Bobbie Gentry is one of the great legends of 1960s popular music, an artist who debuted with an enigmatic, enduring smash hit who then cultivated an idiosyncratic country-pop crossover sound for a few years before retreating from the spotlight, never to be heard from again. That hit was “Ode to Billie Joe,” a spare, elastic bit of storytelling that rocketed to number one after its release in 1967. So powerful and popular was “Ode to Billie Joe” that it spun off a film adaptation about a decade after its release, by which time Gentry’s career was effectively over. She didn’t manage a big pop hit after “Ode to Billie Joe,” instead transitioning over to the country charts after her trippy psychedelic-Americana album The Delta Sweete failed to generate hits on either chart. Glen Campbell chose her as a duet partner for a spell in the late ’60s — they had hit covers of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream” — and as a solo act, she pioneered a splashy fusion of show biz pop and country-funk, a sound that reached its apex on 1969′s “Fancy.” Reba McEntire later turned “Fancy” into a standard, signaling how deep and pervasive Gentry’s influence was: she set the stage for generations of pop-savvy singers who blurred the lines between country and pop.
In 1964, she made her recorded debut, cutting a pair of duets — “Ode to Love” and “Stranger in the Mirror” — with rockabilly singer Jody Reynolds. Gentry continued performing in clubs in the years to follow before an early 1967 recording demo found its way to Capitol Records’ producer Kelly Gordon; upon signing to the label, she issued her debut single, “Mississippi Delta.” However, disc jockeys began spinning the B-side, the self-penned “Ode to Billie Joe” — with its eerily spare production and enigmatic narrative detailing the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, who flings himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge, the single struck a chord on country and pop radio alike, topping the pop charts for four weeks in August 1967 and selling three million copies. Although the follow-up, “I Saw an Angel Die,” failed to chart, Gentry nevertheless won three Grammy awards, including Best New Artist and Best Female Vocal. She was also named the Academy of Country Music’s Best New Female Vocalist.
With her second album, 1968′s The Delta Sweete, Gentry returned to the country charts with the minor hit “Okolona River Bottom Band.” Although her recordings were typically credited to Capitol staff producers, she later maintained she helmed the sessions herself and also wrote much of her own material, drawing on her Mississippi roots to compose revealing vignettes that typically explored the lifestyles, values, and even hypocrisies of Southern culture. Favoring more soulful and rootsy arrangements over the lavish countrypolitan style in vogue in Nashville at the time, Gentry’s records sound quite unlike anything on either the country or pop charts at the time and her smoky, sensuous voice adapted easily to a variety of musical contexts. But to many listeners, she remained a one-hit wonder and her excellent third album, 1968′s Local Gentry, received little notice. That same year, Gentry issued a duet album with Glen Campbell, returning to the country Top 20 with “Let It Be Me”; the duo regularly collaborated throughout the ’70s, scoring their biggest hit with a reading of “All I Really Want to Do.”
In 1969, Gentry reached her creative zenith with Touch ‘Em with Love; though cut in Nashville, the record owed far more to the gritty R&B sounds emanating across the state in Memphis and generated her first U.K. number one, a smoldering rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David perennial “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” The single’s success also earned Gentry her own short-lived BBC television variety series. However, as her star diminished stateside, she became a fixture on the Las Vegas circuit, mounting an elaborate nightclub revue that she not only headlined but also wrote and produced, even overseeing the choreography and costuming. In 1970 she returned to the county and pop Top 40 with the title cut from her fifth album Fancy. In 1971, she issued her final Capitol effort, Patchwork, primarily confining her performing to her nightclub act for the next several years. A CBS summer replacement series, The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, aired for four episodes in 1974; Gentry next surfaced on the big screen, credited as co-writer for a 1976 film adaptation of Ode to Billie Joe. Gentry gradually receded from public view, retiring from performing and eventually settling in Los Angeles.
