“Ode To Billie Joe,” the number-one hit off Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 album of the same name, is deceptively simple. We hear a cascade of pinwheeling chords lifted by the swells and sighs of strings, and then a sultry, smoky voice steeped in the dark sweet tea of the South begins: “It was a third of June, another sleepy dusty Delta day. I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay.” As she gets closer to revealing the bad news, Gentry's voice tightens like a snake on a tree branch: “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
It's impossible to forget the woman herself—a beautiful, soulful singer with chiseled cheekbones, thick slashes of black eyeliner and legs so long she had to sew her own slacks. From her hundreds of television appearances, a television show on BBC and a short-lived show on CBS, fans remember the impossibly sexy swivel and the glittering showgirlship of a woman who could make air boil with nothing more than a parlor Martin guitar and a voice low as the Mississippi moon.
On Christmas evening 1978, Gentry made one final appearance on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson before vanishing into the Technicolor Los Angeles smog. By morning, the girl born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw County, Mississippi—save a little one-off special a few years later--never appeared in public as Bobbie Gentry ever again.
Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe will be published by
Bloomsbury Academic's acclaimed 33 1/3 Books series in 2014.
1/16/13: Read an interview with the author here.
1/17/13: Read "Hidden Treasures: Bobbie Gentry, The Delta Sweete" in the Guardian here.