It’s the third of June. Somewhere in Mississippi, it’s another sleepy, dusty delta day. Since the summer of 1967, when the Southern gothic ballad “Ode to Billie Joe,” set on this day in that place, first hit the airwaves, the song has captivated American pop culture in a way few ever have.
Written and sung by an unknown young woman from Mississippi named Bobbie Gentry, it was an eerie, minor-key mystery about an unnamed young woman and her family sitting around a farm dinner table discussing, in elliptical terms, the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister.
It sold tens of millions of copies. It knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts. It spawned a 1976 movie. It made Gentry a hot Vegas star. She kicked around with Elvis and Tom Jones and briefly married casino magnate Bill Harrah.
The song’s iconic success also helped launch one of the most enduring riddles in pop: Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry?
She had a few minor hits after “Ode,” appeared on early ’70s entertainment shows and then went kapoof in the early 1980s. No appearances. No pictures. No interviews.
Over time, she became regarded as the J.D. Salinger of pop music. She made Harper Lee look chatty. She went full Garbo.
It’s most often reported that she is living in seclusion in Los Angeles, as if she has morphed into a Southern-fried Norma Desmond holed up in a creepy mansion on Sunset Boulevard.
That isn’t true.
And Gentry spoke to a reporter, for this story, apparently for the first time in three decades. We caution you not to get too excited about that. It’s one sentence. Could be two.
Then she hung up.
All Southerners come home, even if it’s in a pine box, Truman Capote once opined.
That is what the 70-something Gentry has done, hidden in plain sight, known perhaps to a few friends and neighbors, but nobody who ever blabs.
“I think, to some, it’s an open secret,” says Tara Murtha, author of “Ode to Billie Joe,” a 2015 book that’s by far the most thorough biography of Gentry’s public career. In it, Murtha cites reports from Savannah papers that a “Bobbie Gentry” lived in the Georgia city in the late 1990s but had since moved.
In an interview, she said she knew where Gentry now lives but had not printed it. She never spoke to Gentry but said she had sent letters through intermediaries that were never answered.
The short answer to one of pop’s great mysteries:
Bobbie Gentry lives about a two-hour drive from the site of the Tallahatchie Bridge that made her so famous, in a gated community, in a very nice house that cost about $1.5 million. Her neighbors, some locals and some real estate agents know who she is, although it’s not clear which of her many possible names she goes by.
We’ll be a little more specific in a minute.
First: How can someone once so famous vanish so completely?
A complicated family history, a stage name, a couple of short-lived marriages and a false birth date on her official PR material helped.
Gentry’s name at birth, in Mississippi, was Roberta Lee Streeter. But her parents divorced when she was young, and she lived with her grandparents. She moved to L.A. to be with her mom and soon adopted the “Bobbie Gentry” stage name. She divorced Harrah, then married and divorced country singer Jim Stafford in the late 1970s.
Further, the music studio had shaved a couple of years off her actual birthday.
Gentry’s family didn’t talk, and she had cut off nearly all her friends in the music business. When reporters reached out through intermediaries, there was never a reply.
“I think it’s simpler than it seems,” Murtha said. “She apparently didn’t like the music business, went on to other businesses and never missed the spotlight.”
Stafford and Gentry had a very small wedding in 1978, but they did allow a reporter from the Memphis Commercial Appeal to attend the ceremony on their 120-acre horse farm about 20 miles west of the city.
“It’s wonderful to stand on your own land, where you plan to live and raise a family,” Stafford is quoted as saying at the time.
Today, computer databases clearly show that perhaps the nation’s most reclusive pop star lives in an 8,000-square-foot house with a great pool not all that far from the old homestead. Real estate agents confirmed it.
So, I found myself looking at a phone number on my computer screen for several seconds. No reporter, to the best of my knowledge, has spoken to Gentry in decades.
I punched the numbers.
After a few rings, a pleasant woman’s voice said: “Hello.”
I introduced myself and my newspaper. I said I was looking for the person whose name appears on the property owner’s record.
There was a dead pause of several seconds. My fingers clenched open and closed.
“There’s no one here by that name,” she said, finally.
I apologized and started to read back the number, to make sure I had dialed it correctly, and she hung up.
But there isn’t really any doubt.
I talked, for about 13 seconds, to Bobbie Gentry.
Some mysteries can be solved. What Billie Joe and his girlfriend threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? No. That can’t.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
To hear the song: