(Pictured: Bobbie Gentry.)
Fifty years ago this week, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” hit #1 on the Hot 100. I submit to you that it’s one of the greatest short stories American literature has ever produced. Gentry sketches the scene around the family dinner table so effectively that we can almost smell the biscuits and coffee, and her closing image of the narrator throwing flowers off the Tallahatchie Bridge is haunting.
But good writing isn’t just knowing what to put in, it’s knowing what to leave out, and what Gentry leaves out is what makes her song a classic. Why did Billie Joe McAllister commit suicide, and why so suddenly? What were Billie Joe and the narrator spotted throwing off the bridge? As Mississippi cotton farmers might have said back then, what in the Sam Hill is going on here?
In 1976, the movie Ode to Billy Joe filled in the gaps: the narrator, named Bobbie Lee in the movie, and Billy Joe (spelled that way in the movie) are in love, but her family objects, claiming they’re too young. Billy Joe eventually jumps to his death out of homosexual guilt, and what the two of them threw off the bridge was Bobbie Lee’s ragdoll, a symbol for discarding her childhood.
And that’s the difference between good writing and bad writing right there.
Gentry once said that the song is “sort of a study in unconscious cruelty.” The family talks idly about Billie Joe’s death without realizing that the narrator was in love with him. Gentry also said, “What was thrown off the bridge isn’t that important.”
“Ode to Billie Joe” was apparently seven minutes long, originally—and who reading this now wouldn’t like to hear that? The final version, edited to four minutes, is Gentry’s demo with strings dubbed over, according to a fantastic Rolling Stone retrospective. It bubbled under the Hot 100 during the week of July 29 and went to #71 the next week. It rocketed to the top of the chart, going 71-21-7 and hitting #1 on the chart dated August 26, 1967. It spent four weeks at #1 and four more weeks in the Top 5 before going 14-29-43 and out in November. On October 14, the Ode to Billie Joe album knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of the Billboard 200 and stayed for two weeks.
Most sources claim the song was recorded on July 10, 1967, but the first two listings for “Ode to Billie Joe” at ARSA are dated July 7 and July 9. The only way these listings make sense is if the song was recorded sometime earlier and released officially on the 10th, and that seems a far more likely scenario to me. WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama, which charted the song on July 7, shows it at #28 for the week of July 14 and #1 for the week of July 21.
In 1968, Gentry won three Grammys, including Best New Artist, and she was frequently seen on TV variety shows in succeeding years. She had a brief run with her own variety shows on the BBC and CBS in the early 70s, and was credited as co-writer of the Ode to Billy Joe movie. She hit the Hot 100 eight more times by 1970 and twice in 1976, with a re-release of her 1967 recording and a new version cut for Ode to Billy Joe.
In 1969, Gentry bought a piece of the NBA’s new Phoenix Suns, which she kept until 1987. (Other original partners in the Suns included Andy Williams, Henry Mancini, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, and Ed Ames. Original coach Johnny “Red” Kerr joked before the first game that he wasn’t worried about his starting lineup, but “who’s going to sing the National Anthem.”) In 1978, she married fellow singer Jim Stafford, and they had a son together. Gentry filed for divorce after 14 months, but the two stayed friendly and were spotted together by paparazzi as late as 1981.
On December 24, 1978, Gentry appeared on the Tonight Show. It was her last TV performance. She’s been out of the public eye entirely since 1982, and today, at the age of 73, she lives in a gated community in Tennessee. In 2016, a reporter tracked her down and called her house, asking for the person who is listed as the property owner of record. “There’s no one here by that name,” said the woman who answered the phone. Then, “she hung up,” the reporter wrote. “But there really isn’t any doubt. I talked, for about 13 seconds, to Bobbie Gentry.”
(Rebooted with much new material from a post originally appearing at Popdose in 2012.)