- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
“Ode to Billie Joe”
In the summer of 1967, folks were asking, “What really happened to Billie Joe McAllister? What exactly did he throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? And what about that girl up on Choctaw Ridge?”
It was all part of the fun of trying to analyze Bobbie Gentry’s chart-topper “Ode to Billie Joe.”
Years later, Gentry explained in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits that many listeners missed the point of her song.
“Everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of people expressed in the song,” she groused. “The real ‘message’ of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide.”
Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in 1942. When her parents divorced, Bobbie moved in with her grandparents. She taught herself to play the piano and write some catchy little tunes.
In the mid-1950s, her mother relocated to Palm Springs, California, and Gentry followed. During high school, she also mastered the guitar, bass, banjo, and vibes.
After graduation in 1960, she moved to Los Angeles and took philosophy classes at UCLA before switching to the prestigious Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to study guitar and composition.
Now calling herself Bobbie Gentry—from the 1952 movie Ruby Gentry—she made a demo (demonstration) record of an original song: “Mississippi Delta.”
When she shopped it around, Capitol Records executives were instantly taken with both Gentry’s obvious talent and stunning good looks.
Capitol people chose to promote the bluesy “Mississippi Delta” as her first single; they were lukewarm about the “B” side, a haunting, Gothic Southern ballad she called “Ode to Billie Joe.”
Gentry had cut “Ode” in less than an hour, accompanying herself on a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Violins, a cello, and a bass were added later. “Ode” was eventually edited from seven minutes and 11 verses to a more radio-friendly (read: shorter and simpler) tune.
Capitol promoted “Mississippi Delta,” but DJs soon preferred spinning “Ode to Billie Joe.” Once it hit Billboard’s singles charts, “Ode” took just three weeks to reach No. 1 and pave the way for three Grammy Awards that followed the next year.
But nothing that Capitol released after that came close to Bobbie Gentry’s debut smash.
She moved to Las Vegas early in the 1970s and headlined the Strip with a revue that she created, produced, and starred in.
Still, she could never escape the shadow of her lone megahit, which eventually was relegated to the playlists of “oldies” stations. Eventually she packed up and left Sin City behind.
In 1999, “Ode to Billie Joe” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Oddly, when the Grammy people tried to send Gentry her award, nobody could find a phone number or an address for her. The award was set on a shelf where, one assumes, it still rests today.
Forget Billie Joe McAllister. Now people should ask, “What really happened to Bobbie Gentry?”
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.