Gentry in 1970
|Birth name||Roberta Lee Streeter|
|Born||July 27, 1944|
|Origin||near Woodland, Mississippi, United States|
|Genres||Country, pop, soul|
|Associated acts||Glen Campbell|
Roberta Lee Streeter (born July 27, 1944), professionally known as Bobbie Gentry, is an Americansinger-songwriter notable as one of the first female country artists to compose and produce her own material. Her songs typically drew on her Mississippi roots to compose vignettes of the Southern United States.
Gentry rose to international fame with her intriguing Southern Gothic narrative "Ode to Billie Joe" in 1967.The track spent four weeks as the No. 1 pop song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was fourth in the Billboard year-end chart of 1967 and earned her Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1968. Gentry charted eleven singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and four singles on the United Kingdom Top 40. Her album Fancy brought her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. After her first albums, she had a successful run of variety shows on the Las Vegas Strip. She lost interest in performing in the late 1970s, and since 2010 has lived in a private gated community in Shelby County, Tennessee.
Gentry was born near Woodland in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, an only child to Robert and Ruby (Bullington) Streeter. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth, and her mother moved to California. 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 attended school in Greenwood, Mississippi, and began teaching herself to play the guitar, bass, banjo, and the vibraphone.
She moved to Arcadia, California, at age 13 to live with her mother. Gentry graduated from Palm Valley School in 1960. 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. She began performing at local country clubs, and 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 with clerical jobs, occasionally performing at nightclubs. She also worked as a fashion model, and on June 29, 1962, United Press International circulated a wire photo of Gentry posing in a swimsuit alongside a second model and Cheryl Crane, daughter of Lana Turner.
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 – "Requiem for 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, the flipside, "Ode to Billie Joe", with its sparse sound and controversial lyrics, 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 herself has commented on the song, saying that its real theme was indifference:
The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in August 1967 and placed No. 4 in the year-end chart. The single hit No. 8 on Billboard Black Singles and No. 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. The album, Ode to Billie Joe replaced Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at the top of Billboard Albums Chart and reached No. 5 of the Billboard Black Albums chart. 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 Most Promising Female Vocalist.
Sample from "Ode To Billie Joe".
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In February 1968 Gentry took part in the Italian Song Festival in Sanremo, as one of two performers (alongside Al Bano) of the song "La siepe" by Vito Pallavicini and Massara. In a competition of 24 songs, the entry qualified to the final 14 and eventually placed ninth.
Gentry (along with many other celebrities) was one of the original owners of the Phoenix Sunsbasketball team.
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 certificate. Gentry made numerous guest appearances on TV shows hosted by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Carol Burnett, and Bobby Darin. Among them was her performance of the Cajun number "Niki Hoeky" on The Summer Brothers Smothers Show. In 1969, she released Touch 'Em with Love, her most critically acclaimed album, which gave her a number-one hit in the UK with "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. In January 1970 it became a number-six hit on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for Dionne Warwick.
Also in 1970 she received recognition for her composition "Fancy", which rose to No. 26 on the U.S. Country charts and No. 31 on the pop charts.Gentry's personal view on the song:
The album, as was the case with most of the rest of her post-"Billie Joe" recordings, had modest commercial success. However, it charted top 40 in the Billboard country album chart and netted Gentry a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Female Vocalist.
Stage performances and television work (1968–1981)
Gentry generated a significant fan base in the United Kingdom. In 1968/9 Gentry hosted her own series on BBC-TV in London, which was later widely shown in Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and elsewhere. She later signed a million-dollar contract to headline in her own $150,000 nightclub revue in Las Vegas which she produced and choreographed, and for which she wrote and arranged the music. She said,
In 1969, she taped four television specials for the Canadian CFTO television station for North American syndication. In 1974, she hosted a short-lived summer replacement variety show on CBS called The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour. 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 and starred Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor. In the movie, the mystery of the title character's suicide is revealed as a part of the conflict between his love for Bobbie Lee Hartley and his emerging homosexuality. Gentry's re-recording of the song for the film hit the pop charts, as did Capitol's reissue of the original recording; both peaked outside the top fifty. 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 10 May 1981 on All-Star Salute to Mother's Day. After that, she settled in Los Angeles and remained out of the public eye.
Gentry has been married three times. Her first marriage was to casino magnate Bill Harrah on December 18, 1969; they were granted a divorce on April 16, 1970. She married a businessman named Tom Toutant in 1976 and again was divorced in less than a year. She married singer and comedian Jim Stafford on October 15, 1978; they divorced just short of one year, after the birth of their son Tyler. She has not since remarried. From 1968 until 1987, she also had partial ownership of the Phoenix Suns.