Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry?
It’s the third of June. Seems like a good day to ask that question for the millionth time.
Perhaps no other American writer in the past hundred years has so quickly and completely captured the country’s imagination, enjoyed huge success and fame, and then disappeared from view as dramatically and successfully as Bobbie Gentry.
Bobbie Gentry’s song “Ode to Billy Joe” was released as a 45 rpm single by Capitol Records on July 10, 1967. It reached the number one position on the Billboard charts just six weeks later.
She wrote and performed the song herself. She claimed to have been its producer, although she admitted to a good deal of help (or interference) from the professional production guys at Capitol.
“Ode to Billy Joe” is a simple, haunting Southern Gothic ballad that ranks to this day among the most memorable pieces of 20th century Southern literature.
Seventeen days after “Ode to Billy Joe” was released, Bobbie Gentry observed her 25th birthday.
Gentry was born near Woodland in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, on July 27, 1942. Her birth name was Roberta Lee Streeter. She was raised there by her grandmother, until she was 13 years old, when she moved to California to live with her mother.
She graduated in 1960 from Palm Valley School in Rancho Mirage, California. Palm Valley is a pricey, private prep school whose other famous alums include Paris Hilton. She enrolled at the University of Southern California (UCLA) as a philosophy major, then studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.
She began performing for private parties and, briefly, in a review at a Las Vegas nightclub. Having adopted the professional name Bobbie Gentry, she recorded a couple of self-written songs, which did not sell well.
Then came “Ode to Billy Joe.” The song topped the charts for weeks in both the United States and Great Britain. Bobbie Gentry won three Grammy awards in 1967, including Best New Artist. Contrary to what is believed by many, Bobbie Gentry did not have a single, huge hit and then immediately and completely disappear from the music scene.
In fact, she had an active and highly visible career as a performer and song writer for about 14 years. She performed successfully in the U.S., the U.K. and continental Europe. She hosted her own series in London on BBC-TV. She appeared numerous times on U.S. television shows hosted by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, and Carol Burnett.
Although none of the other songs she wrote and performed were colossal hits like “Ode to Billie Joe,” she wrote and performed several other songs that charted reasonably well. One, which some will remember, was “Fancy,” released in 1970. Reba McEntire had an even bigger hit of “Fancy” in 1991, and it became what she sometimes called her “signature song.”
Gentry married three times (or four by some accounts), each marriage lasting about a year or less. In 1979 she gave birth to a son, Tyler. His father was Gentry’s husband, country singer/comedian Jim Stafford.
Then, after appearing in a TV special called “All Star Salute to Mother’s Day,” on May 10, 1981, Bobbie Gentry disappeared from view. She is not known to have given an interview or performed anywhere in public since then. There are no verifiable accounts of anything about her life during the past 38 years.
Speculation about her whereabouts continues. Just six months ago, it was the subject of a long story in the British newspaper, The Guardian.
One of the more interesting allegations about Bobbie Gentry is that she’s been living in a gated community outside Memphis for eight or nine years. A 2016 article in the Washington Post said she was still living there.
There is a credible account of Gentry and Jim Stafford having owned a small farm near Somerville, TN while they were married. Somerville is about 45 miles from Memphis.
We talked Sunday afternoon with a long time, socially active friend who lives in one of those exclusive communities in eastern Shelby County. The lady said she’d never heard anything about Bobbie Gentry living in that area, but that she’d “check it out.”
Is Bobbie Gentry living less than a hundred miles north/northwest of New Albany and its several Tallahatchie River bridges?
Ode to Billy Joe: https://youtu.be/ZOr60MxIvvE
-J. W. Shiverdecker