Blues Shouters and Country Screamers with Adam Hill
Bobbie Gentry

     "And poof she's gone," almost like Keyser Söze at the end of "The Usual Suspects;" Bobbie Gentry is an apparition. Did she really walk the earth during the Summer of Love? Did she walk among men and women and sing like summer and smoke? There are a hand-full of records and television shows that say she did. But she is gone. I've heard so many stories and notions and I fear to type any of them. She, whose name rolls off the tongue. She, who sounds like a small town sheriff. She, who looks like a bombshell.

     Bobbie and I go way back. I'll get to that later. First off, three years ago, I lived in a friend’s basement for a while. I was living a country song. My house was for sale, my wife had left but I decided against crawling into Jack Danielsville. OK so I was living half a country song. I moved to Brentwood. Swimming pools, movie stars. I chilled out. I watched a-lot of television. I lifted weights. I strummed my guitar. I did up the tunes in my notebook on a 4 track. I ate frozen pizzas. The basement came with a bed and a bathroom. On the wall my friend placed a picture of Bobbie Gentry. To inspire toward a future of greener pictures with the ladies or to inspire songs or just to inspire, I don't know. It worked on all levels. There she was, her exotic features, Puerto Rican maybe? Spanish? (She is Portuguese for the record) and exotic is a cliché but if you saw her that's just what you'd say. Oh and we do go way back, my dad played her records when I was a kid and to this day any buxom woman with brown eyes and olive skin can knock me down. So there I was starting all over and here she was, in this photo, her raven hair and raven is a cliché but if you saw her hair that's just what you'd say it was, leaning on a piano poking out that pre J-Lo butt like it was sunshine.

     The music is so dirty and Southern you'd think Goodie Mob would sample her. It's classy like Sinatra, it's big like Elvis, it's so damn cool and weird and bitchy like few others. She sounds overtly aware of her sexuality and in a very post 60s way. She sounds modern. I can hear her singing "It's hard out here on a pimp." I can't explain it to you. Like they say, "If you've been then you know." At it’s best the music is dirty soul with raw horns, strings and funk and on top of it all her voice. I'd pay Greg Dulli twenty bucks to cover "Slow Cookin'" and I think he'd give me money back and buy me a drink. As good as the music is, it is the story that compels.

     Bobbie learned herself the banjo and bass while going to elementary school in Greenwood, Mississippi. She walked home on dirt roads? She rode the bus? Did she like English class? I bet she did. I bet she rocked the math teacher’s world. This world was in the 1950s, civil rights had the South upside down and on fire, there was little to keep young girls with big dreams in Mississippi. Mississippi could not hold her and she moved to her mom's crib in California to graduate high school in Palm Springs. Between jokes Bob Hope saw her some how, somewhere and told her to play the country clubs. The troops thank you, Bob. On Saturday nights was it vodka, was it gin? Were there Palm Trees and sand in her shoes? Every girl has to make ends meet and Bobbie made herself a Las Vegas showgirl for a spell until she moved to LA and worked on a philosophy degree. Images of a show girl carrying Plato roll in my head. Mascara and mirrors twixt treatise and tome. She got bored with this. She moved on. She was a file clerk by day and played the clubs at night. I can see her filing with long French nails, white tips like stars sparkling against her raven hair. She then went to the LA Conservatory of Music to work on composition. I take all this in and I begin to think history made this stuff up? She worked on a fishing boat, she ran guns, she taught Sunday school. I'm making these up now. I sort of think Wikipedia is pulling my leg. So let's believe she was a showgirl getting a philosophy degree in LA and then she opened her mouth and out came that sound. Like Palm Trees brushing the terra cotta roof slowly in the wind, like water pouring out of the sky, like thunder over a charcoal black parking lot. She sang. Men’s hearts stopped and started again.

     Whatever happened to Bobbie it all happened in 1967. The silent majority and the counter culture were opening their hearts with versions of the truth, the streets were full, Vietnam was on TV and her song "Mississippi Delta" was the Capitol Records A-side. “Holy Shit” is the only thing you can say. It's like Slim Harpo came up on Linda Lindell with the nastiest funk of Memphis soul stew you ever heard and made out with the alphabet. But this is not even why we are here to consider Bobbie. Side-B was a demo with strings. "Ode to Billy Joe" was taken from Bobbie's demo for Capitol Records. Strings were added for flavor and fullness as if to make this tale of death and secrets ready for radio. Even show girls with philosophy degrees need perfume. Disc jockeys flipped the record and their lids over this joint and that year the Grammys piled up. Best Vocal, Best New Artist. Best Whatever. The Grammys mattered no more then than they do now. I know this because The Stones never won. She put out a few records, she was number 6 on the chart in 1969 with Glenn Campbell. It was all this from a bedroom demo with strings, and a story shrouded in vague descriptions. It was like Faulkner in a pop song. The Mississippi Delta daring the country to look upon her child, to look in the face of the Old South with its lip busted open.

     She wrote "Fancy" and it hit 30-something on the chart and stopped. Years later as mediocrity reigned over all music Reba McIntire turned the gold spun from a story of depravity back into plain rags in a feat of reverse alchemy. Bobbie was becoming an underground star back before it was cool. Bobbie was big in England, big in Japan. Big everywhere but the US of A. Capitol dropped her. There was no Merge Records. There was no Feist. She did Vegas, she wrote, performed, choreographed and arranged. She got bored. She had a television show The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour. And it’s here that time is closing so pay attention, this all happens fast.

     A movie of "Ode to Billy Joe" came out. It was a Tennessee Williams take on the enigmatic tale making the song’s death a suicide that stemmed from homosexual repression. She re-recorded the song, it stayed in the low 40s. Lightning doesn't strike twice, especially for demos with strings. Whatever magic was there the first time stayed there in the blessed first time. The movie moved it and made 1.1 million, it took the bank. Max Baer, Jr. produced it. He was the son of boxing legend Max Baer. Max the senior was the boxer who killed a man and had nightmares for life, the man who lost to James Braddock to make the Cinderella Man. Did Bobbie feel like a down and out boxer, did she feel against the ropes or was she just sick and tired of the public, the slow, slow public? Maybe they talked about boxing, maybe she thought about retiring with her cut of the 1.1 million. She tried producing again and got bored. She tried behind the scene and she got bored. She had one last single "He Did me Wrong But He Did it Right". I can't find the song. It's long gone. Not everything she sang was magic. Some was bad Beatles, some was bad hippie posturing, some was sappy folk. This song sounds like none of the above. This song sounds like Lil' Kim screaming over some horns and a big bass drum. Perhaps I imagine too much. She was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978 for Christmas. Then she was gone. Maybe Ed McMahon slipped her the winning check? Merry Christmas. What did she do for New Years? Was there a resolution? Was it a limousine she rode away in? Did she get married to a man who wanted her to only sing for him? Did she throw her purse in the Pacific and move to Singapore? There is so little mystery left in this world. If for nothing else Bobbie thank you for that. Mystery is the essence of beauty, it's the essence of desire, it's what makes men stay up all night. It's what makes us lean into the unknown searching for completeness. In this age of comeback tours and tell all books and over exposure she gave us mystery. Yes, all these things. Thank you Bobbie, thank you for that.