Friday, 4 September 2020

Bobbie Gentry

"I just can't bring myself to compromise" -Bobbie Gentry 

Ode To Billie Joe (1967)

This was Mississippi girl Bobbie Gentry's debut album from 1967 and is bookended by two of her finest tracks, both of which are typical of her work in that they detail various aspects and stories of Southern States life - something Gentry made a career out of doing. It is a nice mix of downhome swampy, earthy blues material and tender string-backed ballads. The feel of the Deep South is all over the album. Now, pass me some of those black-eyed peas, please....

Mississippi Delta is a superb piece of throaty and husky-voiced bluesy fare about Gentry's early life in the South packed full of references to crawdad holes, peppermint sticks, mosquito bites and lots of other incomprehensible local dialect lyrics. Its atmosphere is palpable, you can feel the heat and the sweaty summers. It rocks with a bluesy energy from note one and always gets me hot under the collar imagining Gentry swanning around in the Southern swamps, barefoot and skimpy check top, raven hair failing over her shoulders...steady on now. The tempo changes now on the slow acoustic and mournful ballad I Saw An Angel Die before the good ol' Deep South homespun blues are back on the swampy strains of Chickasaw County ChildSunday Best is a laid-back acoustic and brass gentle ballad with Gentry's voice less gruff and sweeter in the style she would use on 1969's I'll Never Fall In Love Again.

Gentry goes Cajun on the patois number, Niki Hoeky, a song also covered by Aretha Franklin. It sounds like a Gentry original, in both its lyrical content and its staccato swampy riffy blues backing. 
Papa Won't You Let Me Go To Town With You? is a slightly jazzy, brassy acoustic number, while Bugs is a jerky, quirky and amusing song about insects. Even a sort of throwaway song like this is enhanced by Gentry's incredibly sexy, characterful and unique voice and her appealing wit. Hurry, Tuesday Child slows the pace down to a walk on a boiling afternoon with an evocative ballad backed by some sumptuous trumpet. I reckon Elvis Costello would have loved this one. He covered lots of similar material on his Almost Blue album. The final two tracks are Gentry classics - Lazy Willie - a tale about the youngest, and laziest of seventeen children duet against a typical Gentry backing. Without one noticing, the song seems to morph seamlessly into the song that really broke it big for Gentry - the heartbreaking, haunting narrative of Ode To Billie Joe. The song is an absolute treasure of intriguing, incredibly atmospheric lyrics and a top notch vocal and instrumental delivery from Gentry. It is almost a novelette in its own right.

Just what did Billie Joe McAllister throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? A wedding ring, or (more grisly, but it did come in to my mind) - an aborted or miscarried foetus? We will never know, neither did its writer - Gentry has always said that she left these mysterious parts of the songs deliberately that, remaining a mystery. The song, to her, was written to show how indifferent and casual people could be when hearing of a tragedy - in this case the narrator's (a girl's) family carrying on eating their dinner apparently relatively unmoved by an incident that was anything but everyday. This album knocked Sgt. Pepper off the top of the Billboard chart, would you believe? It was good, but maybe not that good. Whatever, it was certainly a most impressive and unusual debut.

The Delta Sweete (1968)

This was Bobbie Gentry’s second album and followed her number one debut Ode To Billie Joe. It was a loose ‘concept album’ based around (surprise, surprise) life in the Deep South. There are some cover versions included as well as Gentry’s original compositions but they all suit the theme well. The tracks all flow into each other, adding to the ‘suite’ concept, (corrupted here into ‘sweete’ - Southern term for a pretty girl, like ‘belle’).

Okolona River Bottom Band is a shuffling New Orleans brass meets swamp blues, featuring some background madcap laughter, a typically husky vocal from Gentry and some infectious percussion. It mines the same bluesy seam as Mississippi Delta had on the previous album. Big Boss Man is a catchy, harmonica-driven blues with once more some really rhythmic percussion, particularly on the bits where the backing stops apart from the congas. It is a genuinely great piece of rocking blues (it is a cover) that would have sounded great on an early Rolling Stones album. Reunion is a strange vocal and minimalist strummed guitar backing song that has Gentry reminiscing about her upbringing with various vocalists taking the parts of her family. It is an odd song, but a strangely captivating one. 

