Gentry to bring it up. Bobbie donated all her drafts and papers to the university in the early 1970’s.
I wanted to write about the industry rumor that singer-songwriter ,Jim Ford,is the true author of Ode to Billie Joe. Ford started making this claim to family and friends years ago He died in Nov 2007. He was a truly gifted musician. Nick Lowe( who claims Ford as major inspiration) took this rumor to new heights after Ford died by stating it on N.P.R radio in 2007. Here are the facts: Bobbie Gentry donated her creative rough drafts of O.T.B.J to The Un. of Mississippi forty years ago. They show her creative process, construction of the song and even missing verses Capitol Records edited from the original recording sessions. There are many inconsistancies in Fords claim. He told Nick Lowe he wrote it, he told his family he co-wrote it with her. Regardless, he never came to close to a legal or ethical burden of proof that was on him. The song has many auto-biographical elements of Bobbie’s life. The Tallahatchie Bridge and Choctaw ridge are real places from her childhood memories in Mississippi. Nick Lowe added insult to injury by stating as proof that she never wrote another song of stature( forgetting Fancy and a host of other glorious songs that were bathed in critical praise) Bobbie attended The L. A. Conservatory of Music, studying all aspects of the creative process of making music. She became proficent on piano, bass, banjo. She took her art very seriously. In a span of a few years she had written and published close to 100 songs. I find a subtle sexist text to a question of authorship. She was attacked on both ends by male songwriters. Jim Ford in claiming authorship and Bob Dylan for his savage parody Answer to Ode: Clothsline Saga to prove his creative superiority. He even stated at the time there was not a single major female poet in the entire English language. This was the rock and a hardplace female writers faced. Nick Lowe should have read his own quote about Jim Ford from the linernotes of ‘ Sounds of our Times'” Jim Fords reputation was not the best” ” He told a lot of terrible stories and use to bend the truth a bit”. It’s quite sad that the claim of a man addicted to cocaine for decades and known to fudge the truth has damaged the reputation of another artist without ever challenging her in court or showing a shred of proof and that a Record Company, Bear Family Records, could print such allegations in their linernotes.
I received an email from Bear Family Records in response to my questions about their part in this allegation which I though might be of interest. They replied: ” We’re not saying Jim Ford wrote O.T.B.J but Jim claimed he was the writer.””We believe anyone that reads my linernotes gets the picture that Mr.Ford was known to bend the truth and should be taken with a grain of salt””However, many interview sources say that Jim was the one taking Bobbie Gentry around to publishers and labels trying to get her signed”. “Jim introduced her to Capitol and according to P.J. Proby the two of them were lovers around this time”.”Mr. Ford never collected any royalties from Ode and that should give you an idea of who actually wrote the song, OR???” “L.P Anderson, International Represenative, Bear Family Records”. It seems to me the label wants it both ways. They want to protect themselves, legally, and still spread this unproved allegation. I already responded to this email and ponted out its errors. While Jim did indeed take Bobbie to various labels like Mustang Bronco to help Bobbie audition, it was her publishing deal with Larry Shayne that got her foot in the door with Capitol. Bobbie herself stated she took the demo to Capitol and got the one off single deal herself. What difference does it make if Jim Ford and Bobbie were lovers?The song is so auto-biographical in detail it would be like somebody besides Loretta claming they wrote Coal Miners Daughter. There simply is no proof and the sexist text is stunning in this day and age. Jim Ford and Bobbie Gentry being an item in 1966 is not proof. Jim Ford had forty years to prove his claim and failed.He spent the last decades of his life festering about the success of another.
Hi Skytorch, I’m curious how you know that Raven is going to release a cd of previously unissued recordings by Bobbie.
Back in late January of 2010 I e-mailed Ian McFarlane of Raven regarding the possibility of releasing just such an album. I included a list of the names of 34 previously unissued tracks said to exist in the Capitol vaults and also mentioned that there also exists some alternate takes of released tracks. A couple of days later I received a reply from Ian in which he stated that he was forwarding my suggestion to Raven Records managers and would follow that up by raising the suggestion at the next production meeting later that same week.
Since then I have heard nothing further about this from Ian and have seen nothing on the Raven website to indicate that such a CD is scheduled for future release. So I’m wondering how you came by the information that Raven has promised such an album?
Where did you get your bootleg DVD of Bobbie’s 1969 TV Special?
Hello Peter. I was told Raven Records was in the process of securing the rights about a year ago based on the success of the studio album re-issues and compilations. I had made direct inquirys to find out the exact sales figures of Bobbie Gentry’s re-issues but was only told they were substantial and profitable. I too have heard nothing more. I bought the bootleg on ebay. The seller was able to get away with it by selling an album and giving the dvd(bootleg) free with the purchase. I also have a copy of her last television performance of May, 1981 where she sings the broadway song ‘Mama A Rainbow’ to her mother ,Ruby, in the audience on the N.B.C Special. Were you aware of the master jazz interpretation of Bobbie’s song, Mornin’ Glory by the late pianist Bill Evans? It was recorded on several albums by him on Fantasy Records and was a staple on all his concert tours in the 1970’s until his passing in the 1980’s. He is considered by many one of the greatest jazz masters of the 20th century.
