Bobbie Gentry was one of the first female country artists to write and produce her own material. Her songs typically drew on her Mississippi roots to compose stories based on the U.S. South.
Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. 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 taught herself to play the guitar, bass, banjo, and
At 13, she moved to Arcadia, California to live with her mother. 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 and began performing at local country clubs. 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 in clerical jobs, occasionally performing at nightclubs. 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 – "Ode to 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, it was the flipside, "Ode to Billie Joe" with its sparse sound and controversial lyrics that 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 said the real theme of the song was indifference.
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The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in August 1967 and placed #4 in the year-end chart. The single hit #8 on Billboard Black Singles and #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.
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 Best New Female Vocalist.
Bobbie 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.
Gentry hosted her own series on BBC-TV in London, which was later widely shown in Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and elsewhere.
In 1970, she received recognition for her composition "Fancy" - a strong statement in support of women's lib - which rose to #26 on the U.S. Country charts and #31 on the pop charts. The album, as was the case with the rest of her post-"Ode to Billie Joe" recordings, had little commercial success. However, it brought Gentry an Academy of Country Music Award and a Grammy nomination, both in the category of Best Female Vocalist.
Gentry continued to write and perform, touring Europe, generating a significant fan base in the United Kingdom. She signed a million-dollar contract to headline in her own $150,000 nightclub revue in Las Vegas for which she produced, choreographed, and wrote and arranged the music.
In 1974, Gentry hosted a short-lived summer replacement variety show, The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, on CBS. The show, which was her version of Campbell's hit series The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, also on CBS, was not renewed for a full season. That same year, Gentry wrote and performed "Another Place, Another Time" for writer-director Max Baer, Jr.'s film, Macon County Line. In 1976, Baer directed the feature film Ode to Billy Joe, which was based on her hit song.
Her behind-the-scenes work in television production failed to hold her interest. After a 1978 single for Warner Bros. Records, "He Did Me Wrong, But He Did It Right" failed to chart, Gentry decided to retire from show business.
Her last public appearances as a performer were on Christmas Night 1978 as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and on May 10, 1981 on All-Star Salute to Mother's Day. After that, she settled in Los Angeles out of the public eye.