In the Sixties, Bobbie Gentry was a huge star. She was one of the original country-pop crossover acts, she won every award there was to win and she wrote and produced her own chart-topping music, a rarity for a woman at that time. She was gorgeous—with a lion’s mane of big brown hair—and an accomplished musician who played guitar, bass, banjo and vibes, respected by all she worked with.
Her biggest hit was the AM radio staple, “Ode to Billie Joe” a song which captured the nation’s psyche in 1967, the album knocking the Sgt Pepper off the #1 spot. For years people have speculated over the song’s meaning, or exactly what it was that Bille Joe McCallister and his girlfriend were throwin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge. An aborted fetus is the standard answer, but Gentry herself says that the songs theme was really alienation:
Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of peoples reaction’s to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown when both women experience a common loss (first Billie Joe, and later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief.
Throughout the Seventies, her popularity continued with frequent guest appearances on TV shows hosted by the likes of Glen Campbell (her frequent duet partner), Bing Crosby, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash and Bob Hope and in England she was on Morcambe and Wise. She had her own television series in both America and in the UK, signed a lucrative Las Vegas contract for an elaborate floor show—she was the original Celine Dion in that regard—but in 1978, after a Christmas appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, she quietly slipped out of the spotlight never to return. There is very, very little—almost nothing—that you can find about her since then. I recall reading a gossip tabloid standing in a supermarket line about ten years ago that said she dropped out of show biz to raise a handicapped child, but I haven’t found anything to corroborate that anywhere else.
In any case, Bobbie Gentry herself turned out to be as mysterious as her best-known creation.