By Leslie Criss/NEMS Daily Journal
It was 1967, and our small-town Mississippi lives seemed peaceful, though we were in the midst of a war in a place called Vietnam.
Our days were divided, unevenly, between learning in classrooms and playing hard during recess. At night, we watched family-friendly TV, some of us still in black and white – “Bewitched,” “I Dream of Jeannie” “Family Affair.”
Evel Knievel was lining up cars, 15 and counting, over which to leap on his motorcycle. Billie Jean King was about to win Wimbledon and the St. Louis Cardinals the World Series.
I was 10 years old and music was already important to me. Every Saturday I’d take my allowance, ride my bicycle downtown, and for a dollar and a nickel, I’d buy my favorite single of the week, pressed onto a 45 rpm bit of vinyl.
At night, I’d go to sleep with my dad’s portable radio under my pillow, listening to the top tunes on WHBQ AM out of Memphis or WLS AM out of Chicago until either the signal faded or Dad’s batteries died.
I knew what songs and artists were near the top of Billboard’s weekly charts as well as my mother knew what we needed from the grocery store.
In the spring, The Beatles were at the top with “Penny Lane;” “Groovin’” by The Young Rascals climbed to Number One the final week of May. Aretha Franklin was asking for a little “Respect” in June, and The Beatles were back again with “All You Need Is Love” in late July.
During the dog days of the summer of ’67, a new song was introduced. With its haunting tune and confounding lyrics it presented a mystery to all who listened.
It was written by a young woman from Chickasaw County, Miss., known to family and friends as Roberta Lee Streeter. Professionally, she went by another name, a name she said “sounded Southern.”
Bobbie Gentry and her acoustic guitar pushed the melancholy and mysterious “Ode to Billie Joe” to the top of the Billboard charts the last week in August, where it would remain until late September.
In the soggy, summer heat, I pedaled my blue bike to Frank’s Record Shop, plopped my allowance on the wooden counter and asked for my copy of the new single by the Mississippi girl … “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day …”
Gentry wrote her first song when she was 7. “My Dog Sergeant is a Good Dog” was composed on the piano for which her grandmother traded a milk cow.
She quickly taught herself to play guitar, banjo and several other instruments.
While attending UCLA in the mid-’60s and studying composition and arranging, Gentry made a demo tape of some songs she’d written. The tape made it to a desk inside Capitol Records and the rest really is a chunk of musical history.
On July 10, 1967, in Studio C at Capital Records in Los Angeles, Gentry, playing her guitar, recorded her own song, “Ode to Billie Joe.” An arranger named Jimmie Haskell added two cellos and four violins to the then-seven-minute song.
Three minutes were edited from the song which was slated for the flip side of another Gentry tune, “Mississippi Delta.” But when radio DJs got hold of the single, the B-side became the hit.
Listeners all over the country were talking about the mysterious story told musically in Gentry’s husky, haunting vocal.
What did Billie Joe MacAllister and the song’s narrator toss off the Tallahatchie Bridge?
Why did Billie Joe MacAllister later jump from that bridge to his death?
Where, exactly, is Choctaw Ridge?
And certainly, Tupeloans are ever curious about what store the narrator’s brother and his wife Becky Thompson bought in our town.
Those questions remain unanswered 46 years later.
The tragedy of Billie Joe is talked about at the family dinner table with little feeling as they “pass around the blackeyed peas” and “pass the biscuits, please” and “have another piece of apple pie.”
In interviews with Gentry from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, questions about the song always dominated.
Gentry seemed sincerely amazed at the reaction to her song.
In an article in “Show Biz Spotlight” on Oct. 2, 1967, she said, “I wrote it as a comment on human nature – not on society. I don’t know what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The act was more symbolic than anything.”
In its first week, “Ode to Billie Joe” sold 750,000 copies and knocked The Beatles from the top spot on the Billboard chart.
In 1968, Gentry received multiple Grammy nominations, including for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Female Vocal Performance, New Artist, Best Contemporary Single, Best Contemporary Album and Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance.
