Sign up for newsletter
 

Ode to Billie Joe

By Tara Murtha

Bloomsbury, 160 pages, $11.96 papeerback

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske, February 2015

Find it on Amazon
"It was walk away softly or stay until I flipped my wig;
I left the stage, the lights, the headlines and the limousines, too;
now time is my time, I do what I want to do..." - "Ode to Bobby Gentry," Sid Griffin

Whether "Ode to Billie Joe" is the greatest song to combine elements of commercial county and southern soul with elaborate pop structures is open to debate, but its place in the history of popular culture is well-established. A Billboard Number 1 hit for Bobbie Gentry in 1967, the secrets of the mysterious song remain elusive; Gentry never hinted at what the teen couple tossed off the Tallahatchie Bridge, nor did she suggest why young MacCallister jumped from it. The 1976 movie starring Robby Benson provided its own interpretation, but there is nothing in the lyrics that would lead one to believe it is the natural conclusion.

Bobbie Gentry's life - by design it would seem - has its share of mysteries. Since dropping out of sight in the early-'80s, she has steadfastly maintained her privacy. Tara Murtha has crafted an accessible, academic study of "Ode to Billie Joe" doubling as a biography of the singer who found tremendous commercial and artistic success for a limited number of years. Speaking to many who worked closest with Gentry, tendrils of information are woven to provide an insightful if necessarily limited portrait of an artist who steadfastly controlled her destiny from the time she appeared on the Los Angeles music scene until she disappeared from the Las Vegas stages.

Without access to her subject, Murtha combed primary and secondary sources, archives, boxes and closets searching out new paths for exploration, and her efforts have proven successful. Her portrait of Gentry as a strong, visionary performer, songwriter, and business person is build upon a foundation of fact with the opinions of those who surrounded Gentry providing the binding that solidifies the image. While some of these thoughts are contradictory, most are believable, and provide evidence that Gentry is interpreted differently by those who knew her. All of this gives credence to Murtha's examination of Gentry.

Murtha provides limited insight to Gentry's years in Chickasaw Country, Miss. and her adolescence in Palm Springs. More information is available about her early days as a performer. Examining Gentry's days as a hula girl in a tiki band she organized in Southern California and her initial recording experiences, Murtha traces the development of the performer who became Bobbie Gentry. Naturally, she spends the greatest amount of time examining the gestation, recording, promoting and impact of her debut album for Capitol Records in 1967.

Murtha rightly states that Bobbie Gentry is a storyteller. What becomes clear early in this volume is that the story development didn't begin (or end) with the songs. "Ode to Billie Joe," the book, is a story of a person who manufactured a name, a back story and finally an incredibly successful music career through her own intense focus toward success. Lyrics from "Jeremiah," a track off "Patchwork," her last album, comes to mind - "fame and fortune, fun and folly, friend and family - is a still life real or is it fantasy?"

Gentry's personal relationships are given some attention, while her experiences in Las Vegas receive considerable examination. Many familiar names come in and out of the narrative, including P.J. Proby, Jim Ford, Jim Stafford, Barry White, Pat Vegas (of Redbone) and Jody Reynolds.

Gentry's most recent 30-plus years - the missing years - are of interest. Murtha provides conversations and connections that others had with Gentry to show someone who was contradictory: generous and caring to some, dismissive of others. Phone calls not returned. Promises broken. Friendships and family relationships neglected. One is left to imagine what might cause an obviously impressive business woman to simply walk away from a career and to cut off many - if not most - of her contacts with the world that brought her considerable success.

The years following the success of "Ode to Billie Joe" and before Las Vegas are given short shrift; we go from "The Delta Sweete" to "Patchwork" in just over four pages. Since she has an excellent handle on Gentry's music, I would have loved for Murtha to provide in-depth analysis of the albums recorded during this period of time. An index would seem essential.

Murtha has provided a concise and easy to appreciate portrait of an assertive, visionary performer. Even readers well-familiar with the general outline of Gentry's career will find themselves discovering additional insights while running back and forth to the record shelves to listen a bit more carefully to a piece of music Murtha has highlighted while searching YouTube for clips of performances mentioned. Casual listeners are provided the opportunity to discover what others have long known about a performer often mistakenly characterized as a 'one-hit wonder;' the Bobbie Gentry catalog - and her story - is deeper and richer than the Tallahatchie River.