There is a new cover of Bobbie Gentry’s southern swamp classic, Mississippi Delta, on the album Mongolians(track#5) by the hard rock group ,The Godz. They shortened the title to just Mississippi but Bobbie has the writers credit and its truly a hard baggin frontal assault of rock&roll.
Hello Peter again! I’m guessing the main reason Raven has not released a cd of previously un-released Bobbie Gentry recordings is that the cd format is literally gasping its last breath. With a few exceptions, cd sales are dismal across the board. Taylor Swift has the #1 album in the country this week with 50,000 sales. I’ve always been a numbers junkie, I can tell you about my research into Bobbie Gentry product on the market.Her biggest seller has been Curb Records greatest hits package. Released in the States and Europe(with minor varations) it was been in print since 1991 and sold close to 400,000 copies world wide. Shout! Music Factorys’2004 ‘Chickasaw Country Child: The artistry of Bobbie Gentry has sold a respectable 70,000. I had been told Raven Records has sold 50,000 Bobbie Gentry cd’s total but I can’t verify that. I also need to state that the Godz album’ Mongolians’ is a re-issue. It was orginally released in 1989. Keep up the good work on your Bobbie Gentry website it is fantastic!
Hi Skytorch,thanks for the kind words about my new Bobbie Gentry web site. Karen’s wonderful “OdetoBobbieGentry” site was a hard act to follow but at the same time was a great inspiration. I was disappointed that the old Yuku message board had virtually sunk into disuse following the disappearance of Karen’s site as it used to have some really interesting and informative posts on it, and I was hoping that the creation of a new Bobbie Gentry web site would get that message board reactivated. Sadly, despite a year passing since I launched my new site, that reactivation has not come about. Maybe the new year will bring about renewed activity.
I do hope that Raven does decide to go ahead with a release of previously unissued material by Bobbie; I would certainly buy a copy.
Thanks for providing such information. niouwhgfd
I love Bobbie Gentry and her music but can’t understand why she should be listed as one of the most influential women in country music. I own thousands of country music records and what Bobbie produced was not country music, although there was a slight country/folk influence to some of it, especially on her first and last studio albums. The duets album with Glen Campbell, despite the inclusion of many country standards, contained arrangements that were pure pop music, with hardly any hint of country at all. The “Touch ‘Em With Love” album, despite being recorded in Nashville, was mostly r & b influenced.
Bobbie didn’t consider herself a country singer and once stated, during an interview, “In the USA people don’t look on me as a country singer at all. This image stems mainly from England…” She added, “My earliest things were influenced by the blues.” Elsewhere she has said that as a youngster in Mississippi she heard little country music as her family used to mainly listen to jazz and r &b from a New Orleans radio station, and there is certainly a jazz and r & b influence in a lot of her music.
Pop music has always been an amalgamation of other music styles. Bobbie was a pop music artist, her music being influenced by folk, country, jazz, r & b and even tin pan alley. She could, fairly, be included in any list of most influential women in pop music or possibly in rock music, but NOT in country music.
Peter: Bobbie Gentry’s influence on country music was huge. Americana Legends, Lucinda Willams and Roseanne Cash, as well as master country songwriter Matraca Berg, are just a few who claim her legacy as inspiration. She did chart two million selling #1 country albums in the 1960’s and did support the country music industry by hosting and appearing on the C.M.A’s and A.C. M’s. One of her last television appearances was as a presenter on the A.C.M’s in the early 1980’s when George Strait was the host. Yes, she was a hybrid artist but so were Glen Campbell, Brenda Lee and many others who are in The Country Music Hall Of fame. In 2008, and U.K and the B.B.C did a documentary show on Country Music Queens. The three icons they profiled, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Bobbie Gentry..
After winning the A.C.M’s 1967 top new country female artist, Bobbie Gentry was nominated by the A.C.M as top Country female in 1968,1969 and 1970. She took time from her busy international schedule to attend these events. Obviously the genere was important to her career. Virtually all country female artists today could be classifed as pop music singers. If Elvis can in the Country Music Hall of Fame, there is plenty of room for the original Mississippi Delta Queen, Bobbie Gentry.
Let’s not go too far overboard Skytorch. I know you have the hots for her, but Bobbie’s influence on country music was minimal – more than Peggy Lee but not in the same ballpark as Kitty Wells
CLaiming her as an influence on Lucinda Williams is like saying she was a big influence on Jessica Simpson – not too much of an influence on country music, maybe more of one on Americana (whatever that is)
Paul: Minimal? Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift have far more in common with Bobbie Gentry’s musical style than Kitty Wells or even Loretta and Tammy . Bobbie played a huge role in making country music palatable for the younger generation of late 20th century.I believe Lucinda and Roseanne Cash and Matraca Berg are listed on this sites top 100 country women. With the exceptions of Loretta and Dolly, I don’t know of any other female country singer-songwriter that has self penned(not co-authored) at least two modern classic songs that have been covered by over 100 different recording artists and are on many critics lists of top 100 and 500 songs of all time.
