‘Ode To Billie Joe’: The Brains And Beauty Of Bobbie Gentry’s Debut Album

With her debut album, ‘Ode To Billie Joe,’ Bobbie Gentry knocked The Beatles off the top of the charts and made herself a household name.

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Bobbie Gentry Ode to Billie Joe album cover web optimised 820
Cover: Courtesy of Universal Music

You may struggle to believe it, but at the height of the Summer Of Love, the haunting title track to Bobbie Gentry’s debut album, Ode To Billie Joe, knocked The Beatles’ ‘All You Need is Love’ off the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. A dark and tense song, half country ballad, half Southern gothic murder mystery, ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ certainly wasn’t a hippified number, but credit the public for recognizing the beauty, brains, and brilliance of the artist in question. Or as one reviewer put it: “If she didn’t have a Miss America type figure (37-23-37) you might call her an intellectual.” Aw, shucks.

Listen to Ode to Billie Joe.

This tale of star-crossed lovers involved in peculiar shenanigans in Mississippi’s Choctaw Ridge sent tongues wagging in the narrative. A small-town intrigue that functions as a musical version of a classic American short story, ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ is a cut that keeps razor-sharp but can never be properly resolved, since Gentry refuses to let on as to what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge by Billie Joe McAllister. She picked up her two Grammy Awards with an insouciant smile.

When Ode To Billie Joe came out a month later (August 1967) it also topped the Pop and Country charts, and made No.5 on the Black Albums charts, testimony to Gentry’s soulful delivery. In many ways, she pioneered the female version of Muscle Shoals-style beats, and she provided a real badass guitar, whether playing electric or acoustic. Such was the demand for the album that Capitol pressed an unprecedented 500,000 copies (the previous record was 100,000 for Meet The Beatles!).

Gritty authenticity

The big hit was left until last on the album, which was produced by Kelly Gordon and orchestrated by Jimmy Haskell (who also grabbed a Grammy for his arrangement on the single), but Ode To Billie Joe was far more than nine filler songs and the smash. The opening ‘Mississippi Delta’ is another peach, with an atmosphere and narrative structure reminiscent of Jimmy Webb and Tom T Hall. The country blues ‘I Saw An Angel Die’ is a doozy, while the autobiographical ‘Chickasaw County Child’ and the down-home ‘Sunday Best’ have elements of rural white gospel. There is also an air of gritty authenticity in ‘Bugs’, a childhood recollection of living on a farm with dirt-poor hillbilly folks.

The only song not written by Gentry is Jim Ford’s ‘Niki Hoeky’, a fine slice of hokum with a deep groove that showcases her versatility. The jazzier arrangement of ‘Papa, Woncha Let Me Go to Town With You’ sends Side Two of the album off on a left turn, and then there’s the charming chastisement of ‘Lazy Willy’ to raise a smile before we get back round the kitchen table for ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ – in its original version a much longer song with extra verses that Gentry dialed down for commercial impact.

A lasting legacy

Though she achieved further fame working with Glen Campbell, and became the first woman to host her own TV variety series – for the BBC, in the years 1968 to 1971 – Gentry didn’t duplicate her initial success as a solo artist, but she was savvy enough to land a million-dollar contract to star in a nightclub revue in Las Vegas. There were also high-profile appearances on TV shows hosted by Campbell, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Carol Burnett, and Bobby Darin.

The big hit that started it all won her a place in the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1999, and, lest we forget, Ode To Billie Joe also displaced Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band from the top spot in October 1967, making Gentry a triple thorn in The Beatles’ side.

The career-spanning Bobbie Gentry 8CD box set, The Girl From Chickasaw County, and can be bought here.



  1. Bill Aydam

    September 18, 2019 at 3:00 am

    Howdy Max,
    Really great piece on a songwriter’s songwriter.
    You are still doing great work.
    Was just thinking of our friendship back in the day:
    Nashville (Allan Toussaint (show I was producing at Vanderbilt U.), London (your house with Mel and Joan),
    and Texas (four wheeling it at my aunt Lolly’s farm), and would love to reconnect with you.
    Hope you get this note…
    Bill Aydam
    Austin, Texas 512-970-1991

  2. Daniel Reed Drown

    September 24, 2021 at 6:23 am

    Counting the film adaptation of Ode to Billie Joe and the 200 covers by other recording artists plus the estimated 10 million records Bobbie Gentry sold of the classic hit herself throughout the decades: this one song has earned her in excess of 10 million dollars. Her other classic story song , Fancy, has earned her in excess of 5 million dollars. The numbers are staggering. Ode to Billie Joe : 50 million records sold on 200 covers. Fancy 25 million records sold on over a dozen covers. The Reba McEntire cover of Fancy alone has sold 20 million records on 5 different cd albums and it is certified as a platinum selling downloaded single for her as well.

  3. H. Fivelsdal

    August 22, 2023 at 4:02 am

    What makes this album more remarkable is that it was recorded as a demo by Gentry. The strings, etc. were overdubbed onto her demo because the record company wanted to save money. If you listen to the title track (and others) closely you can hear the rhythm section trying to keep up with Bobbie’s rhythm.

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