Bobbie Gentry

TrackAlbum / Single  
Ode To Billie JoeOde To Billie Joe
Mississippi DeltaOde To Billie Joe
Chickasaw County ChildOde To Billie Joe
Okolona River Bottom BandThe Delta Sweete
ReunionThe Delta Sweete
Casket VignetteLocal Gentry
Ace Insurance ManLocal Gentry
FancyFancy
Apartment 21Capitol 2849
Lookin' InPatchwork

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Contributor: Peter Viney

How big a hit was Ode To Billie Joe? The chart books say it got to UK #13 in October 1967, but earlier that autumn of 67 it seemed to be on radio non-stop. It was the last gasp of the pirate stations, and Radio Caroline and Radio London played it all the time. It was a US #1 and the third biggest hit of the year. Conspiracy theorists will tell you the Record Retailer BBC chart took its revenge on its final pirate prominence, but it also reached 13 in New Musical Express’s livelier chart listing. The number of used copies around are certainly at Top 5 hit level.

It’s an extraordinary song, spawning three more extraordinary songs which pastiched it, or rather paid tribute to it, Clothes Line Saga (originally Answer To Ode) by Bob Dylan from The Basement Tapes, Marie-Jeanne by Joe Dassin, and recently Ode To Bobbie Gentry by Sid Griffin. It also resulted in a novel and a film. So what did Billy Joe and the narrator throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? Bobbie Gentry listed the most frequent speculations: an engagement ring, an aborted foetus, flowers, a draft card, and LSD. She has declined to reveal what she had in mind, while stating she knew what it was. In the film, it’s the narrator’s rag doll, after Billy Joe’s had a homosexual encounter.

Lyrically, the startling thing is the narrator’s use of natural spoken dialogue. Then there’s her signature choppy acoustic guitar with bass at one level, but then the string arrangements soaring above and drawing the narrative along in film soundtrack style. No drums. No horns. No keys. Much of it is in her vocal performance … there are so many country singer covers and they all sound overblown next to her understated delivery. It’s a fully-formed Mississippi Delta Americana masterpiece, released while no one knew what Dylan and the Band were carving out in Woodstock, setting the question, What next?

Her first album Ode To Billie Joe starts out with Mississippi Delta, originally intended to be the A-side of the Ode single. It’s much rockier than her other prominent songs, a great raucous rocker spelling out the state name, more Janis Joplin or Lulu than folk singer too. So both sides of the single are essential.

Chickasaw County Child starts with the same guitar part as Ode, as does Niki Hoeky and so does Bugs. But I can’t get enough of it anyway, and they’re far from being rewrites. All three are tempting Toppermosts. Chickasaw County Child gets it for more of her narrative voice:

Sporting her checkered feedsack dress
A ruby ring from a Crackerjack box …

Mama says Look-a-here, dumpling
You’ll go far, cos’ you got style

Gentry can write Southern, and load a song with references. Jimmie Haskell’s string arrangements are a major addition to the song, cinematic again.

Her cover of Niki Hoeky sounds like a white female country Lee Dorsey name-checking rock ‘n’ roll (and your sister’s on a trip) for 1967. P.J. Proby got the British cover, and Aretha Franklin stormed through it on Lady Soul, but Bobbie Gentry defines the song for me.

Papa Won’t You Let Me Go To Town, Hurry Tuesday Child and I Saw An Angel Die follow a jazzy groove with orchestra, which would have been called ‘sophisticated’ back in 1967. The album was arranged by Jimmie Haskell. I was playing the album recently and had programmed those three tracks, and someone said, ‘Is this a new Norah Jones?’ Very much so in style.

Her second album was The Delta Sweete. The title isn’t entirely ironic … on side one, hand percussion or bass links songs, and side one is heavy on Americana, side two on “chamber folk.” Gentry played guitar, piano, bass, banjo and vibes herself. Bobbie Gentry loved those Native American place names … Tallahatchie, Chickasaw County, Choctaw Ridge, Okolona River, Kosciusko. Okolona River Bottom Band opens the record. This time the big horns are the significant feature, and she can go from purr to cackling laugh and wail.

