The Talented Bobbie Gentry Part One
Roberta Lee Streeter (born July 27, 1944), professionally known as Bobbie Gentry, is an American singer-songwriter notable as one of the first female country artists to compose and produce her own material. Her songs typically drew on her Mississippi roots to compose vignettes of the Southern United States.
Gentry in 1970
Roberta Lee Streeter
July 27, 1944 (age 73)
near Woodland, Mississippi, United States
Country, pop, soul
Gentry rose to international fame with her intriguing Southern Gothic narrative “Ode to Billie Joe” in 1967. The track spent four weeks as the No. 1 pop song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was fourth in the Billboard year-end chart of 1967 and earned her Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1968. Gentry charted eleven singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and four singles on the United Kingdom Top 40. Her album Fancy brought her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. After her first albums, she had a successful run of variety shows on the Las Vegas Strip. She lost interest in performing in the late 1970s, and since 2010 has lived in a private gated community in Shelby County, Tennessee.
Gentry was born near Woodland in Chickasaw County, Mississippi to Robert and Ruby (Bullington) Streeter. She has a step-brother, also named Robert Streeter. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth, and her mother moved to California. She was raised on her grandparents’ farm in Chickasaw County. Her grandmother traded one of the family’s milk cows for a neighbor’s piano, and seven-year-old Bobbie composed her first song, “My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog”. She attended school in Greenwood, Mississippi, and began teaching herself to play the guitar, bass, banjo, and the vibraphone.
She moved to Arcadia, California, at age 13 to live with her mother. Gentry graduated from Palm Valley School in 1960. She chose her stage name from the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, about a heroine born into poverty but determined to make a success of her life. She began performing at local country clubs, and encouraged by Bob Hope, she performed in a revue at Les Folies Bergeres nightclub of Las Vegas.
Gentry then moved to Los Angeles to enter UCLA as a philosophy major. She supported herself with clerical jobs, occasionally performing at nightclubs. She also worked as a fashion model, and on June 29, 1962, United Press International circulated a wire photo of Gentry posing in a swimsuit alongside a second model and Cheryl Crane, daughter of Lana Turner.
She later transferred to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to develop her composition and performing skills. In 1964, she made her recording debut in two duets – “Requiem for Love” and “Stranger in the Mirror” with rockabilly singer Jody Reynolds. She continued performing in nightclubs until Capitol Records executive Kelly Gordon heard a demo she had recorded in 1967.
In 1967 Gentry produced her first single, the country rock “Mississippi Delta”. However, the flipside, “Ode to Billie Joe”, with its sparse sound and controversial lyrics, started to receive airplay in the U.S. Capitol’s shortened version added to the song’s mystery. Questions arose among the listeners: what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide? Gentry herself has commented on the song, saying that its real theme was indifference:
Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of people’s reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown, when both women experience a common loss (first, Billie Joe and, later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief.
The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in August 1967 and placed No. 4 in the year-end chart. The single hit No. 8 on Billboard Black Singles and No. 13 in the UK Top 40 and sold over three million copies all over the world. Rolling Stone magazine listed it among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2001. The album, Ode to Billie Joe, replaced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the top of Billboard Albums Chart and reached No. 5 of the Billboard Black Albums chart. Gentry won three Grammy Awards in 1967, including Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She was also named the Academy of Country Music’s Most Promising Female Vocalist.
In February 1968 Gentry took part in the Italian Song Festival in Sanremo, as one of two performers (alongside Al Bano) of the song “La siepe” by Vito Pallavicini and Massara. In a competition of 24 songs, the entry qualified to the final 14 and eventually placed ninth.
Gentry (along with many other celebrities) was one of the original owners of the Phoenix Suns basketball team.
Gentry’s second album, The Delta Sweete, released in 1968, did not match the success of her first. It yielded a Billboard top-sixty hit, “Okolona River Bottom Band”. She also collaborated on the album Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell, which earned a gold record certificate. Gentry made numerous guest appearances on TV shows hosted by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Carol Burnett, and Bobby Darin. Among them was her performance of the Cajun number “Niki Hoeky” on The Summer Brothers Smothers Show. In 1969, she released Touch ‘Em with Love, her most critically acclaimed album, which gave her a number-one hit in the UK with “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Also in 1970 she received recognition for her composition “Fancy”, which rose to No. 26 on the U.S. Country charts and No. 31 on the pop charts. Gentry’s personal view on the song:
“Fancy” is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it. I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for—equality, equal pay, day care centers, and abortion rights.
The album, as was the case with most of the rest of her post-“Billie Joe” recordings, had modest commercial success. However, it charted top 40 in the Billboard country album chart and netted Gentry a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Female Vocalist.