Bobbie Gentry’s World

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day…”

bobbieThe summer of 1967 belonged to The Beatles, The Doors, and Bobbie Gentry, who was all of 23 years old when her debut album knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of the charts, where it had been the number one album for months. Her album’s namesake song, “Ode to Billie Joe”, also replaced “All You Need is Love” in the number one spot on the singles chart.

One of pop music’s most haunting songs, the Southern Gothic “Ode to Billie Joe” started Bobbie’s career off with a bang. The story of a suicide set deep in the Mississippi delta, the track raises more questions than it answers: Why did Billie Joe McAlister jump off the Tallahatchee bridge? What was the nature of his relationship with the song’s narrator, who hears the news of his death from her too-casual family members around the dinner table? For her part, Bobbie has always maintained that the mysteries surrounding the song are not the point; for her, the core of the story is in the nonchalant description of the suicide by the family around the dinner table, and the abject cruelty of this discussion in the presence of Billie Joe’s girlfriend. As a piece of writing, the song is brilliant—the plot advances solely through dialogue, and there’s enough richness of character to make Carson McCullers jealous. The arrangement, stark and absolutely chilling in places, ensured its stand-out status, while Bobbie’s husky voice sang a melody that seemed to have written itself.

The Ode to Bille Joe album featured ten songs, nine of them authored by Bobbie Gentry. It invited listeners into the world of the midcentury south—hot, hazy, and populated with interesting characters. There were songs about bugs, dressing up in one’s sunday best, going to town at the end of a hard work week, and overcoming poverty. Bobbie wrote these songs from her own experiences.

bobbie3Born in Mississippi in 1944, Bobbie was raised by her grandparents on their farm. When she showed an early interest in music, her grandmother traded a cow to their neighbor in exchange for a piano, which Bobbie used to write her first song at age seven. She later taught herself to play guitar, bass, and banjo, before moving to Las Vegas to become a showgirl. From Vegas, she travelled to Los Angeles, where she enrolled in UCLA and began performing her songs in night clubs. When a producer heard her demo recordings in 1967, she snagged a record deal.

Set up for super stardom after the success of “Ode to Billie Joe”, Bobbie promptly began writing and producing songs for her second album, The Delta Sweete. When it was released in 1968, it barely charted, despite containing high-quality songs. This set the pattern for the rest of her career, as her subsequent albums never repeated the triumph of her first. She fared slightly better on the country charts, although no matter which chart she landed on she was always labeled a “crossover”—a little too pop for the country sphere, her Mississippi twang rendered her hopelessly exotic in the pop world. Finally, in 1970, Bobbie hit the Top 40 again with “Fancy”, a song she referred to as her “strongest statement for women’s lib.” The tale of a girl in dire poverty, turned out by her mother to work as a call girl, the song would be resurrected twenty years later and turned into a massive hit by Reba McEntire. Bobbie’s version of the tune is, as always, more harrowing and leaves the listener feeling unsettled.

bobbie2Shortly after the relative success of “Fancy”, Bobbie retired from the music business and now lives a quiet life in California. Her legacy— six albums of exquisite stories and character sketches— is largely neglected today. But one listen to songs such as “Casket Vignette”, “Courtyard”, “Seasons Come, Seasons Go”, and “Papa’s Medicine Show” reveals a supremely gifted writer in the vein of Eudora Welty.  It’s possible that her songs and skills are continually overlooked by people who are more likely to notice her beauty, her miniskirts and her now-kitschy bouffant hairstyle. An adept musician and producer, she was ahead of her time during the span of her career. And, thanks to Bobbie Gentry, it is possible to put on a record and be instantly transported into a vivid, fascinating world called the Mississippi delta.


Cover Girls: “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”

excitersAlthough she possessed a voice powerful enough to move mountains, Brenda Reid of the Exciters never really achieved the stardom she deserved. After forming the group with her husband and two friends, the Exciters hit it big in 1962 with their top 5 song, “Tell Him”. A true girl group-classic, the song even inspired soon-to-be superstar Dusty Springfield to give soul music a try. Dusty remembered, “The Exciters sort of got me by the throat…out of the blue comes blasting at you “I know something about love”, and that’s it. That’s what I wanna do.” Later in the 60’s, another singer would find inspiration in Brenda’s soulful voice, as Janis Joplin studied the art of digging deep to muster the powerful emotions it took to really deliver a song.