Parchman Farm is a deliciously attractive cover of a Mose Allison song, with some marvellous bass-guitar and percussion interplay behind Gentry’s archetypally gruff but sensual vocal. It eventually merges into the lovely, relaxing warm bath feel of Morning Glory that has another sumptuous vocal. The upbeat gospelly brass-rhythm groove of Sermon is next. The sound quality is superb on all this stuff. Listen to it through headphones, it is excellent. The original mono version of the album is good too, but it is better suited to full speakers. Check out Big Boss Man in mono. The much-covered standard, Tobacco Road, is putty in Gentry’s hands and turned into a slow, grinding blues, the strangely titled Penduli Pendulum is an orchestrated, almost hippy-ish slow number, while Jessye ‘Lisabeth is a most gentle, almost folky, acoustic ballad. Refractions is a ghostly song detailing an odd dream Gentry had but, just as the album was starting to become a bit bogged down in quiet reflections.

Louisiana Man brings country blues back. However, the final track, the acoustic and thoroughly beautiful Courtyard has the gentle introspective feel returning. It is certainly a nice song, though.

The final third of the album is nicely understated but tends to lose a bit of momentum. Compared to the success of its predecessor, it was a failure, barely registering on the charts. I am not quite sure why that was at all, neither was Gentry, claiming she was not able to second-guess the public. I can see what she meant, there is no reason for this one not to do reasonably well, surely those who liked the first album will have liked this one? Maybe the whole concept thing out them off. It was, despite its lack of sales, a mature, well-crafted piece if work and way ahead of its time, in many ways. It was only early 1968, remember - a concept album? From a female country artist? Hmmm, they must have thought. More power to her, I say.

** A non-album track from the period is the glorious brassy soul/rock of Seventh Son. A great alternative version of Mississippi Delta was knocking around too.

Local Gentry (1968)

Bobbie Gentry’s second album of 1968 saw her introduce covers in to her recordings more - five of the eleven tracks are her own, six are covers including three from The Beatles. The ambience still contains much of the home-grown swampy folk charm of its predecessor, Delta Sweete. Unfortunately, and incomprehensibly, this one was not a success either.

Gentry’s Sweete Peony is a shuffling piece of bluesy delta groove that would have suited the previous album. Also her song is the acute observational song about a funeral director, the appropriately-titled Casket Vignette. Come Away Melinda is an acoustic, guitar-pickin’ number with topical anti-war lyrics. In 1968, with Vietnam at its height, many such songs were becoming increasingly popular. 

The first Beatles cover is The Fool On The Hill, which mixes oompah with country - another popular thing in the late sixties was Beatles covers. It sounds more than a little incongruous, however, amongst these songs of the South. It is plaintively beautiful, though. The Beatles-style instrumentation continues on the folky and simultaneously lively and slow Papa’s Medicine Show, which even gets a little wah-wah funky at times. Gentry’s jaunty, Deep South narrative Ace Insurance Man mixes humour with sharp observation and a selection of in-character voices from Bobbie. Recollection is a sort of folk torch song that has slight echoes of The Beatles’ She’s Leaving HomeSittin’ Pretty has a quirky, almost psychedelic 1968 feel on its faster passages. Stuff like this was actually quite adventurous at the time, indeed, even the concept of a female singer-songwriter was. Gentry needs more credit than she gets for being a bit of a (albeit reluctant) trail blazer. 

While The Fool On The Hill may not have seemed to quite fit, Eleanor Rigby could have been written for Gentry. Its innate sadness suits her down to the ground. It is one the most underrated Beatles covers. 
Peaceful is a gently rocking, orchestrated and most appealing number featuring some fine instrumentation. The final Beatles cover is McCartney’s Here, There And Everywhere, to which Bobbie lends her lovely voice, together with an infectiously sixties-style lounge bar jazzy backing. Overall, there was a certain cohesiveness to this album and a slight improvement in sound quality from the previous two. 