She received the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, Best Vocal Performance by a Female, and Best Contemporary Female Vocal.
In her brief career, she had 11 singles that made it to the charts, including “Fancy,” which she wrote in 1969. It was recorded in 1991 by Reba McEntire.
Clearly, her Mississippi roots played a large part in Gentry’s writing, with songs like “Chickasaw County Child,” “Delta Man,” “Mississippi Delta” and “Okolona River Bottom Band,” a song that made it into the Top 60 on Billboard charts.
She recorded 19 albums, which include several greatest hits collections and an album of duets with Glen Campbell.
The bridge from which Billie Joe MacAllister jumped on the third of June traversed the Tallahatchie River in Money, Miss., about 10 miles north of Greenwood. The original bridge collapsed in 1972, but has been rebuilt.
Twice in the past several years, I’ve been challenged to put together a story on the Mississippi-born woman who gave birth to “Ode to Billie Joe,” the song that boosted her all-too-brief music career into being.
Twice I’ve driven the back roads of Chickasaw County in search of family members and friends who might talk about their famous kin. I’ve spoken to her aunt and cousin, who are clearly proud of Gentry and yet careful not to say too much. They honor her wishes to remain an enigma.
Twice I’ve written a letter to Gentry, graciously delivered by her cousin, in which I’ve tried, without reverting to begging, to persuade her to talk to me about growing up in Chickasaw County and about her career that took her away from home.
But Gentry is passionate about her privacy, and that merits respect.
There’s at least one person in Houston who loves to chat about the days when Gentry and her song were the talk of the nation.
Robin Mathis is a human archive of all things Gentry. More than that, the two were friends from way back.
“She used to visit me with her granddad as a child,” said the 83-year-old Mathis, who has owned and operated radio station WCPC 1320 AM since 1955. “She came by and visited regularly when she was home. I’d stop everything, put her on the air live with her latest song.”
In an overstuffed manila folder, Mathis has newspaper clippings, personal letters from Gentry, telegrams and more that he’ll proudly share with anyone who has a little time.
Back in Sept. 1967, Mathis helped plan Bobbie Gentry Day in Houston. It was a day for her hometown to celebrate her success.
Shortly after that, Gentry asked Mathis to help her coordinate a way of doing something special for the children of Chickasaw County.
“She sent $2,500 for the school children of Houston, Okolona, Houlka and Woodland to have a Christmas Coke party,” Mathis said. “They all had refreshments, compliments of Bobbie Gentry.”
Gentry referred to her gift as “holiday happiness.”
Born July 17, 1944, Gentry was raised mostly by her grandparents, Maude and HB Streeter, after her parents divorced. She remained close to her grandparents, and until her grandmother’s death several years ago, she visited often the 300-acre farm in Woodland, 16 miles south of Houston. She sang in the choir of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, which remains today.
When she was 13, Gentry moved to California to live with her mother.
Among Mathis’ memorabilia is a letter Gentry wrote to Mathis telling him of a request she’d had for a donation to help start a Girl Scout camp in Chickasaw County. She was concerned about whether the camp would be for all young girls, or “limited to whites only.”
In an interview with the Commercial Appeal in 1972, Gentry spoke of her love of home: “I like to get to Woodland as often as possible. It puts a person back into reality where you can take off your shoes and just walk around on the grass, climb a tree, if you want, or go horseback riding.”
Gentry was married briefly to casino magnate Bill Harrah, and later to singer/comedienne Jim Stafford, with whom she had a son, Tyler, before they divorced.
She raised her son in California, but some believe she may be living a little closer to Chickasaw County these days. Still, she does not return home.
On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled, “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?”
Houston remains proud of their famous, but elusive daughter. They’ve dedicated a corner to Gentry in the Chickasaw County Heritage Museum.
And an effort is ongoing to have a historical monument erected in her honor in Joe Brigance Park.
Chickasaw Journal Managing Editor News Floyd Ingram contributed to this story.