Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bobby Gentry: Ode to Billy Joe (1967)

      Bobby Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter and most notable in music history as the one of the first female country artists to write and produce her own song, much of which was written based on her Mississippi roots. She was raised by her grandparents after her parent's divorce until the age of 13 when she went to live with her mother who had moved to California. After graduation she started at UCLA, then transferred to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to develop her songwriting skills. During her time in college she sang in clubs until signed to a contract with Capitol records in 1967.

     "Ode to Billy Joe" is a brilliant work of  Southern Gothic writing. The song itself won 8 Grammys, three for Gentry and one for producer Jimmie Haskell who's understated arraignment fit the song perfectly (the glissando by the strings near the end stick as much in the listener's as well as any lyrical hook). It was actually recorded as a "B" side, but DJ's soon flipped it over. Gentry's herself had no idea what happened to Billie Joe....

     "Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two
more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of peoples' reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown when both women experience a common loss (first Billie Joe, and later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief."

    It's popularity and endurance led Warner Brothers to commission author Herman Raucher to write a novel and screenplay based on the song. Of course, this not only popularized the song again, but has led many to actually believe it was a true event. She had more success on the charts and on television worldwide (especially in Europe) up through the mid-70's.



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