One of the first major country “crossover” artists, Bobbie Gentry became an overnight sensation with her massive 1967 hit single, the hauntingly enigmatic “Ode to Billie Joe.” Sultry and sexy yet obviously whip-smart, the smoky-voiced Gentry was also one of the first female country artists to write and produce her own music. Additionally she could play guitar (with an immediately recognizable hard finger-plucked style), piano, banjo, bass vibraphone and other instruments. She was as gorgeous as she was talented, a poised and classy Southern belle born in Chickasaw County, Mississippi and raised on her grandparents’ farm in a home with no electricity. But when Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge he pushed even the Beatles from the top of the pop charts. The song sold over 50 million copies, and Gentry was instantly among the most famous people in America, winning four Grammy awards for her debut.
Bobbie Gentry was a nearly ubiquitous presence on American (and British) television of the 60s and 70s. You might see her one night singing a duet with Johnny Cash, the next night she’d be on The Hollywood Palace clowning around with Bing Crosby. Or on Ed Sullivan. Glen Campbell’s show. A Bob Hope special. The Smothers Brothers. Tom Jones. Andy Williams. The Carol Burnett Show. Morecambe & Wise. The Grammy Awards. Her own BBC series The Bobbie Gentry Show or her own CBS program The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour.
If you look back at the albums she released at a rapid clip in the years between 1967 and 1971 there are two obvious categories to divide Bobbie Gentry’s music into: the incredible songs she wrote and produced herself, which were catchy, deep, funny, sexy, bluesy, often rockin’ and sometimes even somewhat sinister, versus the songs Capitol Records had her record—the same pop covers as everyone else and duets with Glenn Campbell—to keep pumping out the product. She only really actively recorded for about five years. Throughout the 1970s she was one of the biggest-drawing acts on the Las Vegas strip, but she largely stayed out of the recording studio after 1971’s lost masterpiece concept album Patchwork.
The cover of her final album, 1971’s ‘Patchwork’ was an uncredited self-portrait.
More Bobbie Gentry after the jump…