A classic slice of 1967 Southern Gothic from Bobbie Gentry continues to vex and provoke attempted explanations, although the artist herself claimed the song had no meaning – allegorical or otherwise.
A cavalcade of big-name artists populated The Billboard Top Ten singles chart, with James Brown, The Monkees, The Beatles , Aretha Franklin, The Doors, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations and Procul Harum all jockeying for the number one spot.
However they were to be denied for a month by a single written and performed by a little-known 23 year-old from Mississippi who went by the name of Roberta Lee Streeter, aka Bobbie Gentry.
The subject matter of her “Ode to Billie Joe” has been the subject of much discussion since then, with tales of dark deeds done on Choctaw Ridge and the Tallahatchie Bridge, culminating in the apparent suicide of one Billie Joe McAllister.
The contrast with “All You Need is Love” by the Fab Four – one place further down the hit parade – was stark: from fluffy scouse sentiment to Mississippi mischief.
Eight Grammy nominations and three awards would come Gentry’s way for the song, but she failed to emulate its success again in her recording career (although a cover version of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” made number one in the UK in 1971).
A re-recording of “Billy Joe” was released in 1976 to tie in with a new movie based on the song lyrics, but would fail to hit the upper reaches of the charts (as would a re-release of the orginal single). The film publicity promised that the mystery of the song would be revealed, but in reality a flimsy script invented a dubious plot line.
Thrice-married Gentry opted to withdraw from the world of showbusiness in 1978, settled in Los Angeles and has scarcely been heard of since.
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And here’s some footage of the Divine Miss G in action: