Bobbie Gentry is an apparition. Did she really walk the earth during the Summer of Love? Did she walk among men and women and sing like summer and smoke? There are records and television shows that say she did. But she is gone. I've heard so many stories and notions and I fear to type any of them. She, whose name rolls off the tongue. She, who sounds like a small town sheriff. She, who looks like a bombshell.
Bobbie and I go way back. I'll get to that later. First off, years ago, I lived in a friend’s basement for a while. I moved to Brentwood, Tennessee. Swimming pools, movie stars, Insurance salesmen. I chilled out. I watched a-lot of television. I saw the Malice at The Palace. I lifted weights. I strummed my guitar. I dined on frozen pizzas cooked up in a microwave. The basement came with a bed and a bathroom. On the wall my friend placed a picture of Bobbie Gentry. To inspire toward a future of greener pastures with the ladies or to inspire songs or just to inspire, I don't know. It worked on all levels.
There she was, her exotic features, Puerto Rican maybe? Spanish? (She is Portuguese for the record) and exotic is a cliché but if you saw her that's just what you'd say. Oh and we do go way back, my dad played her records when I was a kid and to this day any buxom woman with brown eyes and olive skin knocks me down with a glance. In this photo, her raven hair, and raven hair is a cliché but if you saw her hair that's just what you'd say, is perched on her head and she is leaning on a piano.
Bobbie learned the banjo and bass while going to elementary school in Greenwood, Mississippi. She walked home on dirt roads? She rode the bus? Did she like English class? I bet she did. I bet she rocked the boy’s in her classes world. This world of the 1950s, in the midst of civil rights upheaval had the South upside down and on fire. There was little to keep young girls with big dreams in Mississippi so she moved to her mom's place in California and graduated from high school in Palm Springs.
Between jokes Bob Hope saw her somewhere and told her to play the country clubs. The troops thank you, Bob. On Saturday nights was it vodka, was it gin? Maybe she was a teetotaler. Were there cactus thorns and sand in her shoes? Every girl has to make ends meet and Bobbie made herself a Las Vegas showgirl. That is until she moved to L.A. and worked on a philosophy degree. Images of a show girl carrying Plato roll in my head. Mascara and mirrors twixt treatise and tome. She got bored with this and moved on. She was a file clerk by day and played the clubs at night. She then went to the L.A. Conservatory of Music to work on composition.
I take all this in and I begin to think history made this up? She worked on a fishing boat, she ran guns out of Guatamala, she taught Sunday school. She was a Russian spy. I'm making these up now. It’s stirring to think that she was a showgirl getting a philosophy degree in L.A. and then she opened her mouth and out came that sound. Like Palm Trees brushing the terra cotta roof slowly in the wind, like water pouring out of the sky, like thunder over a charcoal black parking lot. She sang too.
1967 was culmination time for all the Philosophy and banjo. The silent majority and the counterculture were battling it out with versions of the truth, the streets were full of protesters, Vietnam was on TV and her song "Mississippi Delta" was the Capitol Records A-side. “Holy Shit” is the only thing you can say. It's like Slim Harpo came up on Linda Lindell with the nastiest funk of Memphis soul stew you ever heard and made out with the alphabet and this is not even why we are here to consider Bobbie. Side-B was a demo with strings. "Ode to Billy Joe" was taken from Bobbie's demo for Capitol Records. Strings were added for flavor and fullness as if to make this tale of death and secrets ready for radio. Even show girls with philosophy degrees need perfume. Disc jockeys flipped the record and their lids over this joint and that year the Grammys piled up. Best Vocal, Best New Artist. Best Use of Strings on a Demo. Was she the Mississippi Delta daring the country to look upon her child, to look in the face of the Old South with its lip busted open?
She wrote "Fancy" and it hit 30-something on the chart and stopped. Bobbie was becoming an underground star back before it was cool. Bobbie was big in England, big in Japan. Big everywhere but the U.S. of A. Capitol dropped her. She did Vegas, she wrote, performed, choreographed, sang everybody's part and arranged. She got bored. She had a television show called The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour. And it’s here that time is closing so pay attention.
A movie of "Ode to Billy Joe" came out. It was a Tennessee Williams take on the enigmatic tale making the song’s death a suicide that stemmed from homosexual repression. She re-recorded the song, it stayed in the low 40s. Lightning doesn't strike twice, especially for demos with strings. Whatever magic was there the first time stayed there in the blessed first time.
The movie was made for 1.1 million, it went to the bank with 27 mil. Max Baer, Jr. produced it. Max Jr, was also Jethro Bodine from the Beverly Hillbillies. He was the son of boxing legend Max Baer. Did Bobbie feel like a down and out boxer, did she feel against the ropes or was she just sick and tired of the public, the slow, slow public? Maybe they talked about boxing, maybe she thought about retiring with her cut of the 27 million. Maybe they talked about being Beverly Hillbillies.
She married Harrah’s Casino owner. She owned part of the Phoenix Suns. She got married in Summerville, TN under a tree. A picture ran in the paper.
She was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978 for Christmas. Then in 1981 on an NBC Mother’s Day Special, she sang one song, “Mama, A Rainbow.” Then she was gone. Maybe Ed McMahon slipped her the winning check? Did she get married to a man who wanted her to only sing for him? Did she throw her purse in the Pacific and move to Singapore? However it happened, I am postive she escaped in a limosine.
I heard she lives outside of Memphis. Maybe I saw her at the Whole Foods. There is so little mystery left in this world. If for nothing else Bobbie thank you for that.