I just finished reading Ode To Billie Joe by Tara Murtha, a new release in the 33 1/3 series of books. Straying from the template of most other titles in the series, it isn’t devoted to an in-depth analysis of Bobbie Gentry’s debut album but is instead an investigative biography of the reclusive singer who made her last album in 1971 and completely vanished from the public eye in the early 80s.
Murtha has done a lot of digging in archives and spoken to people who worked with her, but with such a big hole at the center of the story — Gentry herself — it has a Rashomon-like quality with people offering conflicting stories and opinions about the singer which only makes her more mysterious by the end. The only thing that seems clear is Gentry was something of a feminist pioneer: writing and producing her own records, and negotiating her own business deals (very successfully), at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman artist to do so.
It’s a terrific book full of fascinating trivia (I could do without knowing Gentry was a fan of Ayn Rand though) but sadly it can’t answer the really big question: Why did the driven, ambitious, and creative woman capable of writing beautiful songs like this just…quit. As Murtha says in the book, “Only one person knows, and she isn’t talking.”
I thought “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” was a surprisingly poetic cover line for a teen magazine, so I looked it up and it is from a poem: “Autumn” by John Keats (though he didn’t write that last bit obviously).
Very sophisticated and cultured of Jackie to be quoting Keats on their front cover which would be unthinkable for a mainstream glossy today. You couldn’t imagine Seventeen having nothing but a line from Phillip Larkin on their cover.
I guess they were trying to be lyrical about the coming of autumn which is a good excuse to dig out this beautiful Bobbie Gentry song (even if it is about Spring).
“I fell in love with Bobbie Gentry when I was five years old, and I’ve been looking for her ever since.” From the “Ode To Billie Joe” album sleevenotes
I’ve always had a major preference for brunettes, from youthful lusting after Raquel Welch to my beautiful wife, and I think it may have all started with Bobbie Gentry. Somewhere in the back of my mind are vague memories of her (probably from the BBCTV show she had in the late 60s) that I think are at the heart of my love of raven-haired women in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. I can easily see how I could have been in love with her as a boy, she was like an exotic version of those home-grown girls Dusty, Cilla, Petula, and Sandie, a foxy bombshell with a big bouffant of lustrous dark hair who looked like a cross between a Southern beauty queen, an astronaut’s wife, and the impossibly glamourous mother of the kid next door. Even the name “Bobbie Gentry” evokes something wonderful, it’s somehow both sexual and soothing at the same time, like corduroy and rhinestones, lust and apple pie, honey and bourbon.
But while I was having childhood fantasies of being tucked up in bed by her, Bobbie was making wonderful records. When I later bought a few of them on vinyl (partly on a nostalgic whim but also because of sleeves like the above. I mean, how could you not buy that?) I was pleased to discover that behind the big hair and va-va-voom red pantsuit was an incredibly talented woman who wrote gorgeous, baroque pop songs that mixed country, folk and soul which she sang in a husky, seductive voice. The closest equivalent sound I can think of is “Dusty In Memphis” with the difference that Bobbie wrote and produced most of it herself. She should be thought of as one of the great female singer-songwriters and maybe if she’d been as ugly as Janis Joplin she’d have gotten more respect and recognition, but none of the five albums after her 1967 debut “Ode To Billie Joe” sold that well and she ended up doing Vegas and a variety show on British telly.
But don’t take my word for it, here’s a little pick ‘n’ mix of some Gentry tunes I especially love. With the exception of the funky “Mississippi Delta” they’re on the soft and ornate side, just try listening to “Mornin’ Glory” without melting into a pool of mush.
This is a great clip of her singing her biggest hit “Ode To Bille Joe” which sounds even better than the recorded version. Lots more Bobbie goodness at YouTube including duets with Johnny Cash and Donovan.
Bobbie pulled a Howard Hughes in the late 70s and vanished from public view. She hasn’t been seen since and fell so far below the radar her albums weren’t even in print for many years. Some of them are now available on two-fer CDs and there are a few compilations including this new one put together by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. Though I think “Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry” is the one to get.
Wherever Bobbie is now I hope she still has that red pantsuit. I like to think of her wearing it while she’s in the kitchen baking me an apple pie.