Yes very minimal – you are extrapolating a commonality that just isn’t there. If Bobbie Gentry had never existed (an unpleasant thought, I concede) the state of modern female country music would be exactly where it is today – mostly vapid slush (or are you crediting Ms Gentry with that, too ?)
You have every right to feel that the glory days of country music, for women, are in the past. I however, remember most of it as a huge barrier for the creative integrity of women. Forget even that women had only one out of twelve rotations on radio airplay and were outsold by men ten to one. Or even that greats like Patsy, Tammy and Loretta had to have an Owen Bradly or Billy Sheryll in their corner to make it. Along comes an astute, talented women from the deep South who plays by her own rules. She writes ,produces and publishes her own songs. She forms her own production and publishing companies. She makes millions in income. She inspires men. Tom T. Hall has stated in print that Ode to Billie Joe was his inspiration writing ‘Harper Vally P.T.A. Tony Joe White claims Gentry’s legacy for inspiring ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ and’ Polk Salad Anne’. Yes, she paid a price for her creative integrity and freedom. If you chose to call it minimal thats your buisness.
Facts are stubborn things and here’s the facts as far as Miss Gentry’s chart activity
1) “Ode To Billie Joe” #1 Pop/#17 Country
2) “Louisiana Man” #100 Pop/ #72 Country
3) “Less of Me” w/Glen Campbell #44 Country
flip was “Mornin’ Glory” #70 POP
4)”Let It Be Me” w/ Glen Campbell #36 Pop #14 Country
5)”Fancy” #31 Pop/#26 Country
6) “All I Have To Do Is Dream” w/ Geln Campbell
#27 Pop / #6 Country
That’s a pretty thin resume, particularly since three of the songs were duets with superstar Glen Campbell and those three didn’t do nearly as well as his solo efforts at the time were doing
That looks about like the resume of songwriter Bobby Russell – he did not have any singular hit record but wrote three songs as least as big as Bobbie’s single major hit, and one of his copyrights “Honey” was far bigger (the other two were “Little Green Apples” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”). You don’t see anyone trying to make a Hall of Fame Case for Bobby Russell.
And I really don’t hear any Bobbie Gentry influence in Shania Twain or Faith Hill. At #67 Kevin has her pegged about right, maybe even a little too high
Chart statistics, however, really don’t tell the entire story.
After all, how do you explain the ability of a song like “Ode To Billie Joe” to resonate over the years? It’s the perfect example of a story song, the kind that doesn’t seem to get done in country music anymore; and its sparse sound was so different from what was on pop music radio in 1967. And “Fancy” has a grittiness to it as well, which was quite absent in Reba’s version.
Maybe Bobbie was not a genre-specific artist. But then the business wasn’t anywhere near as corporate as it is now; and back then, it seems that artists with diverse musical backgrounds succeeded far more than they ever would to do today. And finally–an artist is lucky if they even have one song that everyone remembers them for. Bobbie has at least those two.
Skytorch, the title of this article is The 100 Greatest Women (in country music) and, as I said in my previous posting, Bobbie was not, by her own admission, a country singer, but was a pop/rock singer. And I still believe that her influence in country music in general wasn’t particularly great, country music never changed at all because of her body of work.
In contrast, however, Elvis helped change the face of country music completely. Although I would argue that it wasn’t really Elvis alone that did this, rather it was the entire rockabilly/rock ‘n’ roll genre that did it. By about 1956 rockabilly/rock ‘n’ roll virtually dominated the entire music scene, country artists found airplay and sales of their records falling drastically. People were no longer interested in the traditional honky tonk sounds of Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, Hank Williams etc., or the western swing of Bob Wills, Johnnie Lee Wills, Billy Jack Wills, Pee Wee King, etc., so country music either had to change with the times or die. Several country singers tried dabbling with rockabilly/rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, George Jones cut a few rockabilly sides as Thumper Jones, Faron Young cut a couple of such sides and several more pop sounding tracks, as did Marty Robbins. Hank Thompson and other western swings artists also dabbled a bit with boogie/rock ‘n’ roll music. As rock ‘n’ roll died out around 1960 all this experimentation by country artists led to the emergence of a new form of country music, often dubbed as the “Nashville” sound. This was generally a smoother sound, the nasal twang and rough edges of people like Hank Williams and Webb Pierce had largely disappeared, there was the more frequent use of background voices by people such as the Jordanaires.
