Roberta Lee Streeter, who later took the stage name Bobbie Gentry, was born in Chickasaw County, Mississippi on July 27, 1944. Best known for the song “Ode to Billie Joe,” the singer-songwriter eventually became almost as mysterious as the song.
Bobbie Gentry released her first single, “Mississippi Delta,” in 1967. But it was the flip-side song, “Ode to Billie Joe” that became the hit. There are various reports that the four-minutes-plus song was originally written as a seven-minute song with extra lyrics, although others doubt that story.
Ode To Billie Joe, the album that featured the song, also became a hit. It replaced The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the number one position on the Billboard Albums Chart.
The Mysteries of “Ode to Billie Joe”
Listeners loved “Ode to Billie Joe” partly because it left so many questions unanswered. The song tells the story of two Mississippi teen lovers who share a secret, with the young man, Billie Joe MacAllister, committing suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
In the song, the young woman listens to her parents talk about Billie Joe. The parents do not know what the listeners understand about the young woman’s connection to the young boy.
Fans still debate what the girl and the boy earlier threw off the bridge. But Gentry has stated that the item is not the point of the song.
Gentry explained to Fred Bronson in an interview, “[T]he real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”
Below, Bobby Gentry performs “Ode to Billie Joe” on BBC Live in 1968.
The year “Ode to Billie Joe” was released, Gentry won three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist. Rolling Stone today lists “Ode to Billie Joe” as the 47th greatest country song of all time.
Gentry’s Career After “Ode to Billie Joe”
After “Ode,” Gentry continued to write and record songs like “Fancy” (later covered by Reba McIntyre).
Gentry hosted a TV show on BBC-TV. Below is an episode of The Bobbie Gentry Show from 1968.
The 1970s was the era of variety shows, and Gentry appeared on several of them. For example, she appeared with The Smothers Brothers and on Dick Van Dyke’s 1976 show Van Dyke and Company. In 1974 she even hosted her own summer replacement CBS variety show, The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour.
Below, Gentry sings “Let it Be Me” with Glen Campbell on and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in 1969.
Gentry re-recorded “Ode to Billie Joe” for the 1978 movie Ode to Billie Joe. The film was directed by Max Baer, Jr. and starred Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor.
In 1978, Gentry decided to retire and married singer-comedian Jim Stafford. The marriage ended after about a year, but the retirement was more lasting. In the last several decadees, Gentry has stayed out of the public eye and denied requests for interviews.
In a June 2016 Washington Post story, reporter Neely Tucker wrote of efforts to find Gentry. The reporter tracked down Gentry in a gated community about a two-hour drive from the location of the Tallahatchie Bridge, which had collapsed in 1972.
The reporter called the number of the house and asked for Gentry. The person who answered said that Gentry did not live there and hung up, although the reporter believed the person speaking was Gentry.
So we do not know much about Bobbie Gentrie during the last several decades. But she is entitled to her privacy, just as we can be thankful she entertained us and gave us some great recordings, including one of the most mysterious songs of all time.
Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule (“I Kissed a Girl”) even took the mystery about Bobby Gentry and turned it into a song. Her song “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” is, of course, in the style of “Ode to Billie Joe.”
Wherever Bobbie Gentry is now, we wish her a happy and peaceful birthday.
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