I have just listened to a BBC documentary by no less than Rosanne Cash on the life and music of Bobbie Gentry, described as one of the most gifted and enigmatic of American singer-songwriters, though most people would only now remember her for her ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ that won the Grammy for 1967. This is her on the Andy Willliams show of 1971:
She was born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw Mississsipi in July 1944, had an impoverished southern childhood, mostly raised by her grandmother whilst her mother had a series of marriages. she learnt piano watching the organist in the local baptist chapel, and taught herself guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. Her grandmother sold a milk cow to get her a piano, and she managed to attend UCLA, majoring in philosophy whilst still performing to pay her way.
Her first song was the 1963 Ode to Love with Jody Reynolds, a rockabilly singer.
Ode to Billy Joe is a really long pop song, at over 4 minutes, but still doesn’t get the whole story. Who was Billy Joe? What did he throw off the bridge? These questions continue to haunt fans, and there is unlikely to be an answer unless Bobbie admits it or someone finds the alleged original with the extra explanatory verses.
Bobbie was one of the genuine pioneers in womens’ music; she sang of families, of crimes, of swamps, and of insects. Perhaps she should not be considered alongside pop musicians, but with the likes of the great southern writers such as William Faulkner and Flann O’Brien, such is the depth and detail of her story telling.
As one of the first female singer songwriters, she had been an inspiration to many who followed her, such as Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynn and Reba Macintyre who has covered her famous hit. Even Bob Dylan was affected by her music – listen to his Clothesline Saga from The Basement Tapes.
But she was a beautiful woman, fond of tons of makeup and fancy dresses at the time of Janis Joplin and others, when such feminist touches were seen as being old fashioned and unoriginal, so she was often neglected.
She kept working, having a BBC tv series, appearing on many others, doing albums of her own compositions, and an album of duets with Glenn Campbell of which ‘All I have to do is Dream’ is probably the most famous. Maybe a bit cheesy for some, but their voices are wonderful together.:
She continued to have a high profile for many years, appearing on major tv shows such as Johnny cash, Andy Williams etc. She was a highly intelligent woman, and tall enough, especially with her beehive and high heels, to tower over and at times intimidate some men. She arranged her own music, and was very much in charge of her career. she was also an oil painter.
But in 1978 she vanished. Nobody knows where she is though she has called her arranger a few times with details of songs, at one point saying she was living on an island off Savannah, georgia, so one would think she could be tracked down from this. So she seems to be still writing. She continues a definite but dignified silence.
This is her singing one of her last hits, ‘Fancy’
This is Reba McEntire doing a rather more gutsty , high tech version of it:
And this is Bobbie’s version of the Harry Nilsson song, ‘The Rainmaker’
This is my favourite, a lovely version of ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ – we need more pop songs with harpsichords in them:
So, what happened? Perhaps the last song on her last album points the way:
“So I spend my days finding new ways to do the same old things
I spend my mights in the bright spot lights
You can’t win or lose unless you play the game”
Maybe she just got sick of playing the game.
This story also reminds me of another enigmatic author, who is alleged to shun the public, but in reality, she just has nothing to say wot the press. A Documentary a while back to celebrate the anniversary of ‘To Kill a Mocking bird’, the journalist put on a party in Harper Lee’s home town, having failed to obtain an interview, or even sight of the woman, at the end of the party, he noticed a friend of hers wrapping up a piece of cake to take away. She was taking a piece to Ms Lee.