** There were also some impressive non-album tracks in the funky, jerky Skip Along Sam, the smooth, soulful Hushabye Mountain and the excellent, typical Gentry bluesy narrative of The Conspiracy Of Homer Jones, which is a bit of a hidden gem. Surprisingly, it wasn’t written by her. It should have been on the album. There are also the gentle country tones of Cotton Candy Sandman. Some good stuff was left off the eventual release. 

Touch 'Em With Love (1969)

This, Bobbie Gentry’s fourth solo album, from 1969, has a real case for being her best. It differs slightly from her previous ones, which were a mix of bluesy down home Deep South tales and plaintive, often beguiling ballads. This one is a mix of Memphis style soul, tuneful country and gospelly country soul. It is her Dusty In Memphis, (released six months later) with equally sexy, husky vocals and full of strident bass and excellent fatback drums. The sound quality is superb throughout as well. All but two songs here are covers, but Gentry covers are always fine offerings.

Touch ‘Em With Love is a short, but a superbly gritty, soulful and kick ass piece of Stax-y fare, featuring a trademark gruff Gentry vocal together with some fine organ, drums, guitar and backing vocals. Excellent stuff. As too is the appealing, melodic upbeat country groove of Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere. Natural Being Gone is also lively and attractive, with some finger-pickin’ banjo backing another of her perceptive lyrics. Gentry’s own Seasons Come Seasons Go is a gentle, beautifully bassy, John Denver-style song. It is lyrically beautiful, thoughtful and melodically entrancing - just lovely. Bobbie’s other self-penned song is Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing which is, unsurprisingly, a gospel number straight from the churches of the South. Bobbie could always do gospel well, with her throaty, husky voice. 

I Wouldn’t Be Surprised is a Memphis style, Dusty Springfield-esque robust brassy soul ballad. The next track is known to all Dusty fans, of course, the iconic Son Of A Preacher Man, and it is just as well done here. Jim Webb’s Where’s The Playground, Johnny is a big, orchestrated number that you would think was Dusty if you didn’t know. If the Dusty comparisons are getting too regular, next up is a true Bobbie gem - her interpretation of Bacharach and David’s I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, which was a huge hit and is just sublime. Scottish band Deacon Blue also covered it well some twenty tears years later. Bobbie, as well being a great singer-songwriter, could also nail a cover, and she does so here too with her take on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ brassy classic You Made Me So Very Happy.

** Albums in those days were short, so it ends there. Non-album tracks from the period were the muscular More Today Than Yesterday and excellent covers of David Clayton-Thomas’s Spinning Wheel and Bacharach-David’s This Girl’s In Love With You and The Windows Of The World
Also notable are six laid-back stand-up bass, guitar and piano smoky jazz covers which were originally intended for this album (which was originally going to be the release, but was suddenly shelved in favour of the more soulful approach). These are all really good tracks and Gentry handles them perfectly, giving them a smooth, sexy, late-night feel. Let’s be honest, Bobbie was sexy as hell. I really love this album and its add-ons - great sound, great playing and great sexy, soulful singing. Top notch.

Fancy (1970)

Containing only one Gentry original, this 1970 Bobbie Gentry album is wonderful anyway - packed full of both sexy Southern soul and easy listening numbers given a gritty makeover from beginning to end.

Fancy is a brooding piece of Southern soul detailing the tale of a young girl’s fight to escape from poverty by way of prostitution. It is a marvellously atmospheric, brassy number, one of Bobbie’s best. She followed that up with a copper-bottomed husky-voiced classic in Bacharach-David’s I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. It is just a great song, as everyone knows, but Gentry makes it her own. Strangely, it had appeared on her previous album as well. 

Delta Man is a catchy, vibrant soulful number with more great brass and, of course, another superb vocal. James Taylor’s Something In The Way He Moves is delivered beautifully - romantic, tender and soothing. Just lovely. Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em And Forget ‘Em is a robustly horn-powered Stax-esque number with Bobbie at her most grittily soulful. Equally bumptious is the cookin’ and sexy He Made A Woman Out Of Me. These two are serious Deep South servings.

