“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 fingerpicked 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 as she delivers the famous line: “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Though she hasn't performed in more than three decades, fans find it impossible to forget Bobbie Gentry—a beautiful, soulful singer with chiseled cheekbones, thick slashes of black eyeliner and a stage presence and dance moves that made one writer describe her as having a "body which moves like an insolent, urgent, hungry panther."
Not bad for a multi-instrumentalist who always considered herself, at heart, a writer.
As one of the first women to write, perform and produce her own material, Gentry broke both creative and business barriers. Gentry was a total unknown when she created an album so popular that Capitol Records pre-ordered the largest number of units in its history--five times more than the record set in 1964 with Meet the Beatles. She was the first woman to host a variety show on the BBC and the first woman inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame. Her song lyrics, Southern Gothic at its finest, are most often compared to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. She ran her own production companies, personally signing every paycheck every week.
After leaving the record industry in the early 1970s, Gentry focused on her award-winning stage shows in Vegas, where she did everything from leading the band to designing the costumes. She was known for mounting the most elaborate shows with the most feverish pace--and of course for her legendary tribute to Elvis, where the Delta Queen emulated the King so well that Presley urged his own audience to go see Bobbie's show. She broke showroom attendance records while, behind the scenes, she negotiated her own contracts, including the highest-paying contract in Vegas history at the time.
And then, after more than a decade as one of the biggest names in show business, the stage went black. Now, Bobbie Gentry has not appeared or performed in public in more than three decades.
But what fans can't forget, of course, is the impossibly sexy swivel and glittering showgirlship of a performer who could make air boil with nothing more than a parlor Martin guitar and a voice low as the Mississippi moon.
Almost fifty years after it was recorded, fans still wonder what it was that was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge in "Ode to Billie Joe."
Murtha set out to explore the real mystery buried within the song's mystery, and found the waters got murkier the deeper she dove. Just as fans believe that finding out what was thrown off the bridge will lead to knowing why Billie Joe jumped, Murtha argues that by piecing together the true story behind "Ode to Billie Joe," we can finally begin to get a full view of the remarkable accomplishments Gentry made in her short career and begin to understand her long silence.
Relying on original research including extensive interviews, never-before-seen footage of Gentry's Vegas performances and assorted memorabilia, Murtha traces the much-disputed origin "Ode to Billie Joe" while assembling a portrait of an artist ahead of her time.
Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe will be published by Bloomsbury Academic's acclaimed 33 1/3 Books series December 4, 2014.
Forward by Jill Sobule