Ode to Billie Joe by Tara Murtha

Where is Bobbie Gentry? And Why Are We Still Looking For Her?

Tara Murtha

By Tara Murtha

on 12.15.14 in Features

Of all the questions that have loomed over rock music history in the last several decades, “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” is one that gets more captivating the more you read about the Missippi-born songwriter. Gentry’s Americana-soul 1967 track “Ode to Billie Joe” (which in itself has been picked apart by listeners looking for answers) was a massive hit that topped the Billboard Hot 100, right before her album of the same name knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band off the top of Billboard‘s albums chart. She was a pioneer in that she wrote nine out of 10 songs on the album and produced it (though she’s not credited as such), and even in the ’70s she challenged the disconnect between being staunchly feminist while wearing skintight jumpsuits. Gentry continued to make music and perform through the ’70s, but around 1981 she more or less disappeared from the public eye, and no one knows what she’s doing now — though there have been plenty of rumors.

Philadelphia writer and journalist Tara Murtha was fascinated by Gentry’s story, which inspired her to write Ode to Billie Joe, as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. But during her research, her focus changed a bit from “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” to “Who is Bobbie Gentry?”

Read an interview with Murtha below, as well as an exclusive excerpt from the book, which is out December 18. — Wondering Sound Staff

‘Gentry claimed that she not only wrote and composed Ode to Billie Joe, meaning the song and the record, but that she produced it. She said the only reason she didn’t get credit on the record was because women didn’t get credit in the studio back then, period.’

Why did you find you find Gentry’s story so compelling?

Bobbie Gentry was a gorgeous young woman who seemingly came out of nowhere, wrote and sang a hit that not only knocked the Beatles out of the No. 1 slot, but became of the most celebrated examples of Southern Gothic literature, won a bunch of Grammys, left for Vegas, ran her own business and then vanished without a word. That’s not even getting into “Fancy,” a song about a poor young girl whose mother turned her out, which Gentry called her statement for women’s lib. What’s not compelling? Writer Holly George-Warren dubbed Bobbie Gentry “the J.D. Salinger of rock ‘n’ roll.” Her swaggering sexpot performance of “Niki Hoeky” on the Smothers Brothers alone was enough to compel me to go down the rabbit hole, and the story only grew more compelling the deeper I dug. Then there’s this: Early on, I read an interview with Bobbie Gentry from 1974 where, after being challenged if she could be a feminist while wearing false eyelashes and dancing on stage in skintight jumpsuits — sounds familiar, right? — Gentry claimed that she not only wrote and composed Ode to Billie Joe, meaning the song and the record, but that she produced it. She said the only reason she didn’t get credit on the record was because women didn’t get credit in the studio back then, period. A lot of my research revolved around tugging on that lead.

It’s uncanny the way the mystery of Bobbie Gentry echoes the mystery of [the song] “Ode to Billie Joe.” There are two intertwined mysteries in “Ode.” The big one is, why did Billie Joe McAllister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge? The little one is more concrete: What did Billie Joe and the narrator throw off the bridge? Listeners obsess over solving the small mystery, figuring the answer will help solve the bigger existential mystery of why Billie Joe jumped. The big mystery of Bobbie Gentry is no one knows why she walked away. I figured digging into the smaller, concrete mystery — what did she mean when she said that she really produced Ode to Billie Joe? — can help shed light on the bigger mystery. And I think it does.

What were you hoping to find out when you started your research?

In the beginning, when I hardly knew anything about her at all, I was inspired by Jill Sobule’s song, “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” Of course I wondered where she was, and how someone who seemed to have showbiz in her blood could just up and vanish into the L.A. fog without a trace. I wondered if she was still writing and recording. A guy on YouTube said he delivered a piano to her, and that when he recognized her, she played him some tunes. I heard rumors that she might’ve gone into television production, where she worked under an assumed name. I was basically searching for Bobbie Gentry.

After I started the serious research, everything I found out about her career diverged so much from the handful of anecdotes and myths perpetually recycled in little biographies that I realized that “Who is Bobbie Gentry?” is a much more interesting question than “Where is Bobbie Gentry?”

‘People saw a country singer, but she was really foremost a brilliant writer-composer and multi-instrumentalist, who also happened to be a super-sexy theater geek.’

What surprised you most in your research?

I didn’t realize what a transgressive performer Bobbie Gentry really was. I knew she was one of the first women to write and record her own tunes, but I had very little knowledge of the Vegas era, which lasted through the 1970s. I got to watch this incredible footage of her performing on stage in Vegas, including the notorious Elvis tribute. I’ve read about the Elvis tribute for years, so finally getting to see it was a little surreal. She’d cock one leg out to the side and practically slide down to the floor, then leap into the air and change sides, all while rattling her hips and pulling her lips back into the signature Elvis snarl. She wasn’t just a singer singing songs on stage — she was truly a stage performer, an old-school Bob Hope type. People saw a country singer, but she was really foremost a brilliant writer-composer and multi-instrumentalist, who also happened to be a super-sexy theater geek. She designed costumes for each character she created, for god’s sake.