Reunion is an original, with a chanted nursery rhyme background (Mama can I, huh, Mama can I huh, huh, Can I mama?) owing something to A-tisket/A-tasket. and there are multiple narrative voices. I’d guess the voices are all Gentry. It’s the family in a room all talking at the same time. It all sounds so cheerful and friendly, It’s so nice that we all get along so well, but then the girl’s screaming Mama make Willie quit pullin’ my hair and Mama’s threatening Tommy with a stick, and Sammy Jean just got her finger stuck in a coke bottle. It’s mayhem. Then you get just an aural snatch way off buried in the background vocal of: I heard this mornin’ they dropped the Tallahatchie river/And found poor Billie gone. It’s hard to find. I hadn’t noticed it all until I Googled the lyrics, and even then I had to play it several times. The humour comes thick and fast:

And don’t ya look nice in your Sunday dress?
Doesn’t Sally look tacky in her silly little dress?
You can see that she just doesn’t know no better
Can you imagine, she let her daughter Rosalie
Go off to Memphis by herself

Sermon is another glorious piece of Southern gospel preacher tall talk. Refractions, Jessye’ Lisabeth and Mornin’ Glory are outstanding songs, because they’re so different to the style of her hits. Gentler, more like standards. Then you get Penduli Pendulum, another sweet and gentle song. There was a different route beginning to appear.

The Delta Sweete also has R&B covers, each with a twist … Big Boss Man, Parchman Farm, Louisiana Man and Tobacco Road. Big Boss Man has finger tapping percussion, majestic cello intro, then wailing harmonica and a touch of banjo. Unusual for an R&B classic? I’d say unique. Tobacco Road is an astonishing cover too … it starts with 20 seconds of Western epic orchestral intro, then the riff starts with dirty, swampy Link Wray sounding guitar and crunchy bass then the strings are way away and a horn plays around from nowhere. She manages to combine Parchman Farm with the swampy Ode guitar, burbling bass guitar and prickly electric guitar accents. Doug Kershaw’s Louisiana Man comes out like a Bobbie Gentry original because the lyrics suit her.

Local Gentry (1968) has three Beatles covers, all well done, and much of the album was recorded in London. She covers a favourite of mine, Come Away Melinda, far more gently than usual. My interest is in her songs: Sweete Peony (so she did think that was how you spell “sweet” then), Casket Vignette, Ace Insurance Man and Recollection, and the co-written Sittin’ Pretty.

Casket Vignette starts off deceptively sweet, light and cheerful … but hang on, listen to the words …

Here are some samples of the fabric, Miss Morgan
I know how painful it must be
But I guess it’s your responsibility
I understand he was your fiancée … what a tragedy
.

You realize the singer’s role is an undertaker selling a popular dusty rose-velvet lining for a coffin, and offering an easy payment plan. Her ability to write dialogue is at the fore: Maybe you’d prefer another shade? Trimmed in gold or silver braid. Would you like a lemonade? There’s no ice, I’m afraid … The arrangement brings in cellos and basses to contrast with the tinkling lightness of it. Great, and she’s veered into Randy Newman’s territory … acting out a role, and doing it ironically.

Ace Insurance Man adds Hammond organ and distant horns, still laid over prominent bass. We have another bunch of Southern characters gossiping away, having seen a city slicker in an Ace Insurance car and making the usual travelling salesman assumptions about his intentions toward Abell … in the days of Hays Office censorship in Hollywood, mention of travelling salesmen and farmers’ daughters were banned. Bobbie Gentry does funny character voices on this one too, with a comedy twist ending. The ear for dialogue is still her trademark:

People oughta keep an eye on their kids
You remember ‘bout Abby McGuinness
Why it like te’ kill her ma when she found out about it
Course I know it ain’t none of my business … but, uh, well, if it was me …

Because of the voices and comedy story it might seem too close to novelty, but it’s too well arranged for that.

I’ll Never Fall In Love Again was a single, later added to the Touch ‘Em With Love LP (1969). Her breathy cover of the Bacharach and David song was a British #1 hit, though it didn’t register in America where Dionne Warwick took chart honours (Dionne recorded it first). It’s not the distinctive Bobbie Gentry style at all, but was so beautifully done that it should go into her ten, even if it sounds more like Dusty Springfield, an effect compounded by it following Son of A Preacher Man on the album. But you know it anyway so I’ll skip it. The rocking title track, Touch ‘Em With Love was composed by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, who also wrote Son Of A Preacher Man. She only had two compositions on the album, the folky Seasons Come, Seasons Go and another slice of Southern in Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing. The song I Wouldn’t Be Surprised is highly rated, but the opening piano part is so similar to The Moody Blues’ Go Now that it irritates me.

