Click on the song titles above for lyrics and songwriting credits
Despite performing regularly with her mother then with the Hawaiian themed troupe she formed called The International Four, Bobbie’s sole ambition initially was to write songs to sell to other artists, telling the Washington Post that she only sang on the recording of Ode to Billy Joe she took to Capitol because it was cheaper than hiring a professional. Also delivered to Capitol was the track Mississippi Delta, and it was this recording rather than Ode that initially got her signed. In context the track is more obviously commercial and reflective of what was in the charts in 1967 so perhaps it is this that has led to the erroneous story that Mississippi Delta was the A-side but DJ’s preferred the flip, making Ode a surprise hit.
Once signed to Capital, staff producer Kelly Gordon was given Ode To Billie Joe as his first full length production job for the label. He developed a close relationship with Bobbie and went on to work on her next two albums. Bobbie always asserted that she produced her first three albums, and that a staff producers name was added to them, so perhaps given their friendship, he gave her something of a free reign. Judging by Gordon’s own solo record for Capital called Defunked, they certainly shared a taste for baroque over the top kitchen sink style arrangements.
Both of Bobbie’s ‘demo’ tracks became the LP. masters; the purchased recording of Mississippi Delta was the version issued, but Ode to Billie Joe had the now famous string arrangement by Jimmie Haskell dubbed onto the original recording at Capital. It was the day after the string session that Capital’s A &R team decided definitively that Ode To Billie Joe would be the A-Side. Confident of a hit, Capitol put the considerable weight of it’s PR and Marketing team behind it: The song was released on 10th of July, and hit the number one spot on the 26th of August.
Ode To Billie Joe was delightfully at odds with mainstream radio and the hippie themes of the era. Bobbie skilfully juxtaposed tragedy against the banality of everyday life, and left the enigma intact- despite protracted debate about what the narrator threw of the bridge. Bobbie always said it wasn’t important “The story of Billie Joe has two underlying themes,” she said. “First, the illustration of a group of people’s reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives. 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.” The essential mystery of Bobbies’s song is one that can never be fully resolved, hence its endurance; and her silence, if anything, amplifies that mystery.
There have always been persistent rumours that Bobbie’s original recording of Ode To Billie Joe was much longer, and that it was cut down to a more manageable 4.15mins (although that in itself was still long for a pop record of the period). There is some evidence to support this with the existence of an early draft of the songs lyrics held in the special collections archive at the University of Mississippi which shows additional verses. In that draft, we learn the narrators name: Sally Jane Ellison. Whether Bobbie recorded these additional verses, we will never know, as the master tape belongs to Bobbie, and is not stored in the Capitol archive.
The rest of the album was hurriedly assembled from a selection of 12 songs Bobbie had already recorded guitar and vocal tracks for, with overdubs being completed in a matter of days. The result was a unique combination of blues, folk and jazz elements, that furthered Bobbie’s recollections of her homeland, and felt more like a concept album than a hastily assembled collection of songs. Standouts were follow up single, I Saw An Angel Die, a haunting blues ballad about a doomed love affair, The jaunty Chickasaw County Child and Papa Won’t You Let Me Go To Town With You? and the sensuous and jazzy Hurry Tuesday Child, all full of autobiographical details, rich descriptions and southern colloquialisms. Capitol pre-ordered 500,000 copies – the largest pressing of a debut album in Capitols history at that point. The album was in stores less than a month after it was completed. Almost overnight the ‘girl from Chickasaw County’, was a superstar, prompting a one writer to proclaim, “Bobbie Gentry is the most exciting thing to happen to popular music since the Beatles.” Indeed the album Ode to Billie Joe knocked Sgt Pepper of the top spot.
Subsequent releases never quite matched the success and cultural impact of Ode to Billie Joe. But how could they? “It’s a distinct problem when your first hit record has the impact that one did,” she told an entertainment writer. “Capitol Records wanted me to write a follow-up, or an answer to it, but I chose not to. I decided that the proper thing was not to duplicate it, but to go on to something else.”
In 2000 a cd compilation called Ode to Bobbie Gentry contained a couple of previously unreleased recordings, although they were not listed as such on the sleeve. One of these, a Bobbie original called Show Off was an outtake from the Ode To Billie Joe sessions.