When she performed the Elvis bit on CBS, she even slicked her hair back into a D.A. with a dangling spit curl. The CBS executives let her do that, but at the last minute, they found her Andrews Sisters routine too transgressive for network TV — because of the two hairy-legged male dancers performing in dresses as the sisters. Seeing her on stage helped me understand her records better, and how because she inhabited each song’s character so well, she became somewhat trapped by the persona of the young country girl in “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Who are some of the people you talked to in the book?

I talked to Jimmie Haskell, of course, who arranged the strings on Ode to Billie Joe. I spoke to some other guys from Capitol Records, including David Axelrod, who was the boss of one of the credited producers, Kelly Gordon. Unfortunately, Gordon passed away a long time ago. I had a great time talking with Ken Mansfield. Mansfield is best known for running Apple for the Beatles, but in 1967 he was a kid on the make in the Capitol Tower, and he had the enviable job of accompanying Gentry on her first big press junket after “Ode to Billie Joe” came out as a single. I also talked to Jess Rand, who was Gentry’s first manager. He’s best known for his work with Sammy Davis, Jr. Oh man, he was a riot. Very insightful guy, of the old school. He came up under Irving Berlin. Unfortunately, he passed away a few months ago. [Read Murtha's obituary of Rand. — Ed.] I’ll leave some surprises, but I spoke with dozens of people, people who worked with her before “Ode to Billie Joe” and after.

About the excerpt:

The excerpt is from my chapter on Gentry’s time in Las Vegas after “Ode to Billie Joe.” Though she spent more time producing and starring in stage productions than under contract at Capitol Records, the Vegas years have never really been explored before, and are really only known to hardcore fans. She didn’t just do The Strip, she was one of the most celebrated performers in the scene, and was part of the elite group that would head over to the Hilton to hang out and sing with Elvis and friends like Tom Jones.

Read an excerpt from Ode to Billie Joe:

Viva Las Vegas

After leaving Capitol Records, Gentry poured her considerable energy into increasingly lavish stage productions that she took to stages in Las Vegas, Reno, Canada, and Sydney, Australia. In 1971, she revamped her act, winning the respect of critics who were initially reluctant to embrace her as a multidisciplinary artist with a wider range than evident on her early records. “It wasn’t too long ago that Bobbie Gentry was poking along in an Ole Miss format based upon her one big hit single, ‘Ode to Billie Joe,’ and a few derivatives about her Chickasaw County,” noted a Variety scribe. “The entire Gentry ambience has changed almost completely.”

The hallmark of Bobbie Gentry shows was that they were completely, ridiculously, awesomely over the top. In the show “Diamonds by Tiffany, Jeans by Levi Strauss,” Gentry performed “Ode” in a cropped top and judiciously unbuttoned jeans, but the real gag was that genuine million-dollar Tiffany diamonds would be ceremoniously sewn onto her jeans and denim jacket every night. “It was a big deal before the show,” recalls choreographer Donald Bradburn, who worked closely with Gentry throughout the Vegas years. “People would come and watch the security guys come and take them out of the vault and bring them backstage, [where] they would be sewn onto Bobbie’s jeans.” The 1970s were a heady time: The Smithsonian requested a pair of her jeans for their permanent collection.

Throughout 1971 and 1972, Gentry worked on her stage show non-stop, slowing down only when forced, like when she fractured her nose running into stage equipment during a frenzied off-stage costume change. Her devotion was paying off: In 1972, she broke the showroom attendance record at the Landmark, previously held by Texas crooner and sausage king Jimmy Dean.

Gentry’s ability to draw consistent crowds landed her bigger contracts in better showrooms. She always negotiated her own deals, even though it was unusual at the time for a celebrity to talk business on their own behalf, and it was almost unheard of for a woman to do it. Despite her association with Harrah, Gentry was rising rapidly through the Howard Hughes organization. “Bobbie Gentry is one of the better ideas … by the Hughes organization,” a writer in Variety noted. “She began moving upward at the Landmark, went on to the Desert Inn and now has a month in the Frontier’s Music Hall in which to display her protean talent.”

By now, critics were effusive about her “husky vocalistics” and “impressive élan” while dancing; her signature swivel was dubbed “the Gentry strut.” By 1974, Gentry was the undisputed queen of the Vegas strip. She hosted that year’s annual Las Vegas Awards, and commanded and received top money in both Vegas and Tahoe, where she had an open invitation to perform.

“I look back on our shows, production value-wise, and our shows were like … an elaborate Broadway musical, with heavy design and lots of costumes,” said Bradburn. “It was an hour and 20 minutes of high-class musical theater.” In 1976, the Hughes organization hired Bobbie Gentry to work for 16 weeks over the course of the next two years for a cool $2 million.

While so many profiles of Gentry written by male entertainment writers laughably framed her success as an unexpected burden, Boston Globe columnist Marian Christy’s profile captured Bobbie’s unflinching business sense and ambition. Christy called Gentry an iron butterfly. “Bobbie, a Baptist, is made of iron — single-minded, seemingly unbreakable, projecting chilling inner strength. She’s also disarmingly honest,” wrote Christy.

