100 Greatest Women, #69: Bobbie Gentry

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#69

Bobbie Gentry

2008 Edition: #67 (-2)

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 transfer 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 the catchy “M-I-Double S-I-Double P-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 only reached #17 on the country charts, but it was a four-week No. 1 pop hit, selling 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 Campbell 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.

Essential Singles

  • 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

Essential Albums

  • Ode to Billie Joe (1967)
  • Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell (1968)
  • Touch ‘Em with Love (1969)
  • Fancy (1970)

Industry Awards

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Top New Female Vocalist, 1968
  • Grammy Awards
    • Best New Artist, 1968
    • Best Contemporary Solo Vocal Performance, Female
      • Ode to Billie Joe, 1968
    • Best Vocal Performance, Female
        • Ode to Billie Joe, 1968

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #68. Patty Griffin

Previous: #70. Gillian Welch

10 Comments

  1. Very good overview on Bobbie, but I would point out an error about the chart performance of “Ode To Billie Joe”; it only topped out at #17 on the Billboard country singles chart. And anyone care to guess which song it bumped from the #1 spot on the pop charts? Would you believe it was “All You Need Is Love”, by a quartet of guys named the Beatles.

    And I will probably get barbecued for saying this, but, in my humnle opinion, Bobbie’s own original version of “Fancy” outstrips Reba’s by being stripped down in its arrangement. Indeed, without her natural Southern accent, Bobbie could actually sound a bit like Dusty Springfield in her Dusty In Memphis phase.

  2. I remember hearing Ode to Billy Joe on one of the NYC rock radio stations. It couldn’t have been a country station for me in 1967. Back then, I was more likely to mock country music.

  3. Man, I miss Bobbie Gentry making music. Ode To Billy Joe is still a classic.

  4. And it may also be worthwhile to point out that the album Ode To Billie Joe was the first album by a female artist ever to top both the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart and the Country Album Chart at the same time, this happening in October 1967. The second time this happened wouldn’t be until February 1975, when Linda Ronstadt pulled it off with Heart Like A Wheel.

  5. I want to comment about the Delta Sweete, Bobbie’s masterpiece follow up to the album Ode to Billie Joe( which was only the second album by a female artist to sell over 1 million copies, Barbra Streisand was the first) The Delta Sweete peaked at #111 on the Billboard top 200. It’s lead single Oklahona River Bottom Band peaked at #56 pop and sold over 200,000 singles. Compare that to Dolly Parton’s, Jolene, which at #1 country sold 60,000 singles. Indeed, it was the lack of sales for her country hit singles that propelled her to go pop in the late 1970’s and strike gold first with ‘Here You Come Again’. Likewise the chart position of Bobbie’s single, Fancy, only tells part of the story. It achieve #31 pop, #26 country, #8 adult contemporary but more importantly it had a four month run on the pop hot 100 and combined with the album sales sold over 1 million copies. Bobbie earned her third straight A.C.M nomination for top country female and a grammy nomination for pop female vocal off the strength of this record. Time has been kind to Bobbie Gentry, far more so than many on your list. On Sept, 12, 2018 Universal Records released a box set of her entire Capitol records catalog including fresh to market Gentry original compositions and unheard demos and rarities in England. It debuted at #1 on the U.K Top Country Compilation album chart and stayed there for three weeks. It is currently ranked #5 in its 5th week of release. Universal Records clearly under estimated demand for it’s U.S debut on Oct.12 2018. The entire U.S quota sold out in pre-orders in just 10 days. It was re-supplied and as of Nov. 3, 2018 is totally sold out again in the c.d format. Amazon, for the second time, had to stop taking orders.Nearly 50 years later, thousands of her loyal fans are shelling out close to 100 bucks to attain The Girl from Chickasaw County :The Complete Capitol Masters.

  6. I want to make one last post about this article about Bobbie Gentry. He career was basically in two half’s 1967-73 recording was her top priority. 1973-1981 her live Vegas shows dominated her career. She was not dropped by Capitol records In 1973. She refused to accept the new terms offered and simply did not re-sign with the label. They had an option on her until 1976 so she had to wait out her contract obligation before she could sign with another label. In 1970 she signed her first million dollar contract with the Howard Hughes organization to headline his casinos. She broke attendance records at The Desert Inn and by 1976 she was commanding 125,000 thousand a week from the Hughes organization. She was stymied in her recording career because of her demands for artistic control. In 1971, she wrote and produced her entire album, PatchWork, receiving the best critical reviews of her career. She had , however, created a ‘boys club’ backlash at the label with an element at Capitol actively working to destroy the commercial viability of this expensive project. Tactics included destroying promotion material set to go out to radio stations and record stores and it was even suggested to me that sales were altered in accounting. I received this scoop from an a&r man at the label decades ago. She effectively never recovered from this disappointment and cashed in big time in Vegas. In Vegas she was in control and enjoyed her ability for complete artistic expression. I find it truly sad that it took the Brits to bring the box set to fruition.It’s producer-engineer ,Andrew Batt, approached me and other devoted fans about the project about a year and a half ago. I provided some pictures and memorabilia for the coffee table book included in the box set( and received a nice thank you in the book) .The reason Universal records produced the box set is because they had bought out E.M.I( and in effect Capitol) several years ago. A fresh set of ears had access to the Gentry tapes and was amazed how timeless the material was. What saddens me is the project never would have been considered in the United States. It took the Brits to bring her huge revival into full swing. And as the L.A Times wrote in a five star review two weeks ago” Bobbie Gentry Gets her Due”.

  7. It does not surprise me that the Brit and Europeans would be more interested in the historical archives of 60s & 70s American artists, even relatively minor ones such as Gentry.

    You should see the exhaustively worshipful attention that the German Bear Family label has give major artists such as Waylon Jennings, Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow. Even Jimmie Dicken has two boxed sets available. Nothing similar has been done in the US but there are many labels in the UK, Germany, Czech Republic, etc. who have put out major collections on American

  8. I promise this time: last comment. I could not let the term “relatively minor artist” be attached to Bobbie Gentry. She has experienced a huge rival of interest in the last decade and her music has beautifully withstood the test of time. Examples: Ode to Billie Joe: over 200 covers ,50 million in record sales. The only other female country songwriter to match this feat was Dolly Parton with ‘I Will Always Love You’. Fancy: 20 covers 25 million in record sales. It earned a coveted spot on Reba’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 album which has ,by itself, sold a global 10 million copies. It is Reba’s only certified gold single with 750,000 paid downloads. Other gems in her song catalog include Mornin’ Glory immortalized by master jazz pianist Bill Evans. Bobbie Gentry was a true trailblazer. She produced her own timeless hit records in the late 1960’s.Even iconic male songwriters like Tony Joe White and Tom. T. Hall have written in print about her influence on their craft. As for the box set, the difference is obvious. The biggest record company in the world, Universal Music Group, lavishly produced her box set and it is charting big and selling like hotcakes.

  9. Have to share this great just released news. The group, Mercury Rev. has just announced that they are re-interpreting Bobbie Gentry’s masterpiece concept album, The Delta Sweete ,as a modern opera. Included in the many talented women brought in for the project are legends, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Beth Ortin and Margo Price.The album will be released this Feb. 2019. Margo Price’s stunning rendition of Sermon has already been posted on YouTube.

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