Her work with Glen Campbell resulted in a duo album (they were billed as “The two new talents of the year”), and a major hit with a cover of The Everly Brothers All I Have To Do Is Dream. Let it Be Me is also on the album and they did Walk Right Back too. All three are bonus tracks on CDs of her next solo album, Touch ‘Em With Love. Everly Brothers covers, switched to male and female, helped inspire Norah Jones and Bonnie Prince Billy’s recent Everlys covers album. I find the normally wonderful strings on her records got ramped up to obtrusive and overwhelming here. Little Green Apples is overdone. Her own Mornin’ Glory reappeared on the duo set with Glen taking the lead vocal. She followed All I Have To Do Is Dream with another hit, covering Bacharach & David’s Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. It did nearly as well as B.J. Thomas’s original version.

Her 1970 single was Apartment 21 written by John Wilkin. In most countries, Seasons Come, Seasons Go was the B-side, though in the UK Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing took its place. Apartment 21 can be found on many compilations, but was not an initial album track. I tried to focus on her songwriting, but the interpretation of someone else’s lyric is so touching and exquisitely sad under the melody, that it goes in.

Fancy (1970) was the second song I wrote down on my draft list. Like Chickasaw County Child it’s an “escape” song, but with a twist. Like Ode To Billie Joe, it’s a masterpiece. It’s the story of a young girl sent off to prostitution to save the family, and she becomes rich and successful and goes back to look at her little country shack. Again, it’s the combination of strong storyline and her use of language:

And I shivered as I watched a roach crawl across
The toe of my high-heeled shoes …
It sounded like somebody else was talkin’
Askin’, ‘Momma what do I do?’
‘Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and
they’ll be nice to you’
.

Reba McEntire’s fiercer 1991 cover had a first-rate music video tracing the story with a nice sentimental touch at the end. Definitely worth watching for her story treatment, but going back you see the virtues of the 1969 Bobbie Gentry arrangement … just down to drums at times, trumpets, odd snatches of “Ode” strummed guitar, chorus. Listen to the drums though … accentuating the story, contrasting the story. This is freestyle jazz drumming, almost as if accompanying a beat poet.

The Fancy album has the sense that the songwriting is drying. It was recorded at Muscle Shoals, with arrangements by Jimmie Haskell again. She only wrote the title track. I’ll Never Fall In Love Again and Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, both of which had already charted, were added to boost sales. Otherwise there are well-chosen covers: Wedding Bell Blues (Laura Nyro), Delta Man (a gender-switch on Leon Russell’s Delta Lady), Something In The Way He Moves (James Taylor), Rainmaker (Harry Nilsson), If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody … with deep brass.

Patchwork was the last original studio album, and Bobbie Gentry wrote it all, including the instrumental interludes between tracks. The cover painting of this and Fancy are in the same style, and rumour is that both were painted by Gentry, in which case, like Joni Mitchell, she’s a significant painter as well as songwriter. Both are “frame-able”. The style focuses on her softer gentler chamber-folk compositions, and with the earlier material in this style on The Delta Sweete you could compile a CD in a similar mood. Billy The Kid is cod-cowboy in a light jazzy style very much like Maria Muldaur a few years later. Benjamin and Your Number One Fan are in similar Vaudeville territory. Mean Stepmama Blues is a classic languid blues. But I Can’t Get Back is the best Elton John song that Elton didn’t write.

Lookin’ In closes the album, and it’s very much a farewell, and it is the archetypal ‘lonely in the spotlights’ song:

So I write another song as I go along
To let you know just where I’ve been
Don’t want to meet myself at the masquerade
You can tell in the verse if I get worse
By the chorus I may be fine
A line, my friend, can end the kind charade

Has ‘a line’ got a double meaning? I always thought so. You can feel the therapy sessions in it … Then again Daddy never loved his baby girl, no how … Ah, what’s the difference now? the end. The phrasing of the last line is superb.