Here is Bobbie Gentry performing “Ode To Billie Joe” live on The Andy Williams Show:
Other talented ladies who paved the way to make country music what it is today 👇
NASHVILLE, TN – AUGUST 24: Lee Ann Womack performs onstage during Skyville Live Presents a Tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis on August 24, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Skyville)
LAS VEGAS – MAY 14: Musician Taylor Swift performs onstage during the first ever Academy Of Country Music New Artists’ Show Party for a Cause, benefiting the ACM Charitable Fund held at the MGM Grand Ballroom, MGM Grand Conference Center on May 14, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
03/01/00 Tustin, California – Country Music Stars The Judds, Naomi (L) And Wynonna, Share A Hug Before Appearing At A Tustin, California K-Mart Store To Sign Autographs. K-Mart Is Corporate Sponsor Of The Popular Duo. (Photo By David Mcnew/Getty Images)
Jo Dee Messina rehearses for the "2002 Academy of Country Music Awards" at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, Ca. on Monday, May 20, 2002. Photo by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect.
NASHVILLE, TN – JULY 13: Pam Tillis performs onstage during Skyville Live Salutes the Magic of Music City on July 13, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images for Skyville)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 07: American Musician, Emmylou Harris gives a sneak preview of her Sydney Festival First Night performance at a media call on January 7, 2011 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 21: (EXCLUSIVE ACCESS) (L-R) Musicians Emily Robinson, Natalie Maines and Martie Maguire of The Chicks pose backstage at the 2006 American Music Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on November 21, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/AMA/Getty Images for AMA)
PASADENA, CA – AUGUST 17: Musician Linda Ronstadt accepts the Trailblazer award onstage during the 2008 ALMA Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on August 17, 2008 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
RANCHO MIRAGE, CA – JANUARY 24: Singer Dolly Parton Performs at Agua Caliente Casino on January 24, 2014 in Rancho Mirage, California. (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
INDIO, CA – MAY 02: Musician Trisha Yearwood performs onstage during day 1 of the 2008 Stagecoach Country Music Festival held at the Empire Polo Field on May 2, 2008 in Indio, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
403701 01: Country singer Tanya Tucker poses backstage April 13, 2002 after her concert at The Orleans in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Scott Harrison/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN – NOVEMBER 12: In this handout photo provided by The Country Rising Fund of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, singer Martina McBride performs onstage for the Country Rising Benefit Concert at Bridgestone Arena on November 12, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Shearer/Country Rising/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 24: Carrie Underwood attends the 2019 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 24, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for dcp)
MIAMI, FL – JULY 20: LeAnn Rimes attends Luli Fama fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim 2015 at Cabana Grande at The Raleigh on July 20, 2014 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for Luli Fama)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – APRIL 07: Host Reba McEntire speaks onstage during the 54th Academy Of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 07, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
November 17, 1965 (photo by Denny Moeller Talent-management/photographer-Fabry, Nashville)
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – AUGUST 23: Crystal Gayle performs on August 23, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – AUGUST 28: Shania Twain performs during the opening ceremony on Day One of the 2017 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 28, 2017 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 24: Target Brings Together Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey for a Special New Music Video for their Single The Middle to Air as a Commercial During the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards. Pictured: Maren Morris (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Target)
NASHVILLE, TN – NOVEMBER 03: Jennifer Nettles performs at 2015 "Next Women of Country" Event at City Winery Nashville on November 3, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 24: Kelsea Ballerini speaks onstage during the 2019 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on November 24, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for dcp)
October 18, 1975 (Photo by Hubert Long/Epic Records)
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – NOVEMBER 13: (FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Miranda Lambert speaks in the press room of the 53rd annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 13, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Leah Puttkammer/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA – JULY 14: Faith Hill performs onstage during the "Soul2Soul" World Tour at Staples Center on July 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
American singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry in London, UK, May 1968. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN – SEPTEMBER 25: Patty Loveless performs during The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Country Music Association Celebrate Forever Country LIVE, presented by Southwest at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on September 25, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)
Portrait of American country music singer and guitarist Loretta Lynn as she sits outside in a chair, 1970s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN – OCTOBER 22: Singer Alison Krauss performs onstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Medallion Ceremony to celebrate 2017 hall of fame inductees Alan Jackson, Jerry Reed And Don Schlitz at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on October 22, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum)
American country music singer Lynn Anderson, UK, 21st March 1971. Her song ‘(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden’ was a major pop hit in 1970 and early 1971. (Photo by Jack Kay/Daily Express/Getty Images)
Barbara Mandrell received the Academy’s Pioneer Award at the 36th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, Ca. 5/9/01. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
Patsy Cline was a celebrated country singer best known for her crossover hits, including "Crazy" and "Walking After Midnight."