Artist in Retrospect: Bobbie Gentry

I have always enjoyed learning more about the musical artists I like, even those that have fallen out of the public eye. This past summer, I stumbled across an article published by the Washington Post about the popular 1960’s country artist named Bobbie Gentry, and how she hasn’t been seen or heard from since the late 80’s. I was immediately interested in finding out all I could about this mysterious artist.

Bobbie Gentry, born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1944, was most known for her song, Ode To Billie Joe. Like most fans, this was the only song I knew by her, and, to be honest, I knew it best from hearing other artists cover it live, like Jeannie Seely at the Grand Ole Opry. Most of Gentry’s songs were based on her hometown in Mississippi.

Gentry stood out during her run as a recording artist because she was one of only a few female artists in the 1960’s who produced her own material. Over the course of her short career, she collaborated on projects with other big names in the industry, such as Glen Campbell, and made plenty of guest appearances on popular television shows such as Andy Williams, Carol Burnett and Bobby Darin. Gentry also did some work as a model and briefly hosted her own short lived variety show. In 1976, she was featured in the movie, Ode To Billie Joe, which was based on her hit song.

Photo taken from CMT.com

In 1964, Gentry made her recording debut with two duets, Requiem For Love and Stranger In The Mirror, both with rockabilly singer, Jody Reynolds. After that, the singer continued to play in nightclubs until Kelly Gordon, an executive for Capitol Records, heard a demo that she recorded in 1967. Gentry produced and released her first single, Mississippi Delta, on Capitol that same year, but the song included on the “B Side”, Ode To Billie Joe, got more attention and airplay than the single. Ode To Billie Joe was Gentry’s first and biggest hit song, earning her three Grammy awards, including Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. For the rest of her career, she was never able to release another single that would enjoy the same level of success.

In addition to her American success, Gentry was also pretty popular in the United Kingdom, hosting her own series on BBC-TV in London in 1968. The following year, she signed a million-dollar contract to headline in her own nightclub in Las Vegas, Nevada and produced the entire show. In 1974, Gentry hosted a short-lived variety show on CBS called The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, which only aired 4 episodes.

Over the next few years, Gentry released several songs that enjoyed moderate success, but in 1978, while on Warner Bros. Records, she released a single titled He Did Me Wrong, But He Did It Right. The song failed to make the music charts at all, and after that, Gentry made the decision to retire from show business completely. Her last public appearances as a performer/recording artist were on Christmas Night in 1978, starring as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and on the All-Star Salute to Mother’s Day on May 10th, 1981

Fun Fact: Here’s a fun and little-known fact for country music history buffs – fans of Reba McEntire and her MEGA-hit song, Fancy, may not know that the song was originally recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1970. Gentry’s version is a little more laid back and soulful (in the vain of Dusty Springfield), in contrast to McEntire’s more driving, rockin’ cover.

Fun Fact #2: Bobbie Gentry was briefly married to comedian, Jim Stafford, whom I have always known as a performer/entertainer in Branson, Missouri.

Fun Fact #3: Gentry was one of the original owners of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, and remained at least a partial owner until 1987.

Since the late 80’s, Gentry has lived a quiet life outside of the public eye. In the Washington Post article I read last summer, writer Neely Tucker reported that the singer now resides two hours away from the Tallahatchite Bridge in Memphis, Tennessee. The bridge is mentioned in Ode to Billie Joe and is a crucial part of the story.

In an industry that, for a long time, was typically male-driven, Bobbie Gentry certainly stood out as a trailblazer and role model, who as a strong, independent female artist helped to open doors for many women who came after her.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about Bobbie Gentry, her life, and her music. So leave a message in the comments below or find The CMBeat on social media!

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