As the 1960s advanced into the 1970s the fiddle was more frequently being dropped from much of Nashville’s output and being replaced by absolutely awful, overpowering, soaring string sections. Country music had gone uptown, (much as the blues had when it moved from the deep South to Chicago), and if memory serves me correctly I seem to recall it frequently being referred to as “countrypolitan” music. Much of the music that was then getting into the “country” music charts had become little more than middle-of-the-road pop music dominated by people like Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, and others of similar ilk. Little wonder then that “Ode To Billie Joe” got into the country charts, even though it wasn’t really a country song as such, it’s lyrics were more country than pop and, admittedly, the song itself had a more country feel than most of the other stuff in the charts, but then that wasn’t hard to accomplish at that time.
The “countrypolitan sound continued to dominate the charts until about 1974/1975 when there was a sudden tentative return to real country/honky tonk music with the arrival of artists like Moe Bandy and Gene Watson, and even Lefty Frizzell started to reappear in the charts before his untimely death. Not long after this, about 1980/81 came John Anderson and George Strait, followed by the New Traditionalists, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Skaggs, The Judds, The O’Kanes, Alan Jackson, etc. Real country music was back in the “country” charts. Fiddles were back, lush string arrangements were, thankfully, at long last, out.
None of this occurred because of any influence from Bobbie or her music. Her influence was pretty much limited to a handful of female Americana/country singer/songwriters and she may have influenced the live performing styles of people like Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift but, there again, I wouldn’t class Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift as country artists any more than I would Glen Campbell or Charlie Rich.
As for the statement about Tammy, Patsy and Loretta requiring the likes of Owen Bradley in their corner to make it, I fail to see how this differed in any way from their male counterparts. Johnny Cash may never have made it without Sam Phillips & Jack Clement in his corner at Sun, then later at Columbia Don Law & Frank Jones followed by Bob Johnston, etc,. Conway Twitty may never have made it as a country artist if not for Owen Bradley at Decca, and George Jones had Pappy Daily behind him for years at Starday, Mercury, United Artists and Musicor, then Billy Sherrill at Epic, etc. Lefty Frizzell had first Art Satherley, then Don Law and Frank Jones, Don Davis, Larry Butler, etc. Hank Williams had Fred Rose; Ernest Tubb had a whole string of people behind him over the years from Dave Kapp, through Paul Cohen and Owen Bradley; Webb Pierce had Paul Cohen and Owen Bradley; Stonewall Jackson had Don Law & Frank Jones; Johnny Horton had Don Law; Tex Ritter and Hank Thompson had Lee Gillette and later Ken Nelson; Marty Robbins had Art Satherley and later Don Law & Frank Jones; Bill Monroe had a whole string of people behind him through the years including Art Satherley, Paul Cohen, Owen Bradley, Walter Hayes, etc., while Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs had among others Troy Martin, Don Law & Frank Jones, Bob Johnston, etc. Charley Pride had Chet Atkins, Bob Ferguson, Jack Clement, and Felton Jarvis. Don Williams had Allen Reynolds as did Garth Brooks several years later. Arguably, none of these male singers would have made it without their producers any more than Tammy, Patsy and Loretta would have without theirs. Okay, so Bobbie was one of the first female performers to do it all on her own, but then there were hardly any male performers who had done so, especially in country music.
As you know I’m love Bobbie and her music, even having a website dedicated to her, so I’m not trying to put her down in any way but am just trying to bring a little realism into this debate, and in all honesty I still don’t think she should be in any list of 100 Greatest Women in country music any more than I think Elvis Presley should be in any list of 100 Greatest Males in country music, (and I’m a great Elvis fan also). Having said that there are several other female artists in this list, Linda Ronstadt, Anne Murray, K. T. Oslin, K. D. Lang, Wynonna, Olivia Newton-John, Brenda Lee, Marie Osmond, etc) that I would regard as neither real country singers nor being particularly influential in country music that I don’t think should have been included either.
While I totally disagree with the premise of your article, Peter, I enjoyed reading your informed thoughts . Bobbie Gentry has been marketed by the industry as a country singer for over 40 years. As for Bobbie Gentry’s chart activity,lets give the full picture. She charted 11 hot 100 pop singles 1967-78. She had 5 studio albums and a greatest hits package on the pop album charts.She had the first #1 pop and #1 country album(male or female) in the history of the Billboard charts. The first duets album in country music history to go gold. She had four#1 country singles in Canada. She was even more successful in the U.K. I would be the first to admit that Bobbie had only limited success on the charts. One of the many things I admired about her was her ability to remain a star without hit records. Her gig as Howard Hughes golden girl in Vegas remained intact untill she retired in the early 1980’s. She headlined and sold out ‘The LandMark’, ‘Frontier’ and ‘Desert Inn’ maintaining multi-million dollar contracts that gave her complete artistic control of her popular act until she chose to retire on her own terms. In contrast, I remember paying 15 bucks to see Jeanie C. Riley at a Howards Johnson perform to a group of less than 40 people in the early 80’s. She put on a good show, but she was reduced to this after making up to 20,000 a gig in the late 1960’s. Eric makes a great point about relevance. Ode to Billie Joe has had many new covers this past decade. I enjoyed Roseanne Cash’s cover on tour recently. The song has over 40 million in record sales by over 100 different artists. Fancy has close to 15 million in sales from Reba’s album sales alone.
