Bobbie Gentry - Biography
by Charles Reece
A Dixie-fried chanteuse with a fervent raspy contralto voice, Bobbie Gentry mixed blue-eyed soul with the Nashville Sound to explore her Southern roots. The conflation of commercial success with artistic importance has resulted in her oeuvre being largely forgotten these days, except to a devoted cult following. The amount of control she achieved over shaping her own creative course helped pave the way for many of the current country divas. A renewed widespread recognition of her unique talents as a singer and songwriter is past due.
Gentry chose her sobriquet from the eponymous character in the 1953 film, Ruby Gentry. She was born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1944 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi to parents who were soon divorced. Her childhood years were spent between going to grade school in Greenwood, Mississippi, where her father lived, and back in Chickasaw on her grandparents’ farm. For early musical inspiration, Gentry credits her grandmother, who traded a milking cow for the neighbor’s piano – no small sacrifice given the family’s impecunious situation. By age 7, Gentry had learned to play the piano and even composed a song, “My Dog Sergeant Is A Good Dog,” which would be revived later for a comic routine in her Las Vegas act. By adolescence, she was a multi-instrumentalist, having taught herself to play the guitar, bass and banjo. She went to live with her mother in Arcadia, California upon turning 13. After high school, she chose her stage name and began performing in local nightclubs. With a bit of encouragement from Palm Springs resident, Bob Hope, she moved to Las Vegas, where she landed a job at the Les Folies Bergère revue. Afterwards, she returned to California to study philosophy at UCLA, but soon transferred to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to study composition, all the while supporting herself with clerical jobs and nightclub gigs.
In 1964, Gentry made her recording debut on a pair of duets with rockabilly singer, Jody Reynolds – “Stranger In The Mirror” and “Ode To Love” (both of which sound closer to what was coming out of the nascent West Coast hippie rock scene than the rural South). Gentry was not able to secure a record deal until 1967, when she signed with Capitol Records on the strength of a demo tape that featured what would become her signature song, “Ode To Billie Joe.” Capitol decided to release the song as the B-side to the single “Mississippi Delta,” but radio DJs chose to play it over the actual single. Although the demo version detailed why Billie Joe McAllister jumped off Tallahatchie Bridge, the shorter, radio-friendly version left the suicide ambiguous, focusing the story on the repressive manners in which the narrator and her family relate to the death. With a lonely sounding acoustic guitar, no drums and reserved use of strings, the song was at odds with the most popular country hits coming out of Nashville at the time. Nevertheless, it became a huge crossover hit in 1967, reaching #1, #8, and #17 on the pop, Black, country charts, respectively, and climbing to #13 on the UK Top 40. The album, Ode to Billie Joe (1967 Capitol), was equally successful (eventually selling over 3 million copies, #1 on the pop and country charts, #5 on the Black chart), despite featuring many songs that sound a bit too close to its featured track. Although her following single, “I Saw An Angel Die,” failed to chart, Gentry won 3 Grammies in 1968 (Best Female Vocal Performance, Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Female Solo Vocal Performance) and The Academy of Country Music named her Most Promising Female Vocalist.
Gentry’s breakout success became something of a curse. Lamentably, she is all too often remembered as a one-hit wonder, never achieving that level of commercial success again. However, she maintained a consistently high level of quality throughout her short, but prolific career. The tensions in Southern familial beliefs continued to serve as the basis for most of Gentry’s best country songs, which have been aptly described as Southern Gothic. In 1968, she released The Delta Sweete (Capitol), a concept album with vignettes of what it was like growing up in the small towns of rural Mississippi (e.g., religion in “Sermon,” the family in “Reunion,” Southern masculinity in L.D. Dixon and Al Smith’s “Big Boss Man,” and local music in the album’s one, minor hit “Okolona River Bottom Band” – #54 on the pop chart, 1967). Gentry further explored her upbringing in Local Gentry (1968 Capitol), which contained no hits and was largely ignored. The record remains an effective complement to her previous release, with most of its songs being about the particular kinds of oddballs she encountered growing up (e.g., “Ace Insurance Man”). She returned to the charts with her next album, Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell (1968 Capitol), a collection of duets. Awarded The Academy of Country Music’s Album of the Year, it featured two hits, both written by the Everly Brothers – “Let It Be Me” made it to #14 on the country chart in 1969 and “All I Have To Do” to #6 in 1970. Gentry continued to record with Campbell throughout the 1970's.
Touch ‘Em With Love (1969 Capitol) is often considered Gentry’s definitive recording by fans preferring her soul leanings. With only two of her own compositions, the album is her most diverse, ranging from the folk-based “Seasons Come, Seasons Go” to the Memphis-soul title track (penned by Wilkins Hurley) to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s pop classic “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” (which became a #1 hit in the UK). Perhaps overshadowed by the stylistically similar Dusty In Memphis (1969 Mercury Records) – it too, contains a rendition of Hurley’s “Son Of A Preacher Man” – Gentry’s album is every bit the equal of Springfield’s. Gentry’s fifth solo album, Fancy (1970 Capitol), was another collection of covers, with the notable exception of its titular song, with which she returned to the country and pop charts (#26 and #31, respectively). A country-soul classic, “Fancy” tells the story of a daughter being encouraged by her mother to use sexuality as a means to escape poverty. With a Southern Gothic theme set to an acoustic guitar being accentuated by a funky horn section and countrypolitan strings, the song encapsulated Gentry’s interests as a songwriter at the time.
Her last long-player, Patchwork (1970 Capitol), consists of all original songs mostly composed in the early 20th century American styles of jazz, country and blues, none of which made for a successful single. It is Gentry’s most uncharacteristic record, probably contributing to its being her most ignored. Artistically, however, she went out on a high note. She recorded only two more of her own compositions: “Another Place, Another Time” for the 1974 film Macon County Line – directed by her friend, Max Baer, Jr. – and “He Did Me Wrong, But He Did It Right” (1978 Warner Brothers Records). Baer, Jr. went on direct Ode to Billie Joe (1976), which gave a latent homosexual spin to Gentry’s tale.
Gentry’s dark Portuguese beauty and fondness for wearing skin-tight flared catsuits made her a natural choice for television. Along with regularly appearing on a spate of variety shows in the late 1960's and early 1970's, she briefly hosted her own, Bobbie Gentry (BBC) in 1968 and The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour (CBS) in the summer of 1974. In the last half of the 1970's, she confined her performances to Las Vegas, where she headlined her own nightclub revue. She not only wrote and produced the show, but oversaw the costumes and choreography, as well. While there, she met and married her second husband, musician Jim Stafford, with whom she had one son, Tyler. Her first marriage in 1969 to Vegas hotel manager, Bill Harrah, lasted only 3 months, this one 11. Gentry chose to drop off the pop cultural map by the 1980s, so not much is known about her life from that point. She reportedly now resides somewhere in Los Angeles.