The Exciters recorded many more singles after “Tell Him”, including high-quality songs like “He’s Got the Power”. Then, in 1964, they became one of many girl groups who were ousted from the charts by the incoming British Invasion that followed the Beatles to America. But unlike most girl groups, the Exciters provided a big boost for one British band, in particular. In 1963, they recorded a song called “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”, which failed to climb the charts despite its obvious charms.

Manfred Mann was a struggling British blues band when they recorded a cover of “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” in 1964. They quickly rose to fame in their native UK, and with this cover of the Exciters’ song they reached #1 in the US as well. It was the first in a string of half a dozen hits for the band, and their heartthrob lead singer, Paul Jones, clearly owed a debt to Brenda Reid for his soulful performance.

Good Influences: Lana Del Rey

Photographer:  Nicole NodlandControversial singer/songwriter Lana Del Rey covers the dark side of the American dream on her debut album, Born to Die, and follow-up EP, Paradise. Initially proclaiming herself a “Lolita lost in the ‘hood”, Lana has since dropped the slight hip-hop influence present in her earliest work to focus on orchestral pop vignettes that have been termed “Hollywood sadcore”. With her song “Young and Beautiful” on the Great Gatsby soundtrack, she has earned critical acclaim and commercial success. With a sound that is both forward-looking and nostalgic, Lana’s influences are understandably diverse.

When she gave her first interviews, Lana described herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” Although her sound has evolved somewhat, Nancy’s influence on Lana can still be felt. The daughter of mega-star Frank Sinatra, Nancy became a pop icon in 1966 with her song “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”. She cultivated a tough-girl image with edgy songs like “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, “Lightning’s Girl”, and “How Does That Grab You, Darlin’?” Lana would eventually cover Nancy’s “Summer Wine”, and songs like “Summertime Sadness” and “Ride” bear her mark.

Lana’s voice, in its darkest, smokiest moments, recalls Fiona Apple. Fiona’s first album, Tidal, was released in 1996 when she was just 19 years old. The sensual hit video for her single “Criminal” made her a 90’s icon, but Fiona refused to be boxed in and changed her sound for each of her subsequent albums, typically taking more than five years between each one. Lana borrows some of her sulky sultriness, along with her vocal mannerisms, on songs like “Million Dollar Man” and “Video Games”.

Lana is beloved by her fans for her distinctive style, for which she owes a debt to Marianne Faithfull. In her life as a “Swinging London” pop star in the 1960s, Marianne was prone to wearing flowers in her hair. She also performed sitting down, frozen, due to her crippling stage fright. Her sweet image, in songs like “As Tears Go By” and “Summer Nights”, belied her secret addiction to heroin. After breaking up with her longtime boyfriend Mick Jagger, Marianne lived on the streets of London. She eventually kicked the habit and made a comeback in 1979 with the punk-influenced album Broken English. Her story of the devastating effects of fame is right in Lana’s line, as are her vintage look and sound.

With her languid vocals, Lana has often been compared to Mazzy Star lead singer Hope Sandoval. Releasing their debut album in 1990, Mazzy Star were known for their hazy, dreamlike sound and Hope’s enigmatic lyrics. They scored their biggest hit in 1994 with “Fade Into You”, a song that showcased the best they had to offer. The band released several albums before calling it quits in 1997. They are currently in the midst of recording a reunion album.

With their slow beats and indolent vocals, English trip-hop band Portishead provided a template for Lana’s songs. Originating in Bristol in the early 90’s, the band was a staple of that decade, and continue to perform and record today. Their influence can be felt on songs like “Cola” and “Body Electric”.