It seem there are many definitions of who and what country music really is. To me, it has evolved over the decades and for better or worse bares only some similarity to its core musical roots, sounds and textures of forty years ago. In my view, Bobbie Gentry was stating she was not a purist country singer. Glen Campbell made similar remarks about refusing to be catagorized. I have 22 books on the history of country music in my personal library. Bobbie Gentry is noted in every single one. She was inducted into The Mississippi Musicians Hall Of Fame in 2008 as a country artist.
Skytorch, you say that Bobbie has been marketed as a country singer for 40 years, and that may well the reason why she never had as many hit records as her talent surely richly deserved. Had she been promoted and marketed as what she really was, a pop/rock singer she may she have had more hit records and may possibly still have been recording to the present day.
It may also be true that her name appears in every country music book in your collection, she appears in all the country music books that I have as well, but that still doesn’t mean she was really a country singer. Elvis appears in most such books as does Roy Orbison but neither was ever a country singer nor ever promoted as such. Many country singers have recorded Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan songs but that doesn’t make either of them country singers any more than Reba recording “Fancy” makes Bobbie a country artist.
As for the Mississippi Musicians’ Hall of Fame, she was inducted as a country singer simply because that’s what she was marketed as for 40 years. If she’d been marketed as a pop/rock singer for all those years then, no doubt, that’s what she’d have been inducted as. Once titles are applied they tend to have a habit of sticking even though they are not really representative of the person they’ve been given to. Hence Glen Campbell was, against his wishes, tagged as a country artist even though he obviously didn’t want to be tagged as one. And I still believe that tagging Bobbie as a country artist was completely wrong and detrimental to her career.
I accept, and said as much myself in my previous posting, that country music has changed over the decades, but despite losing it’s identity a few times it has always returned to its roots and re-generated itself.
Country music started out in the 20s principally as string band (or hillbilly) music then along came “The Mississippi Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family with two different country styles. Shortly after came the western swing of Milton Brown and Bob Wills. About the same time Gene Autry and Ernest Tubb appeared on the scene first as Jimmie Rodgers soundalikes but then produced hybrid sounds. Tubb introduced the world to Texas honky tonk music, an amalgam of string band, Jimmie Rodgers and western swing and Gene Autry gave us a West Coast style of country music often with a cowboy theme. Autry’s style was similar to Tubb’s but without much of the western swing influence. Also at the same time string band music had evolved, through Bill and Charlie Monroe, and then Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, into bluegrass music. Throughout the 40s and early 50s honky tonk and straight country music flourished with artists such as Webb Pierce, Hank Williams senior, George Jones, Roy Rogers & The Sons of The Pioneers, Tex Ritter, Kitty Wells, Johnny Horton, Hank Thompson, Patsy Montana, Jean Shepard and many others. Bluegrass also added many new performers to its roster like The Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Reno & Smiley.
Western swing, like its big band swing counterpart, started to Incorporate boogie into its sound via people like Moon Mullican and by the early 50s boogie was also finding its way into mainstream country music. But for all these changes country music still retained its connections to its roots and maintained its identity.
Then came the fusion of country boogie and rhythm & blues first into rockabilly and then with the addition of pop music into the more commercial form known as rock ‘n’ roll. Although some early rockabilly still retained much of its country associations including use of steel guitar and sometimes even fiddle it stepped across the boundary from country to pop music with the commercialisation into rock ‘n’ roll, and as the latter gained in popularity with teenagers the sales of country in all its forms, including rockabilly, plummeted.
From this turmoil in the world of country music was born, in the early 60s, the “Nashville Sound,” a smoother form of country designed to compete in the more commercial world now dominated by the soft rock/pop of people like Bobby Vee, Bobbie Vinton, and post-army Elvis, but even this modern country still retained its link to the older country sounds pre rock ‘n’ roll. As the 60s progressed, however, the creators of the Nashville Sound saw the wealth being earned from pop music and wanted a slice of that action so decided that the further commercialisation of country was required. So fiddles were dropped and more and more lush strings were added to tracks by the likes of Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Charley Pride, Faron Young, Marty Robbins and even Johnny Cash and George Jones, etc., (the popularity of people Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Faron Young, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash took a nosedive at this time showing that this treatment wasn’t popular with country fans, though Conway Twitty and George Jones managed to survive it to a large extent), until eventually country had again crossed the boundary into pop music, and people like Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich sounded little different from their popular music counterparts like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, etc., and that’s why I think they were never really country artists at all but should have been classed as what they were, pop singers. A backlash to this syrupy Nashville Sound was the creation of the “Outlaw” movement of Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, etc., which then led to another more commercial creation, that of country-rock, designed to compete with the rock music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and hundreds of other 60s and 70s modern rock bands. It wasn’t long, however, before country-rock also crossed the boundary and could no longer be identified as country and was little different to its modern rock counterpart. Country music had again lost its identity, more so even than it had in the late 50s.
