We all make fools of ourselves at one time or another, but some of us have a propensity for putting our foot in it more frequently than others. I count myself amongst the latter group and my meeting with Bobbie Gentry was no exception. I had arrived at the preconceived conclusion (always an error) that I was on my way to encounter just another pretty face, another entertainer who sings and dances in Las Vegas, and I was quite prepared to drivel away half an hour in sugary niceties with the usual polite smile smeared across my face. Instead, I found myself confronted by a cool, shrewd lady with a business head on her shoulders and very definite opinions in her mind.
I suppose one could say that Bobbie Gentry’s career in music began within the precincts of the Southern Baptist Church. It was to play a strong part in her life until she was thirteen, when she and her family left the South and headed West. It was while attending college and the Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles that Bobbie started working in nightclubs for purely financial reasons. At the time her main interests lay in composing and writing–not only writing lyrics, but writing short stories as well. In fact, both “Ode to Billie Joe” and “Fancy” originated as short stories; it was only later that Bobbie set them both to music.
Among Bobbie Gentry’s enormous talents is the ability to design her own costumes, such as the ones shown in these photo’s from her nightclub act at Las Vegas’ Desert Inn as well as those she wore on her series of specials on CBS-TV during the month of June.
“‘Fancy’ is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it. I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for–equality, equal pay, day care centers, and abortion rights.”
“But you look the epitomy of everything they dislike,” I say. “You wear false eyelashes, vampy clothes, and you play up your femininity to the hilt. That can’t go down to well with those who picket beauty contests, burn Bunny dressing-rooms, and tell us to let our armpits grow out in all their glory.”
“Well, that small group does more harm than good by drawing attention away from the real issues. Actually I’ve had no problems with them, perhaps because they recognize that I am a woman working for herself in a man’s field. After all, I am a successful woman record-producer. Did you know that I took ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ to Capitol, sold it, and produced the album myself? It wasn’t easy, It’s difficult when a woman is attractive, beauty is supposed to negate intelligence–which is ridiculous. Certainly there are no women executives and no producers to speak of in the record business. Mind you, inequalities work both ways. For example, divorce laws are rotten because they discriminate against men.”
Nobody manipulates Bobbie Gentry. She has a strong head for business and thoroughly enjoys a new challenge. Co-producing her television series in London for four years proved just that.
When one goes to see a Bobbie Gentry show in Las Vegas, one can expect a great display of versatility and showmanship–everything from chains, to clowns and lace, to a rousing nostaligia number–all with a little help from her talented boys.
“I’m starting to write music for films now and it’s another exciting dimension. While producing records I’d already learned how to operate the 8 and 16 track, now I get to add video and audio. I wrote the title theme for the new movie Macon County Line and I have upcoming offers for a couple of films, including one for Peter Fonda. The trouble is that writing is so time consuming, and I have to persuade my agent to give me the time away from performing to do so. It would be difficult to choose between performing or directing a show, but I’d take the directing.”
“However, the fun is in being able to do both–it’s the icing on the cake when you can stand on stage and receive applause for singing your own songs. A lot of people ask me weather the biggest thrill of my life was hearing ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ on the radio, and it wasn’t. It was seeing my sheet music in the stores. I’ve published seventy-five songs and there are sixty-five versions of ‘Billie Joe’ alone, which is flattering. Mind you, there are also five different versions of it on Muzak, which raises the hair on the back of my neck in horror.”
“Trends come and go so fast nowadays because of the media, one kidnapping leads to a rash of similar cases, one hijacking led to a reign of terror. At one time in history we only had to worry about our own immediate problems concerning family and community. But now we come home to TV and find ourselves worried and frustrated over the starving Africans, the revolution in Ireland, or the overthrow of the South American government, and our own families become neglected. I mean, you find great drives to send CARE packages (which is wonderful) to South America when they should be going to east Los Angeles. We have starving people there, too, you know.”
How about the field of movies as an actress, does that interest Bobbie?
“I’ve turned down many roles because the content was offensive to me. I refused Carnal Knowledge because I couldn’t relate to the part and felt I wouldn’t do it justice. Yet, it was great for Ann Margret’s career and she was great in it. But where are the strong character roles for women nowadays, the kind that Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford used to play? Who can forget Bette Davis in Jezebel? Joanne Woodward is the only one who comes up with good roles, and they seem to be written especially for her. Just look at the movies this year: The Sting–men only, Last Tango in Paris, Cinderella Liberty. All good films, but the caliber of woman being represented has changed. One is always a prostitute or being raped and sodomized, or playing the dregs of the earth. The best parts are written for men and I for one would like to see some of those Bette Davis characters return to the screen.”
“I love the nightclub circuit and appreciate the extravagance and luxurious facilities in Las Vegas–excellent sound, elevators, and as much professional equipment as one desires. I’ve travelled on the road and worked to a crowd of 30,000 with two ten-inch speakers, so I appreciate Vegas.” Bobbie conceived, wrote, and performed her new Vegas act, leaving the choreographic side to Don Bradburn (known to A.D. as a talented photographer). The show is great and when the spotlight is on Bobbie Gentry, draped in one of her self-designed costumes, it’s glamour time at the Desert Inn Hotel. Whether she’s singing her soul out in “Fancy” or camping through the forties, she has a down-to-earth simplicity that appeals to audiences. As a lady behind me remarked to her husband, “What a nice, simple Southern girl.” Well, Y’all, that nice, simple Southern girl has another feather to place in her well-trimmed cap. All her manuscripts are placed in the University of Mississippi, lying alongside those of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, and there’s more to come…