Bobbie Gentry (real name Roberta Lee Streeter) was Mississippi born and bred.
Her Portuguese parents divorced when she was still in nappies and it was left to her grandparents to raise her on a farm without electricity or plumbing. Her grandmother spotted young Bobbie’s musical promise and traded in one of her cows for a piano.
At 13, Bobbie moved to Palm Springs to live with her mother who had remarried and they appeared together as a singing duo, Ruby and Bobbie Meyers. She studied philosophy at the University of California and later enrolled at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music where she took classes in composition, music theory and arranging.
Meanwhile, she found well-paid work as a singer and dancer in Las Vegas. Drawing on country, folk and blues – and taking her stage name from the Charlton Heston movie Ruby Gentry – she wrote her own first hit (Ode To Billie Joe).
The single, a moody slice of southern gothic, topped the US charts in 1968, backed with another self-composed track, Mississippi Delta (originally earmarked as the A-side).
In the States, the album Ode to Billie Joe knocked Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band off the top spot and earned Gentry three Grammy awards.
Such a daring start made her record company nervous, and Bobbie adopted a cosier personality to keep them happy.
It paid off commercially: as her own work took an artistic back seat, she topped the charts with her sultry, knowing version of Bacharach and David’s I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, and had another minor MOR hit with their Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.
She produced even albums, established her own production company and headlined the Desert Inn and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, Gentry was eventually straitjacketed so ruthlessly that, by the late 1970s, she had to find another career – in TV production.
Her only other hit was All I Have To Do Is Dream, from an album of duets with Glen Campbell. After that, it was guest slots on Saturday evening TV and, finally, her own show.
She was briefly rescued from obscurity when her first hit inspired the movie Ode To Billie Joe, but the TV industry’s gain was our loss – as is immediately apparent if you listen to her tragically overlooked 1969 album Touch ‘Em With Love.