Now, in the mid 70s came another counter-revolution in country, Moe Bandy, Gene Watson and others took country back to its Texas honky tonk roots. This new sound was an amalgam of the honky tonk music of the 50s but with the smoother Nashville Sound of the 60s before the added string sections. Fiddles and steel guitars were back in fashion and fans, starved of the real country, were once again being catered for. After a few years, however, the Nashville machine tried adding strings to the music. Moe Bandy and to a lesser extent Gene Watson suffered from this syndrome, and the careers of both took a corresponding nosedive, especially that of Moe Bandy. Fortunately, this attempt to commercialise country again didn’t last too long before the New Traditionalists returned the music to its 50s roots, John Anderson and Randy Travis took it back to its Texas honky tonk roots, George Strait back to its honky tonk and western swing roots, Ricky Skaggs back to its bluegrass roots, Dwight Yoakam back to the West Coast Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens sometimes with a hint of rockabilly. The Judds and The O’Kanes went back to a more basic acoustic led country sound. Again, real country music was back in favour.
But again, before too long Nashville tried to commercialise this new traditional sound when Warner Brothers started adding strings to John Anderson’s music, only for him to suddenly fall out of favour with country record buyers for several years until he signed with BNA Records and returned with a more basic country sound although sometimes with a rockier edge. George Strait meanwhile had carried on with his basic honky tonk/western swing sound and remained very much in favour although occasionally his tracks had become a little more boring and marred by the addition of strings, while Randy Travis had carried on with his honky tonk sound but had added a more rockier edge to some of his later material. Ricky Skaggs, after a string of more and more commercial recordings, had gone almost entirely back to his bluegrass roots. Alan Jackson had arrived with his great basic country sound which payed homage to several greats of country music like Hank Williams and George Jones.
Overshadowing all of these great artists, however, was Garth Brooks,.who had managed to do what nobody had really managed to do before, he had made country music acceptable to the teenage record buyers WITHOUT forgoing his true country audience and identity. He had added a little rock and the occasional strings to some of his music without going overboard with either, but still retained great steel guitar and fiddle as well. On top of all this he had a great live act that was probably better then most pop acts of the time. This is probably why people like Randy Travis had developed a more rocky edge to their music, and that of other newer singers like Doug Stone, John Michael Montgomery, Craig Morgan, Brad Paisley, Matt King, Ken Mellons and Chris LeDoux definitely had a rockier edge to the faster songs. Fortunately, none of these acts have yet fallen into the syrupy strings trap yet or gone overboard with the rock sound, although Brad Paisley has come close on a couple of tracks lately, however, other acts have definitely crossed the line into pop/rock again. Shania Twain was not, despite being marketed as so, country by any stretch of the imagination, neither is Keith Urban, these and several others have more in common with modern rock/pop than country and in reality that’s what they are. Even the wonderful Dixie Chicks are in danger of crossing the line into rock/pop if their last album is anything to go by.
So, yes, country music has evolved over the decades, but not always for the better or to its advantage. Sometimes it has been positively detrimental, and every time it has been there has been a backlash that has returned the music to an updated version of its earlier roots. Throughout these decades, however, there has always been artists who have refused to compromise their traditional country sound, people such as Vernon Oxford, Norman Wade, Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson, Roy Acuff, Gene Watson, Becky Hobbs, Alan Jackson, David Ball, etc., and there are hundreds of fantastic, newer and up-and-coming country artists who will never make the big time because they stick to more traditional country styles. This group includes people like Dale Watson, Wayne Hancock, Chris Wall, Tom Armstrong, Andy Wilkinson, James Hand, Don Edwards, Sons Of The San Joaquin, Dan Roberts, Tim Holcomb, Damon Gray, Ken Overcast, Royal Wade Kimes, Brenn Hill, Kimberly M’Carver, Tanya Savory, Roger Wallace, Billy Yates, and many others.
Nashville has now become synonymous with a bland, boring, commercial, form of music barely recognisable as country at all, while the majority of interesting newer artists producing recognisable real country music are from Texas and elsewhere. So, yes, as you say, the commercial sounds coming from today’s corporate Nashville studios (which are now largely only interested in making lots of wealth from the short-term careers of throwaway acts), barely have any connection with country music’s roots and are largely no longer country at all and most should not be categorised as such. Luckily, however, real country with recognisable connections to all its roots does still exists elsewhere in the U.S.A.
