Bobbie Gentry is a singer-songwriter whose persona and work have come to be identified with Mississippi. Born on 27 July 1944 in Chickasaw County, Roberta Lee Streeter lived with her parents on a farm near Greenwood until she was thirteen, when the family moved to Palm Springs, California. Her interest in and aptitude for music appeared early—she wrote her first song, “My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog,” at age seven.
While still in her teens, Streeter taught herself to play piano, banjo, guitar, bass, and vibes. She began performing at a country club during high school and continued to play in nightclubs while majoring in philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles. She transferred to and graduated from the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music before moving to Las Vegas and becoming a dancer and actress and taking her stage name from a 1952 film, Ruby Gentry.
Gentry signed with Capitol Records in 1967, recording first a blues song, “Mississippi Delta,” and then the song that made her world-famous, “Ode to Billie Joe.” Originally a seven-minute song recorded with only her guitar accompaniment, “Ode to Billie Joe” was cut to five minutes and strings were added before it was released as her first single. Telling the story of how the narrator’s friend, Billie Joe, dropped “something” (perhaps an illegitimate child) off the Tallahatchie Bridge before committing suicide, the song enjoyed tremendous success, moving past the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” to No. 1 on the United States popular music charts. “Ode to Billie Joe” also rose to No. 13 in Britain and into the top 20 on the country music charts. The song won three Grammies, was recorded by multiple artists, and inspired a 1976 movie, Ode to Billy Joe.
In the wake of her success, Gentry became a headliner in Las Vegas while continuing to record both alone and with Glen Campbell. During this time, she married and divorced Bill Harrah, manager of the Desert Inn hotel and casino. After a series of moderate successes, including a handful of hits with Campbell, Gentry’s recording of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” became a No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom, prompting her to move to England. In 1974 she had a short-lived British television series, The Bobbie Gentry Show, before retiring from performing. After a second brief marriage to songwriter Jim Stafford, she returned to Los Angeles. Her retreat from the spotlight and continuing musical influence were the subject of a 2012 BBC documentary, Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?
Although much of Gentry’s life and career have been spent away from Mississippi, “Ode to Billie Joe” has become a classic, representing the rich blend of romance, exoticism, and horror that characterize popular conceptions of the singer’s native state.
- Donald Clarke, ed., The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1998)
- Colin Larkin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1995)