Girls on Film: The Sapphires

The_Sapphires-posterIn the early to mid-1960s, a girl who loved rock music had few options for getting involved. She could date a guy in a band, thus becoming part of their entourage. She could become a music teacher, passing her love of music on to children. She could even try her hand at singing, although the solo pop stardom of the top female artists provided little of the camaraderie found in the typical rock band. No wonder, then, that so many music-loving ladies turned to girl groups. Formed on street corners, in church choir lofts, or after school in the gymnasium, these groups allowed young women to join together in song, harmonizing and sympathizing with each other over catchy pop beats. The most popular girl groups formed in the United States (the Supremes, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Shangri-Las, Martha and the Vandellas), but time has revealed that so many girls around the world had caught the music bug, too. This is where The Sapphires picks up, in the  outback of Australia.

sapphiresMaternal Gail,  amorous Cynthia, and teenaged mother Julie are sisters, living on the indigenous reservation provided by the Australian government. Having spent their childhood singing harmony with each other, the sisters have a bond that goes deeper than blood. Bored, and unable to stand the poverty of the reservation for one more day, the girls are desperate to get out. They brave racist catcalls in the town to perform in a talent contest, and there they meet Irish Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). He promises them that if they’ll stop singing country songs and start singing soul instead, he’ll help them find stardom.  When the girls show Dave an ad promising singing groups a small fortune to perform for troops in Vietnam, he manages to convince their parents to let their daughters go. Before they can audition, Dave puts them through a grueling rehearsal process, shifts lead singing duties from Gail to Julie, and adds a fourth member to the group: the girls’ cousin, Kay. A light-skinned indigenous woman, Kay was kidnapped as a child by the Australian government and raised “white” in the city (a sadly commonplace  practice that continued until the 1970s). The tension in the group mounts, but they land the gig in Vietnam. Suddenly thrust into danger, the girls find their new freedom both terrifying and exhilarating. Gail experiences mixed emotions as she feels obligated to care for her sisters, even as she is strangely drawn to Dave…who has a secret that threatens to tear the group apart.

With just the right mix of humor and pathos, The Sapphires is an engaging look at a time and place (Vietnam, 1960s) through new  (indigenous Australian girls’) eyes. Chris O’Dowd is highly entertaining as Dave, the songs are classics, and the chemistry between the female leads is authentic. It is hardly a revelation that the story is based on an actual group called The Sapphires who went to Vietnam—as history has shown us, a girl’s love of music can take her anywhere. Above all else, The Sapphires stands as a paean to the sisterhood of harmony that reaches around the globe.

Sweet Inspiration: Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash

grahamjoniMore than forty years after it happened, Graham Nash can still vividly recall the night he met Joni Mitchell.

“I first met Joan in Ottawa, Canada in 1967.  The Hollies were playing a show there and Joni was playing at a local club. There was a party thrown for us after our show, and when I entered the room I noticed a beautiful woman sitting down with what appeared to be a large bible on her knees. I kept staring at her and our manager at the time, Robin Britten, was saying something into my ear and distracting me from my quest. I asked him to be quiet as I was checking Joni out.  He said “if you’d just listen to me I’m trying to tell you that she wants to meet you.” David Crosby had told me earlier that year to look out for Joni should I ever get the chance to meet her.  Joni and I hit it off immediately, and I ended up in her room at the Chateau Laurier and she beguiled me with 15 or so of the most incredible songs I’d ever heard.  Obviously I fell in love right there and then.  She touched my heart and soul in a way that they had never been touched before.” 

grahamIt would take two more years before they met again, but the second time was the charm. Graham moved to L.A. in order to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, and encountered Joni again. The two became an item, sharing Joni’s home in Laurel Canyon. Their love was idyllic, and the two songwriters shared the piano in the living room as they wrote their songs. Graham wrote “Our House” about this happy time, and it appeared on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young megahit Deja Vu:

Joni returned the sentiment with songs like “Willy” (her nickname for Graham), which appeared on her Ladies of the Canyon album. But it was her album Blue that would provide the most insight into her relationship with Graham, as it chronicled the ups and the downs alike. “My Old Man” is a warm tribute to their love affair:

But as Joni was writing the songs that became Blue, something else happened. Graham recalls that time:

“Joni’s grandmother had always wanted to be a creative person. But in those days, you had to be a wife and a mother, and you had to bake and take care of the kids. You had to stay home while your old man went to work. She had never been given the chance to express herself artistically.

