Bobbie Gentry: Remembered

Who is Bobbie Gentry? The big-haired, sultry sounding gal from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, most famous for her song “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Gentry, born Roberta Lee Streeter, was a maverick, something that did not fit well in the male-controlled music industry in the 1960s. She wrote most of her own music, wanted a say in production, published her own music, and wore pants. She was beautiful, talented and independent – in a business that wanted to control and program their artists, particularly the women.

The Guardian has a decent summary of her brief career before she walked away, first from the recording industry, and then Las Vegas, where she worked during the 1970s.

In 2021, Capitol Records re-released Gentry’s work, in various formats, with demos, alternate versions and live tracks along with her studio recordings. I’ve been listening to her work and it’s amazing.

In 1967, when “Ode to Billie Joe” was released, I was ten years old and I was already neck-deep in my love of music. Marketed primarily as a country artist, I couldn’t quite understand the “country” designation. To my ears, she sounded more pop, but very soulful, with a slow, Southern R&B quality. I was just a punk kid, what did I know?

Surprisingly, not a lot is known about Gentry, although her early life and recording years have been pretty well researched as she was in the public eye. When she turned her attention to Las Vegas in the 1970s, she seemed to exert more control over what was known about her. Even though she married and divorced several times during that period, and had a son, she walked out of the limelight more than 40 years ago, retiring from public life.

Married three times in the 1970s, including to Harrah’s casino and hotel founder Bill Harrah, who was 30 years her senior, and singer Jim Stafford (“Spiders and Snakes”), she lived a country singer’s life of complicated, gossipy relationships. That’s the outsider’s view, which is probably more entertaining than the facts.

Gentry released seven studio albums, including a duets album with Glen Campbell, between 1967-1971. She won two Grammy Awards for her first album, hosted musical-variety shows for the BBC and CBS, owned her own publishing companies and invested her money well. She was an initial investor in the Phoenix Suns NBA team, which turned her a substantial profit when she later sold her shares.

So did the deal she signed with Max Baer, Jr. to turn her “Ode to Billy Joe” song into a film. It has been written that she collected ten percent of the profits for use of the song.

Former husband Jim Stafford said: “Some people just see Bobbie as this girl from the Mississippi backwoods or delta. She was brilliant when it came to writing and her creative self.”

Through the years, the mystery of Bobbie Gentry fascinates people. Now 80 years old, who is this remarkable and successful woman? If you browse the internet you see that she maintains an ultra-low profile, with people guessing that she lives in Southern California, Memphis or Mississippi. No one seems to be sure. Reports are that she’s turned down efforts to tell her story and is happy to be off the radar.

In 1990, Reba McEntire had a hit with Gentry’s song, “Fancy,” earning her not only a tidy sum, but putting her briefly back in the spotlight. In 2012, Taylor Swift’s “The Lucky One” might have been written about Gentry, there is certainly speculation. The world spins on energy from gossip and speculation.

With the recent re-release of Gentry’s recordings, being off the radar is tougher now, but I don’t think Gentry cares. She’s smart and comfortable, so I don’t think a bit of fame bothers her at this point, it only deepens the mystery of Bobbie Gentry.

5 thoughts on “Bobbie Gentry: Remembered

  1. “Ode to Billie Joe” just is an incredible tune and a great example of outstanding cinematic story-telling. Unfortunately, it’s the only song I know by Bobbie Gentry. I’ve yet to explore her other music. Based on listening into a few tunes, it sounds like the album “Ode to Billie Joe” would be a great start!

    Liked by 1 person

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