Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe
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In August 1967, "Ode to Billie Joe," a B-side throwaway performed by a total unknown, knocked the Beatles' "All You Need is Love" out of the Billboard chart's top slot. Listeners obsessed over the mysteries ensnarled in the song's haunting refrain: Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Why did Billie Joe kill himself? Is he the narrator's secret lover? Fans also wanted to know: Who is this glamorous young woman who could boil air with just a parlor guitar and voice low as the Mississippi moon? That is a mystery as deep as the Tallahatchie's rushing water. Less than 10 years after bursting onto the world's stage with an album that scored an unprecedented trifecta on the Pop, Country and Black charts, the woman born Roberta Lee Streeter vanished from the spotlight. This much we know: Gentry was an artistic polymath and astute businesswoman. After "Ode", she wrote more music, DJed a radio program, hosted a TV show and started her own publishing company. Disenchanted with the record business, she produced spectacular Las Vegas shows, writing the music, choreographing the routines and designing the costumes. But despite working herself to exhaustion, Gentry was unable to replicate the commercial sales of her debut, and she disappeared. Bobbie Gentry has not been seen in public for over 30 years. With unprecedented access to a treasure trove of Gentry's memorabilia, Murtha excavates the mysteries of Ode to Billie Joe, in terms of both the record's production and the effect of its success on Gentry. With input from the artist's collaborators and contemporaries, Murtha argues that though Gentry has every right to vanish, her role as a pioneering woman in the music industry should not.