Hello Peter: You can make a convincing case but the The Country Music Hall Of Fame has already inducted Brenda Lee, Sonny James, Glen Campbell and I truly believe acts like Shania Twain,Faith Hill and yes, Bobbie Gentry will eventually be inducted too. Country Music has a far bigger tent than you believe. I think the major flaw in your argument is that Bobbie herself courted a country music audience. She literally got the fledgling C.M.A’s off the ground in 1967 with co-host Sonny James. A dear friend of mine Rick, has worked with Loretta Lynn for decades. He was kind enough to get me permission to use quotes about Bobbie from her for use in articles I submitted. Loretta sort of thought of her as an uptown country sister. Dolly Parton stated in print the reason she crossed over to the pop charts was because of her sluggish sales. Her#1 country hit ‘Jolene’ sold 60,000 singles. Bobbie’s #56 pop single’Oklahona River Bottom Band’ sold 250,000 but was still considered a failure in some corners comparred to the massive 3.5 million singles of O.T.B.J. It is obvious to me that Gentry butted heads with the boys club wall at Capitol. I think the reason she was limited to four top forty pop singles was her scatter gun market. Her singles were charting pop, country, r&b and adult contemporary. Bobbie Gentry had a fully loaded creative arsonal : the range was breathtaking. All I’m saying is that country music was a vital part of that range and that she became a superstar ,for a time, in an era when record executives were signing ten men to one woman for a recording contract.
Skytorch, you may well be correct in saying that people like Bobbie, Shania Twain and Faith Hill will eventually be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but this doesn’t necessarily make country artists of such people. What it does show, however, is that the Country Music Association, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Nashville now have little interest in the integrity of real country music, as they are now prepared to label virtually anything as country provided it earns the industry many millions of dollars. In fact, here in the U.K. Shania Twain was promoted as a pop/rock singer, her records were actually remixed for the U.K. pop market here, although they didn’t require much re-mixing to make that change.
You say Bobbie herself courted the country market, (if so why did she say that her country image came mainly from the U.K.), because she co-hosted the 1967 C.M.A’s with Sonny James. It may, however, simply be that as a new up-and-coming artist hungry for fame and fortune she saw this as another opportunity to (a) further her popularity on a high profile TV show, (b) no doubt earn herself a good fee into the bargain, (being an astute business woman it’s unlikely she agreed to this gig for nothing) and, (c) it couldn’t possibly hurt to get seen by the country audience, even though she didn’t regard herself a country singer. Undoubtedly, for their part the C.M.A. thought the presence of this new star that everyone was talking about, and who looked great on camera, would draw a much bigger audience for the show. What more could they ask for in a co-host?
Sure, country music is a large tent, (covering mainstream country, honky tonk, bluegrass, old time country, cajun, western swing, cowboy and western poetry and songs, folk-country and country-rock, etc.), but, as with any genre of any art, there has to be parameters that mean something otherwise there’s no point in having genres in the first place. If you don’t have parameters then you may as well only have one genre and one chart, ‘pop’ music, to cover everything.
Here in the United Kingdom, despite her saying that her image as a country artist arose mainly in the U.K., she was seen as a pop/rock artist. We didn’t even have a country music chart here back in 1967, only a pop music chart. All her records that were hits here were seen as pop records and charted in the pop music charts. The teenage record-buyers of the 60s regarded country music as being for ‘squares,’ for parents, old people, so promoting a record as country would be, more than likely, the cause of its failure on the pop chart. This was the era of flower power and hippies, the era of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and hundreds of other extremely successful British rock acts, as well as U.S. acts like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, etc. No self-respecting British teenager was going to admit to liking country music even though the majority of them had no idea what real country music was as they only had so-called country artists like Glen Campbell to base their judgement on.
‘Opry’ was the only U.K. country music journal that existed at that time, and it only existed from mid-1968 to the end of 1969 before becoming, in February 1970, the highly respected and still existing ‘Country Music People’ magazine. ‘Opry’ only ever reviewed one of Bobbie’s U.K. single releases and one U.K. album release and regarded both as pop music. This is what it said about them:
Opry – February 1969, review of “Bobbie Gentry And Glen Campbell” duets album:
‘This is a beautifully produced set that should sell massively within pop circles but will hold no interest for country music fans…’
Opry – July 1969, review of “Touch ‘Em With Love/Casket Vignette” single:
‘This is more pop than anything else – in fact it is pop…’
None of Bobbie’s later releases were ever reviewed by ‘Country Music People’ magazine, surely indicating that they didn’t regard her as country either.
So although Bobbie had the notion that her being regarded as a country artist came from the U.K. that really wasn’t the case. At the time of the release of “Ode To Billie Joe” all the programs she guested on were ‘pop/rock’ shows, where she would be introduced as a new American singer with an interesting new sound. To introduce her on such shows as a country singer would probably have consigned her to oblivion.
I believe she was more popular here, in Europe and Australia because she was marketed simply as a ‘pop/rock’ artist. This is why “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” did so well in these areas. It’s why her BBC TV shows were also very popular in such places. There was none of the ‘scattergun’ approach to her music and, in reality it was only in the U.S. where she was marketed as a country singer – some of the time. I also believe this U.S. ‘scattergun’ approach was the biggest mistake her record label and/or she made. She should have been marketed as what she was, a pop/rock artist. Okay, so “Ode” topped the country charts in the U.S., but does that necessarily make it a country record? Back in 1956 Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” topped the country charts, the R & B charts and the pop charts in the U.S., however, that record was neither country nor R & B, it was a rock ‘n’ roll record, a 1950’s pop record. In 1977 Elvis’ single “Way Down/”Pledging My Love” reached #2 on the Billboard 100 top country singles, despite being a pure pop/rock record. Quite a few of Elvis’ earlier singles had hit the country charts over the years despite being pop/rock records. So, as with being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, etc., hitting the country charts doesn’t, therefore, necessarily make a record or an artist country.
