Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ode to Bobbie Gentry: The Mississippi Hippie (Part 1)

Hey there little doggies, sorry it's been awhile since I posted some tunes up here on WW&W, but a lot has been going on meanwhile back at the ranch. If you peruse my other blog, Soul Spectrum, you might have read that I was recently laid off. Sad, I know, but I'm trying to recognize that I'm not the only one out there in this position and honestly it does help to keep that perspective. One of the silver linings to this cloud is that I now have much more time for the fun and unpaid music activities in my life, such as Weed, Whites & Wine!

Today we're gonna do something special, a rare cross-blog collaboration with our sister site Soul Spectrum focusing on the rare talent that is Bobbie Gentry. Anyone who's ever dug for records will doubt have seen her duet album with Glen Campbell hundreds of times as it approaches the commonness of "Whipped Cream and Other Delights". And shockingly, I don't even have that one, though next times I see it the completist in me will snatch it up. Everybody probably knows that Bobbie is best known for composing and singing the brilliant story-song "Ode to Billy Joe", a haunting song set in rural Chickasaw Country, Mississippi where a troubled Billy Joe McAllister jumps off the Tallahachie bridge. I had heard that song and several other versions, but it wasn't until I heard the A-side to her first single ("Ode to Billy Joe" was the b-side!) on a british acid-jazz comp "Blue Juice" that I really took notice. That a-side, "Mississippi Delta", is a smoking country-soul stomp and will be posted shortly on the companion tribute to Bobbie Gentry over at Soul Spectrum.

I spent the last few days going through my handful of Bobbie Gentry albums (all from 1967-1970) and picked out some of the twangier tunes from her repertoire. To me, Bobbie is somewhere in between Tony Joe White and John Hartford two other native southerner singer-songwriters who dabbled in pop-country in the wake of the Bob Dylan revolution (before Dylan made Columbia some serious $$, few record labels took chances on singer-songwriters especially in the country and/or folk markets). Of the four songs below only one is a cover, which seems pretty representative of her albums.

Bobbie's story is a fascinating one that saw her peak in popularity with her very first single only to become fed up with the recording industry within a few years. Next she spent the better part of the seventies as one of the biggest acts in Las Vegas, producing, writing, choreographing and performing her own show. Then in the late seventies she married wealthy and has disappeared from sight. It's been rumored that she and Elvis even had a thing going on in the early 70s, no doubt as both stars were dominating the Las Vegas strip. I urge you to listen closely to the words of the final song posted here "Fancy" which is done in a similar story style as "Ode to Billy Joe" but is about a teenage girl who's mother forces her into prostitution in order to pay the family's bills. The song goes on to discuss the emotional wreckage that results. Not bad for a pop song. It might help if you knew that before joining the Los Angeles music conservatory she was majoring in philosophy at UCLA.

Bobbie Gentry - Okolona River Bottom Band

This is from her second album, which sold poorly, but is clearly trying to build on that southern mythology. Check down below for a bizarre video of Bobbie and Bing Crosby dueting on this tune.

Bobbie Gentry - Sweet Peony
This a funny little countrified number. One thing I really like about Bobbie Gentry is that her arrangements are often very spare with her vocals way up front and funky rhythmic touches along the way.

Bobbie Gentry - Natural To Be Gone
I love John Hartford and this is one of my favorite tunes of his so I had to include it. You'll notice she changes the lyric from "banjo" to "guitar".

Bobbie Gentry - Fancy
I already talked about this one. I know she's a feminist and all, but I don't think Bobbie would mind if I commented on how HOT she looks on this album cover.

Here's a great performance of the tune on Johnny Cash's TV show from 1970 I'm gonna guess:

Here's another clip from Johnny's show, likely from an earlier season singing a Hank Williams tune in duet with the beautiful Bobbie:

and here we have Bobbie on Bing Crosby's show with Bing dueting on "Okolona River Bottom Band":

And here's a link to cool video of Bobbie singing "Louisiana Man" with some of the Hollies including WW&W favorite Graham Nash.


The Rockabilly Hag said...

Geez, I had no idea Bobbie Gentry was this good! And she was beautiful...I guess she had it all.
Thanks for the post, it's been an education and a pleasure.

Daniel said...

Great post on the talented Bobbie Gentry. Three of her songs are truly immortal. Ode to Billie Joe: 100+ plus covers near 50 million in record sales. Fancy: 12 covers 20 million in record sales and Mornin' Glory: covered 3 times and the signature tune of master jazz pianist Bill Evans in the last stage of his career. The opening number on his historic 'Live in Toyko' album. Somone please put this legend into the songwriters hall of fame.

Daniel said...

After Bobbie's monster debut(The Ode to Billie Joe album sold 1.5 million in the 1960's!) even good selling albums seemed dwarfted in its looming shadow. Case in point: Her album Fancy went #96 on the top 200 album chart which was quite respectable for a female solo artist of this era( Dusty Springfields, Dusty In Memphis peaked at #99 about the same time). It quickly sold 250,000 copies. The single spent four months on the hot 100 peaking at #31 pop, #26 country,#8 adult contemporary and #65 r&b. It sold over 750,000 copies but again, dwarfted into comparison of O.T.B.J's 3.5 million. Gentry still has perhaps the biggest debut in pop music with a stunning 10 grammy nomination in 1967 and 4 wins. She remains one of only a handful of white female singers to score a top ten r&b hit. It should be noted too that all her studio albums had sales figures into the six figures. She had 11 hot 100 pop singles 1967-1976 with 4 going top 40 pop.