Bobbie Gentry fans have an extra special reason to look forward to Record Store Day this year thanks to the first-ever release of tracks Gentry recorded while hosting her landmark television show on the BBC.
A limited edition of 1200 copies of Bobbie Gentry: Live at the BBC will be in select stores on Saturday, April 21. The record features 11 tracks, and all but one are originals from Gentry’s first three records.
Reader, I have heard the record. The tracks sound brighter and cleaner than what we are used to hearing on vinyl and the various compilations that didn’t bother re-mastering tracks before dumping them on CD.
Bobbie Gentry: Live at the BBC was conceived by British producer and engineer Andrew Batt. I recently spoke with Batt about his vision.
“For someone who later became such a well-known stage performer, I have always found it surprising that Bobbie never produced a live album,” says Batt. “With that in mind, I thought the time was right to release a collection of her performances for the BBC, giving fans the chance to hear Bobbie sing some of her best-known compositions.”
Gentry loved working in television. “If you’re a performer who likes to do lots of things, it’s the best field for you,” Gentry said in the New York Times during a 1969 interview. “You can get involved in everything—from writing to set design to choreography.”
Gentry was initially turned down by American network executives who said they didn’t believe audiences would watch a show hosted by a woman, despite the success of The Carol Burnett Show. (Burnett landed her show against the wishes of the network suits, who were forced into the situation due to a clause in Burnett’s contract.)
Instead, Bobbie became the first female musician to host her own BBC show. Technically produced by Stanley Dorfman, Dorfman has said that in reality he and Gentry were partners when it came to creative decisions.
Their first BBC series began on 13th of July 1968 and was an instant success. Titled simply Bobbie Gentry, it was hilariously subtitled of Bobbie Gentry sings of the Fragrance, Love, Sorrow and Humour of the Delta Country.
As explained in the record’s liner notes, Bobbie Gentry wasn’t a conventional variety show format with multiple guest stars and comedy spots, but more of a personal showcase for Bobbie’s work that depicted her in intimate solo performances, big choreographed set pieces, and on location in footage filmed near her childhood home in Mississippi.
“After a few episodes, she was pretty much co-directing the show because she had such great ideas,” Dorfman said during our conversation in 2014. “[But] the BBC wouldn’t … have an artist credited as a director or producer, so the credit went to me as producer and director. But she definitely contributed as much as I did creatively to the show… Normally, how you plan a show, is you get the star to come in and you say what you’re going to do. This wasn’t the case.”
In fact, they fired the scriptwriter after the first year because Bobbie was better at writing her own lines. Together, Dorfman and Gentry created six half-hour episodes every year for three years, for a total of 18 shows spanning 1968 to 1971.
The audio clarity on Bobbie Gentry: Live at the BBC is quite a feat given the quality of TV recording technology in the late 1960s, but that’s not the only remarkable aspect of this record. Fans haven’t had much of a chance to hear Gentry, a born performer who dominated the Vegas stage for a decade after abandoning a relatively brief career at Capitol Records in 1971, plugged in and connecting directly with her audience. Like the production of her early records, Gentry's microphone is super close. Her singing is significantly more relaxed here, the sound of a woman confident in her vision rather than an unknown hopeful searching for a hit.
Gentry sounds best when she lays way back in her vocals, low and almost behind the beat. She positively slithers through the swamp-rock of “Mississippi Delta,” emphasizing a lisp-y drag on the Misssss-missssssthh-misssssssthhi-issippi just before the band slides into the outro. The long vowels are longer and the S’s are curvier. On “Ode to Billie Joe,” the pregnant pauses between the lyrics’ plot twists are a tad thicker, little cliffs we hang on before Gentry breathes the next line to life.
Gentry, a lifelong overachiever that was editor of her yearbook and high school student council president, never relaxed when it came to preparation. “Musical Director John Cameron told me that he was incredibly impressed when Bobbie turned up on the first day of rehearsals with a full set of musician's charts so that each band member would know what they had to play and wouldn't have to learn another artist's music by ear alone as they would normally have done,” says Batt.
There are surprises. The BBC version of “Niki Hoeky” seriously digs ya in the scoobeydoo, if you know what I mean. It’s a greasier chunk of Cajun funk than her original take on the tune. For her BBC performance, Gentry exchanged elegant strings for deeper low-end and brassy accents. Midway through the song, she swings into a long glide of Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” before closing out the song.
It’s a wonder we can hear any of these tracks at all. The huge, expensive two-inch tapes used to record television were typically wiped and re-used. Most of Gentry’s 1968 series is long gone, the entirety of 1969 has vanished, and only two episodes from 1971 can still be found.
“I wanted it to appear like a stand-alone LP, as if this collection could in fact have come out back in 1969,” says Batt. “For that to work, I needed a consistent sound, which is why I decided not to include any performances from the 1971 series. By that time Bobbie's vocal style and her arrangements had changed significantly, and would have disrupted the flow of the album especially given the limited space on a 12-inch LP.”
Gentry finally landed her own show on American TV in 1974. By then, she had practically given up on the idea. There are some memorable moments in Bobbie Gentry's Happiness Hour, but overall it didn’t land with audiences or with Gentry, who wasn’t given as much creative control as her BBC show.
It’s ironic that Gentry took the heat for the failures of a show that she had little control over, and didn’t get credit for the successful BBC show.
“She was really worried about [that] with our show, that she wouldn’t be given credit for all the input,” said Dorfman. “I publicized that she did, I told everybody that I talked to that she was responsible for the creation of a lot, as much as I was, because we weren’t able to give her legal credit.”
The BBC show ended the same year Gentry broke her contract with Capitol Records and lit out for Vegas. They didn’t like a woman fighting for control in the studio, and she didn’t care for being undermined. That said, she was proud of Patchwork, her last record for Capitol. A decade later, she left the spotlight entirely.
So far, Gentry’s legacy has been a patchwork project too. In the last few years, bits and pieces of threads excavated and stitched together to create a portrait of an artist ahead of her time. Bobbie Gentry: Live at the BBC is another piece of a picture that is finally coming into full view.
Have something to say about Bobbie Gentry or this record? Contact me @taramurtha or firstname.lastname@example.org.