by Randal Hill
In the summer of 1967, folks were asking, “What really happened to Billie Joe McAllister? What exactly did he throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? And what about that girl up on Choctaw Ridge?”
It was all part of the fun of trying to analyze Bobbie Gentry’s chart – topper Ode to Billie Joe. Years later, Bobbie explained in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits that many listeners missed the point.
“Everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of people expressed in the song,” she groused. “The real ‘message’ of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide.”
For instance, the narrator ’s indifference around the dinner table is apparent in the lyrics, “Well, Billie Joe never had a lick o’ sense; pass the biscuits, please.”
Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter
in Chickasaw County, Mississippi
in 1942. When her parents divorced,
Streeter moved in with her grandparents.
She taught herself to play the piano and
write some catchy little tunes. In the
mid-1950s, she and her mother relocated
to Palm Springs, California.
After graduation from high school in 1960, she enrolled at the prestigious Los Angeles
Conservatory of Music to study guitar and composition. Now calling herself Bobbie Gentry— from the 1952 movie Ruby Gentry—she auditioned at Capitol Records. Executives there were instantly taken with both Gentry’s talent and stunning good looks.
Capitol released her self composed Gothic ballad Ode to Billie Joe as her first
single. Gentry had cut Ode in less than an hour, accompanying herself on a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Violins, a cello and a bass were added later. Ode was eventually edited from seven minutes and 11 verses to a more radio-friendly (read: shorter and simpler) tune.
DJs began spinning Ode in heavy
rotation. Once it hit Billboard’s singles
charts, Ode took just three weeks to
reach Number One and pave the way
for three Grammy awards that followed
the next year.
In 1999, Ode was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Oddly, when the Grammy people tried to send Gentry her award, nobody could find a phone number or an address for her. The award was set on a shelf where, one assumes, it still rests today.
Forget Billie Joe McAllister. Now people should ask, ”What really happened to Bobbie Gentry?”