Gentry told Christy, “Success is recognition and an open channel for creative energies. But I’m tired of hearing artists say they don’t perform for money. Fame without fortune is empty.” Christy was known for quoting her subjects at length, developing a sort of oral history of celebrities and the zeitgeist: “[Gentry] enunciates her aims by talking about the intoxication of forging ahead, gaining momentum, clicking financially. She steers clear of the dumb-broad image usually linked to sexpot stars. Bobbie wants you to understand that she’s infused with executive dynamics and capable of running the show. She’s the boss lady behind her Los Angeles-based music publishing company, Gentry, Ltd. Not one memo, not one letter, not one important telephone call gets by without her personal approval.”

Although Gentry was clearly in charge, she wasn’t afraid to delegate. She hired creatives she trusted and gave them space to work. “There were segments throughout the show that were pure dance,” Bradburn says. “I’d say, ‘Bobbie, do you think this will be too distracting?’ And she’d say, ‘No, they’ll be looking at me.’ Which was great.”

While proving herself on the stage-show circuit, as always, Gentry began planning her next moves. In 1973, she signed a long-term partnership contract with her personal manager Jim Wasson. Wasson agreed to focus solely on Gentry’s career, which they anticipated would include club acts, motion pictures, television appearances, and music publishing. That spring, as Gentry prepared for another three-week engagement at the Desert Inn, they moved Gentry Ltd. into a larger office space at 9229 Sunset Blvd.

They formed Woodbine Projects, Inc. as a parent company; Gentry would run Gentry Ltd. as a subsidiary. Variety reported: “Gentry Ltd. heretofore had devoted most of its efforts to musical output, but under the new banner of Woodbine Projects a program of diversification, including motion picture and TV production and other theatrical activities, will be launched.”

Within weeks of establishing Woodbine, Gentry was in talks with the attorney representing the estate of David O. Selznick, the legendary producer best known for A Star is Born, Little Women, and, of course, Gone With the Wind. He had also, perhaps not coincidentally, produced Ruby Gentry and married Jennifer Jones, the actress who played the titular part that had inspired Gentry’s stage name.

Gentry must have felt a sense of coming full circle. In the decade or so since Roberta Lee Streeter christened herself Bobbie Gentry, she had grown into her name’s destiny: She was a savvy investor, building sustainable wealth while methodically working her way up from hula dancer to an international star managing million- dollar stage productions. Next, she would produce and direct television and film. In 1973, she met with the Selznick’s estate attorney to negotiate “The Divine Sarah,” a screenplay written by Ben Hecht. The storyline will be familiar to anyone who has seen Ruby Gentry or heard “Fancy”: The script was based on the life of Sarah Bernhardt, illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan who went on to become the most famous actress in the world.

While planning the future, though, Gentry was still spending most nights under the bright spotlights starring in relentlessly baroque productions that aggressively celebrated the best of Vegas artifice: Gentry shows featured dragon-shaped chariots that huffed smoke, clouds bursting into on-stage rainstorms, and an elevator trap-door that enabled her to vanish, then resurrect from beneath the floor inside a towering, spinning neon birdcage. In Vegas, there was no confusion over whether Bobbie Gentry was a folk-rock singer, or a country star or a pop composer. Even from the cheap seats, the razzle-dazzle made it clear that Bobbie Gentry was an entertainer.

The most famous Gentry stage performance of the Vegas era is one that most fans haven’t seen, but discuss feverishly: the Bobbie Gentry tribute to Elvis Presley.

During my research, I discovered reels of never-before- seen Super 8 video of Gentry performing in Las Vegas, and purchased them.

Unlike L-P Anderson’s fruitless search through Jim Ford’s tapes for an early demo of “Ode to Billie Joe,” my batch of mystery tapes delivered the goods.

Bobbie Gentry swaggers out onto stage in a tight white sequin suit, jutting one knee out to the side and coyly glancing at the audience as the orchestra erupts into “Jailhouse Rock.” Gentry hunches forward, her legs wobbling like rubber bands. She executes several round- house karate kicks in time with thick thumps of bass. Her lips pull back into an Elvis snarl, but they don’t quite conceal the good time she’s having. Her body freezes, poised in Elvis stance. She swivels her head back and forth, like get a load of this. The rattling starts at her ankles. When it reaches her hips, she plants a leg and begins sliding down until she is so close to the floor that she’s almost in a full cheerleader split. Slowly, she pulls at the silk scarf tied around her neck, and tosses it into the audience as she leaps in the air, and switches sides. The crowd goes berserk. She stands up, snaps her kneecaps together, shakes out a few more pelvis pumps, and windmills her arms. Meanwhile, the dancers are leaping into kangaroo jumps, one leg tucked underneath and the other shooting straight out, forming the shape of an arrow, like a human blinking neon sign flashing over and over again.

The performance was the talk of Vegas. When Elvis heard about the spectacle he decided to check it out for himself.