Bacharach-David’s iconic
Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head has always irritated me a tiny bit, (mainly due to the movie clips of Paul Newman pissing about on a bike) but as it’s Bobbie Gentry here I’ll mellow my feelings. It sounds great in her capable hands. 
If You’ve Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody is an oompah-ish lively and poppy song, while Harry Nilsson’s Rainmaker is another track that seems tailor-made for Gentry’s superb interpretative abilities. Laura Nyro’s Wedding Bell Blues is jauntily appealing too, and before we know it this great-sounding, immensely pleasurable offering is over. The pity was that the great Bobbie Gentry had only one more album left in her before she inexplicably packed it all in.

** Interesting non-album tracks are a fine cover of Elvis’s In The Ghetto and the impressive Apartment 21, which surely must have influenced Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Patchwork (1971)

This was, unfortunately, Bobbie Gentry’s last album and, in many ways, it was her most adventurous. Populated with all Gentry original songs, it contained little of the Stax-y soul of her previous two albums, or much of the Mississippi blues of her first three outings. Many of the songs are separated by short instrumental interludes and there seems to be a loose concept, but, if I’m honest, I struggle to pick up on what it is. It is a quirky, Impossible to categorise piece of work, but it is appealing in a strange sort of way and its creativity-originality should be admired. In many places, a string autobiographical streak can detected and also a sad, seeming admittance of defeat along with the more familiar Gentry nostalgia. It was like she knew this was her last shot, which contributes to the general feeling of sadness.

Benjamin is a laid-back piece of singalong bluesy jazz while Marigolds And Tangerines is a low-key, acoustic and evocative number. Billy The Kid is a jaunty, cowboy song about the legendary outlaw. Beverley is sung in English and Spanish, and tells the tale of a girl who works on a production line and then we get the ragtime-ish, upbeat story of librarian Miss Clara. Once again the song is enlivened by Gentry’s wry, witty lyrics. It ends with some infectious jazzy drum and brass rhythms. It is all great fun, and you can sense Bobbie is really enjoying herself. But I Can’t Get Back is a beautiful, moving ballad with a big chorus and a lovely warm bass line. 

Jeremiah is a big production, gospel-influenced and heavily-orchestrated number and Bobbie’s voice copes admirably with everything the backing demands of her, it truly soars. Belinda is a catchy country-ish sing about a stripper, enhanced by some more fine lyrics. Bobbie sounds just like Karen Carpenter on this one. The blues finally arrives on the Delta blues of Mean Step Mama Blues which is set alight in the middle by some stonking horn breaks and lead guitar. 
Your Number One Fan is a catchy, jazzy piece of fun. Somebody Like Me has a soulful, brassy groove and, as I listen to this, I am struck again by just how versatile Gentry’s voice is on this album. The plaintive strains of Lookin’ In end this most unusually appealing album on a poignant, reflective note - ‘I’m packing up and I’m checking out” sings Gentry, presciently. 

There were many reviewers at the time who said that this was Gentry’s work of genius. Maybe they were right. It may not have the instant appeal of her other work, but it certainly has a bucketful of originality and display a huge talent. What a shame that this album bombed and Bobbie Gentry left music behind. For four years she really sparkled. Her songs will live on forever and that is something she should be most proud of. She could sing beautifully, play guitar and write wonderful songs and deserved far more success. Retrospectively, however, her reputation has grown and grown.


  1. What is your theory of why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge? My theory is that he didn't jump at all and it was all an elaborate plan by him and the girl to fake his death. For some reason he had to disappear and get out of town because he was involved with some shady activity with some shady characters who were after him and he had to get the hell out of town. The explanation they gave in the movie was not satisfactory. It didn't relate to anything in the song. Anyway that's my theory. LMAO

  2. I always went down the aborted foetus route, however distasteful. We’ll never know, though, because Bobbie hadn’t thought of, or written an ending. The fact the girl character looked ill and was off her food helped in my conclusion.

    Bobbie is now a recluse - nobody quite knows where she is. What is certain is that she wrote some great songs.

  3. Oh, why did he jump? I answered regarding what he threw. He jumped out of distress over the tragic loss of his child.

  4. I think what they were throwing off the bridge was some kind of evidence from some crime that Billy Joe was involved in. They were getting rid of the evidence. Maybe he was involved in some kind of robbery or a murder or something. He was in deep shit whatever it was.

  5. That's the beauty of the song, it leads to endless theories that can never be proved or unproved.