Gentry in a publicity photo for Capitol Records in 1969.
Roberta Lee Streeter
July 27, 1942
near Woodland, Mississippi, U.S.
|Associated acts||Glen Campbell|
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, earning Gentry Grammy awards for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1968.
Gentry charted 11 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. In the late 1970s, Gentry lost interest in performing. Since 2010 Gentry has lived in a private gated community outside Memphis, Tennessee.
Gentry was born on July 27, 1942, near Woodland in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, to Ruby Lee (née Shipman; Nov. 28, 1920 – Apr. 2, 1989) and Robert Harrison Streeter (Nov. 29, 1916 – Mar. 18, 2009). Her parents divorced shortly after her birth and her mother moved to California. She was raised on her paternal grandparents' farm in Chickasaw County. Her grandmother traded one of the family's milk cows for a neighbor's piano, and 7-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.
At age 13, Gentry moved to Arcadia, California 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 performed at country clubs, and encouraged by Bob Hope, in a revue at Les Folies Bergeres nightclub of Las Vegas.
Gentry moved to Los Angeles to enter UCLA as a philosophy major. She supported herself with clerical jobs, occasionally performing at nightclubs. She worked as a fashion model, and on June 29, 1962, United Press International circulated a wire photo of Gentry that included Cheryl Crane, daughter of Lana Turner.
Gentry transferred to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to develop her composition and performing skills. In 1966, she made her recording debut in two duets, "Stranger in the Mirror" and "Requiem for Love" with rockabilly singer Jody Reynolds. She continued performing in nightclubs until Capitol Records executive Kelly Gordon heard a demo she recorded in 1967.
The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks 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 more than three million copies all over the world. In 2001, Rolling Stone magazine listed Ode to Billie Joe among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. 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 named the Academy of Country Music's Most Promising Female Vocalist.
In February 1968, Gentry took part in the Italian Song Festival in Sanremo as one of two performers 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.
The Delta Sweete was released in 1968, and was Gentry's second album. The Delta Sweete did not match the success of her first. It yielded a Billboard Top-60 hit "Okolona River Bottom Band". She collaborated on the album Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell, which earned the pair a gold record. Gentry made guest appearances on television 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, Gentry released Touch 'Em with Love, her most critically acclaimed album, which gave her a No. 1 hit in the UK with "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
In 1970, Gentry 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 said Fancy was a strong statement for women’s liberation and reflected her views on women’s equality, equal pay and abortion rights.
The album rose to Billboard’s Top 40 in the country album chart and gained Gentry a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Female Vocalist.
Stage performances and television work (1968–1981)Edit
In 1968-69, Gentry hosted a series on BBC-TV in London which was shown in Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia. She signed a $1 million contract to headline in a nightclub revue in Las Vegas, which she produced and choreographed, and wrote and arranged the music.
In 1969, Gentry taped four television specials for Canadian television station CFTO for North American syndication. In 1974, she hosted a 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, 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, based on her hit song  and starring 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 a drunken homosexual experience.
In 1978, Gentry appeared on Christmas as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Gentry’s last television performance was on May 10, 1981 on All-Star Salute to Mother's Day.
Gentry married casino magnate Bill Harrah on December 18, 1969, when he was 58 years old and she was 27. The couple divorced April 16, 1970. She married Thomas R. Toutant on August 17, 1976, whom she divorced on August 1, 1978. On October 15, 1978, Gentry married singer and comedian Jim Stafford with whom she had a son, Tyler Gentry. Gentry and Stafford divorced in September 1980.
In the hectic societal atmosphere of 1967, critics suggested that Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" stood out with its simplicity and integrity. Gentry is one of the first female artists to write and produce her own material. Typically her songs have autobiographical characteristics.
Beth Orton recorded a song titled "Bobby Gentry" featured on her The Other Side of Daybreak album. Jill Sobule recorded "Where Is Bobbie Gentry?" for her album California Years. Gentry's 1969 composition "Fancy" provided a top 10 country hit for Reba McEntire in 1991.
In September 2018, an eight-disc box set titled The Girl from Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters featuring all of Gentry's recordings for Capitol was released.
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- The Bobbie Gentry Website An official site backed by Universal Music Group (who own Capitol Records) launched in 2017 with extensive information about Gentry's music and stage career.
- Bobbie Gentry on IMDb
- Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left An excellent podcast on Bobbie Gentry's career.
- Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? BBC Radio site for a 14 May 2012 programme that discussed her career with interviews of people who worked with her. The Telegraph newspaper radio show preview article