I fully agree with you that Bobbie was very talented and had a fully loaded arsenal with a breathtaking range, and I believe us fans were sadly robbed of even better things to come when she decided to quit show business. I also think she had the ability to produce some terrific real country songs, (two or three songs on “Patchwork” showed a trend in that direction), and she had a great voice that would have suited that kind of music too. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
To summarise, I still maintain that, while she may have been on the periphery of country music, she wasn’t really, (by her own admission), a country singer, and so should not be regarded as one of the 100 greatest women in country music. She should, however, be somewhere near the top, or even at the top, of the 100 greatest women in pop/rock music.
I’m sure my arguments still won’t make any difference to the view you take, so I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this point. I know, however, that we will always agree in our high esteem for Bobbie as a singer, songwriter, entertainer and all around nice person regardless of any labels attached to her. Thanks for this, as usual when I engage in such with you, interesting and informative discussion.
Hello Peter! As always I respect your opinion. With Bobbie Gentry already inducted into The Mississippi hof and The Mississippi Musicans hof, I’m hoping she gets a well deserved induction into The Nashville Songwriters hof. They already inducted Tammy Wynette inspite of the fact she needed male co-authorships for her musical song offerings. Perhaps you could send an e-mail to the organization on Bobbie’s behalf. I already have. Dr. Jim Brewer ,President of The Mississippi Musicans hof, has sent me an e-mail stating that he and his organization are fully behind such an induction which he feels is long over due.. I hope you have the Bill Evans album ‘Live In Toyko’ which opens with his lush rendition of Bobbie’ song, ‘Mornin’ Glory’. It was truly an honor for her to have one of the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th century make this glorious song his own.
I received my preview copy of Ruth Gersons album,’Deceived’ due out May 17. She does a stunning,unique cover of Bobbie’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ and Dolly Partons ‘Down from Dover’. The album is already getting huge critical praise. I also enjoyed Jeanie Seelys cover of O.T.B.J on her new country classics cd.
I just got done watching Anne Murrays Special on C.B.C. Her conceit is palpable. She actually stated on national television that her duets album with Glen Campbell was superior to Bobbie Gentry’s. There’ just one problem Anne, yours floudered and Bobbie’s was a smash,#1 country,#11 pop. It produced hits on both sides of the Atlantic and sold over 1 million copies in the 1960’s. Glen actually stated it is his persoanl favorite. I enjoy Anne and her lovely technical voice but Bobbie Gentry had a range of depth and power beyond her perfect pitch.
Its great to see Bobbie Gentry finally getting her just due. The latest example is a great new compilation cd titled’ Delta Swamp Rock: Sounds From The South'(Soul-Jazz Records 2011). Gentry takes center stage with the likes of The Allman Brothers,Lynard Skynard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Joe South. Three of her self penned songs grace the two set cd. A magnificant 63 page booklet comes with the package. Their great quote of Bobbie’s influence”” Mississippi Delta, Gentry’s protype Southern Rocker, a descriptive journey into the local language and colours of Gentry’s childhood(with johnny cakes,apple pandowdy,scuppernongs,muscadines and chigger bites) “Gentry’s music, a faultless blend of rock,country and soul” “Her Mississippi Delta: Southern Rock before the genere existed”
In tracking the huge money trail of Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, I was surprised to learn that a 1967 instrumental cover by artist Lou Donaldson produced one of hip hop musics pioneer “breaks” covered in other songs by artists Mary J. Blidge, Kanye West, Carlos Santana,Madonna, Timberland,Cyprus Hill and over 75 other hiphop and rap artists . If anyone is interested in listening to the 1967 Lou Donaldson instrumental, it is posted on YouTube.
Award winning author Rachel Trezise, apparently with Bobbie Gentry’s permission, is basing her 5th novel on Bobbie’s song ‘Fancy’. She is quoted as saying”her song is like a short story and I’ve always wanted to do something with it” Racheal won The Dylan Thomas prize for her short story collection’ Fresh Apples’ No deadline has been set for the publication inspired by the classic rags to riches song about a call girl.
A good friend has loaned me his large stack of live Elvis Presley performance cd.s and Iv’e been absorded listening to them. On closing night in Vegas Sept 3 1973, he introduces Bobbie Gentry in the audience and states” she’s opening at The Frontier””Go see her show, she’s a wow!! Quite a compliment from The King of showmanship!
Skytorch, I’ve been listening to Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” and looked up Tony Joe White. I simply can’t believe he wrote the song. It’s nothing like any of his other work. Something in the song reminded me of OTBJ. When I read that White credited OTBJ as his inspiration, I was stunned. Did Gentry and White know each other?