"Dig This With The Splendid Bohemians" - Featuring Bill Mesnik and Rich Buckland - NEW SERIES! "PUT ON A STACK OF 45's"- CHAPTER FORTY NINE- BOBBI GENTRY- "ODE TO BILLIE JOE"- The Boys Devote Each Episode To A Famed 45 RPM "Single" Release

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“It was the 3rd of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.”

That is the opening line of one of music’s most discussed, examined and appreciated songs — “Ode to Billie Joe,” written and performed by Bobbie Gentry, who was born in Mississippi’s Chickasaw County. When her parents divorced and her mother left for California, Gentry moved in with her grandparents in Leflore County, near Greenwood.

“Ode to Billie Joe” was selected by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 500 songs of all time. It went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked the Top 10 on the Easy Listening and R&B charts. Billboard also rated it the No. 3 song of 1967. She was only 22 when she recorded it. The tune earned Gentry three Grammy Awards — Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female; Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female; Best New Artist.

And here is one of those strange-but-true facts: “Ode to Billie Joe” was the B-side of Gentry’s first single. The A-side, which Gentry’s team at Capitol Records believed had the best chance of becoming a hit, was “Mississippi Delta,” a gritty, hard-driving song that was a complete opposite of “Ode to Billie Joe.” Right about now you are probably expecting a quote from Bobbie Gentry about the success of the song, what inspired her to write it, and what was it the girl and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? And why did he jump to his death off that bridge? I do not have quotes from Gentry, but my effort shouldn’t be questioned. I have been chasing Bobbie Gentry for years, longer than any person I’ve chased in my newspaper career. I finally reached her brother via email a few years ago. He said to write her an email, send it to him and he would make sure she got it. I did, and I believe he did his part. But I never heard from her.

I’m not alone in my quest to find the singer/songwriter. Gentry had two hits with Glen Campbell: “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” which reached No. 6 on the country chart, and “Let It Be Me,” which made it to No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

When I called Campbell’s management team a decade or so ago, I was told: “We haven’t heard from her in years and have no idea where she is. If you find her, please tell her to call us. We would love to talk to her.”

From everything I’ve been told by people in the music business, from Los Angeles to Nashville to Muscle Shoals, Gentry is living a secluded life in Los Angeles. Her last known performance was on Christmas night 1978 on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and on Bob Hope’s 1981 “All-star Salute to Mother’s Day.” She was a headline act in Las Vegas, along with Elvis Presley and Tom Jones. She also was dating casino multimillionaire William Harrah, whom she married in 1969. She was 25. He was 58. The marriage lasted just three months.

“When she came to Muscle Shoals to record, she arrived in a Learjet, which Harrah had bought for her, and had a five-carat diamond ring on her finger that just about covered her hand,” said Rick Hall, the author of the book “The Man From Muscle Shoals.” “She was an artist, too. She was painting pictures that were selling for $20,000 apiece. But none of that changed Bobbie Gentry. She remained a genuine, Mississippi girl who just happened to have made it.”

The album “Fancy” consisted of mostly cover songs. But Gentry wrote the title track, and In 1970 it reached No. 8 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and earned Gentry a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

It would be her last hit.

She married country star Jim Stafford in October 1978, and they had a son. But the marriage lasted just a month shy of a year.

“I can sort of understand why she quit music and went into seclusion,” Hall said. “She had a lot of bad memories of the music business. She didn’t like the way things worked with record companies and all that. Didn’t like what she was getting paid.

“I’ve tried every way in the world to get in touch with her, but she simply won’t accept calls.” -

-Billy Watkins

By Rich Buckland 06/27/2021 05:05 PM

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