Eight-disc set of the country-soul enigma’s Capitol recordings, plus copious extras. By Andrew Male.
Bobbie Gentry The Girl From Chickasaw County BOBBIE GENTRY gave her final live performance, at the Sahara hotel in Las Vegas, in September 1980. Her last public appearance came two years later, at the Country Music Awards in April 1982. There was no official ‘retirement’ notice. She just walked away. She was 40 years old. In the 36 years since, Gentry has recorded no music and played no concerts, living a quiet life in Memphis, with no interest whatsoever in discussing her previous career. Yet, while Bobbie Gentry maintains silence, her music refuses to. Long after her final studio LP, 1971’s Patchwork, faded from view, Gentry’s name was kept alive by her debut single, Ode To Billie Joe. Recorded after signing to Capitol in 1967, this bewitching, cinematic tale of two Delta teenagers’ dark secret, sung in a huskily conversational Southern drawl, sold 750,000 copies in its first week of release, and kept her name alive as her career was forgotten; successive generations still wondering just what Billie Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The Gentry renaissance that’s led us to this eight-disc compilation arguably began with the mid-’90s easy listening revival, when an audience drawn to Gentry’s kitsch LP sleeves and swooning Bacharach covers also discovered her sultry swamp rockers alongside beguiling poetic ballads about “tear-sorrowed” women, that unravelled like gothic riddles. These mysterious self-penned parables ran across all seven of her studio albums, harking back to that original spectral hit, and shining a dark light on the other Bobbie Gentry, one Roberta Streeter, born into a dirt-poor broken family in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, on July 27, 1942. Her undoubted masterpiece remains 1968’s The Delta Sweete, a semiautobiographical Southern concept album split between rowdy gospel-soul groovers and exquisitely sad chamber pop detailing captive women’s haunted dreams. That’s closely followed by 1970’s Fancy – sensuous blue-eyed soul, cut with Muscle Shoals maven Rick Hall – and her final studio LP, Patchwork, which comprises Nilsson-esque character sketches, punctuated by wistful, autumnal introspection. Compromised by a rigid touring schedule and a label expecting more Billie Joe-style chart smashes, other albums were hobbled by insubstantial covers, most specifically, her 1968 Glen Campbell duets long-player, but each contained compositions of a unique eerie brilliance, from debut LP standout, I Saw An Angel Die, to Local Gentry’s shimmering Recollection – a prismatic She’s Leaving Home about a young girl confronting death for the first time. All are reason to invest in this retrospective, but the real clincher is the rare and unreleased recordings. Backed by musical director John Cameron, the Live At The BBC disc (only previously available as a 2018 RSD LP) showcases Gentry at her soulful best; the upbeat tracks oozing Delta sensuality, the slower numbers heavy with an intimate melancholy. The other extras range from raw acoustic demos to steamy covers of Mose Allison’s The Seventh Son and Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Spinning Wheel, plus Bobbie singing in Italian, Japanese and Spanish. However, the real find is eight mournful, intimate tracks from an abandoned, self-produced jazz session, planned as a follow-up to 1968’s poor-selling Local Gentry. The songs range from the chilling (Irving Berlin’s Supper Time) to the beguiling (a crestfallen take on Bacharach & David’s This Guy’s In Love With You), and suggest Gentry’s career might have taken an entirely different path. Whether it would have continued, we’ll never know. Maybe she would have still found herself “packin’ up” and “checking out”, as she sings on the painfully autobiographical Lookin’ In, the closing track on her final LP. As with everything connected with Bobbie Gentry, what remains is the mystery.
Sultry and beguiling: Bobbie Gentry in Manchester Square, London, 1969.