The late single, The Girl From Cincinnati, wasn’t written by her, but was a significant choice to go out on. It’s a bitter reflection on the music/movie business: her guy with a recording contract turned out to be a queen … he could not see my body or appreciate my looks and then after an agent and a Beverly Hills mansion, she says I played the back seat heroine in a thousand different cars. From ‘Cavalier’ to ‘Playboy’ to holdin’ up some dog food for a firm in Idaho. It didn’t get decent promotion, and with big Vegas shows at the time, she was doing better with compilation albums.

Bobbie Gentry stopped. She simply got off the bus and quit the music business altogether at the end of 1978. It had been some time since Patchwork. In retrospect, I think her career got diverted, as it inevitably does with female singers. A guy who had a singer-songwriter hit as big as Ode To Billie Joe, with a wild rocking B-side, and who accompanied himself with a distinctive guitar style, would never have wound up recording Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head or I’ll Never Fall In love Again a couple of years later. She was a great singer-songwriter and a few years later, I am sure her career path would have been different. Compare Lucinda Williams for Southern Gothic … just a few years younger, but no one expected her to put on long frocks, put her hair up in a big bouffant and sing standards.

BUYERS GUIDE
Even the budget compilations are good, though they do like the Everly Brothers covers with Glen Campbell, and the block of three Beatles covers from Local Gentry all of which I’d skip. The Australian Raven label do 2-on-1s of the original albums, though they’re not paired in the way I’d like. Also, released next month, “Southern Gothic – The Definitive Collection” by Bobbie Gentry. Fifty tracks, and it includes the R&B covers. The running order seems bizarre to me, but you get the lot! The albums I like most as albums are Ode To Billie Joe and particularly The Delta Sweete which even without her two best songs, Ode and Fancy, is the best overall album.

 

Bobbie Gentry discography

Bobbie Gentry biography (iTunes)

Peter Viney writes on popular music and the arts at his website.

TopperPost #489

5 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Nov 16, 2015

    ‘Ode’ is one of those songs, like ‘Gentle on my mind’ or ‘Wichita Linesman’ that is beyond perfect. Bobbie Gentry is one of the great underrated artists, and this list does her justice.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Nov 16, 2015

    Like most popele, I suspect, I really only know ‘Ode’ but this fine list will encourage me to dig deeper… I think it is the mystery to ‘Ode’ which gives it its enduring power – something haunting about the song…

  3. Peter Viney
    Nov 17, 2015

    An interesting comment just came on the Band website relating to the piece above on Ode to Billie Joe (thanks to David P), which is that the Tallahatchie Bridge was the place where the murdered African-American teenager Emmett Till’s body was thrown into the river in 1955. The murderers crossed the bridge and threw the body in from the steep bank. He had been tortured. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it, as did The Staples Singers. Bobbie Gentry lived there till she was thirteen. She would certainly have known the story. No, I don’t think there’s a hidden message, but round that area “throwin’ something off the Tallahatchie Bridge” surely rang bells!

  4. Glenn Smith
    Nov 18, 2015

    I grew up thinking I’ll Never Fall in Love Again was her song, my mum had the record and it was played to death. Bobbie also gets points from me for the fine work in covering the Fabs, like all great singers she had a crack at Eleanor Rigby and pulled it off ( I assume that is her picking the guitar) . But then I’m a bit obsessed with Beatles covers. And speaking of covers, the strength of Bille Joe is shown with (I can’t believe I’m about to say this) Sinead O’Connor’s great version on the 1997 Bosnia relief album Help, it is really worth checking out. Great list and essay Peter, did you consider “Where’s the Playground Johnny?”

    • Peter Viney
      Nov 18, 2015

      Where’s the Playground, Johnny (or variously Susie / Bobby) is one of catchiest songs on ‘Touch ‘em with love’ and Jimmy Webb must have given it to both her and Glen Campbell around the same time. I decided to avoid her versions of Bacharach-David songs, and put Jimmy Webb in there with them … beautifully performed “serious popular music” (my category), but not the Americana or chamber folk of her original compositions. I skipped The Beatles / Everlys covers for the same reason, I wanted to focus on her originals. Mind you, Big Boss Man and Niki Hoeky were very close to getting in. But Nicki Hoeky really sounds so like her original stuff.

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