And Joni recounted to me that she remembered the story of her grandmother kicking the door viciously, out of frustration. Joni, I believe, saw that as one of the downfalls of marriage.

I also believe that somewhere in Joni’s mind she thought that I would demand that of her. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, “Why don’t you just cook?”

So even though we talked about marriage, I think the reality of it — from Joni’s point of view — was very scary.”

Joni MitchellJoni eventually travelled to Europe, alone. She sent Graham a telegram ending their relationship. “River”, from Blue, transparently shares Joni’s side of this struggle, with lines like “He tried hard to help me, you know he put me at ease/He loved me so naughty he made me weak in the knees/I wish I had a river I could skate away on/I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I’ve ever had”:

Completely devastated, Graham found solace in writing more songs. They became the backbone of his first solo album, the classic Songs for Beginners. “I Used to Be a King” was a reference to Joni’s “I Had a King”, and “Sleep Song” sadly recalled Joni’s leaving. “Simple Man” echoed the things he must have told Joni: “I just want to hold you, I don’t want to hold you down”:

He looks back on his time with Joni with great fondness, although the sadness still shows:

To have had the love of that woman was such an incredible feeling for me. I was flying. I was on cloud nine — no, I was on cloud 10! I felt insanely lucky. Many people have said “You know, when you and Joni walked into a room, the whole room lit up.”

“Listening to “Blue” is quite difficult for me personally.  It brings back many memories and saddens me greatly.  It is, by far, my most favorite solo album, and the thought that I spent much time with this fine woman and genius of a writer is incredible to me.”  

The Teenage Dreams of Janis Ian

janisJanis Ian was not the stereotypical thirteen year old girl. Having already mastered five musical instruments, she had been writing songs since she was a child. Her parents, summer camp directors who were frequently under FBI surveillance due to their leftist political views, did what they could to encourage her. This included sending Janis to a performing arts high school in New York City, where her talent caught the eye of music industry insiders. Just barely in her teens, she was given the chance to record a song she had written: “Society’s Child”. The record label took one listen and refused to release the song, fearing controversy. It took three releases of the recording on other labels, over the next three years, for the song to catch on with radio listeners. In 1966, at age 16, Janis had a top 20 hit. There was just one problem: “Society’s Child”, which told the story of an interracial romance, was too much for some people to handle during the firestorm of the civil rights movement. Janis received hate mail and death threats, and some radio stations refused to play it. She proudly continued to play it anyway, as in this clip from 1966:

janis2After the minefield of “Society’s Child”, Janis fell off the pop charts, although she continued to record. In 1975, almost ten years after her only hit to date, Janis released a song called “At Seventeen”. Though she was no longer a teenager, Janis clearly remembered those years with a mixture of humor and rancor. At age 24, her reflection on her teenage years paid off, and Janis’ new song eventually reached #3 on the charts. She was the musical guest on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, where she performed “At Seventeen” to a rapt audience. Though she never had another hit on the pop charts, Janis’ name would become synonymous with adolescent angst, with Tina Fey naming a character after her in the screenplay for Mean Girls.

Stevie Nicks: “Bella Donna”

“Don’t you know that the stars are a part of us?”

stevie-nicksBeing a member of Fleetwood Mac, the biggest band of the 1970s, should have been a dream come true. Instead, for Stevie Nicks, it was beginning to feel like a punishment. Stevie was a vital member of the band, providing them with hits like “Rhiannon” and “Landslide”; her song “Dreams” had given the band its only number one hit. She was also the public face of the band, with her eccentric stage outfits and charisma. Still, her songs had to share space on Fleetwood Mac albums with songs by her best friend, Christine McVie, and those by her ex-boyfriend, Lindsey Buckingham. She was lucky to get two or three songs per album. Since Stevie was a prolific writer, she had accumulated dozens of songs that had not yet been recorded.

belladonnaPouring all of her passion into her songs, Stevie felt they deserved to be heard. She cofounded a record label to ensure that she would have control over the resulting recordings, and began to work on her debut album, Bella Donna, in between Fleetwood Mac tours and recording sessions. Released in 1981, the album was an immediate hit, topping the charts and going on to sell over four million copies.

The album veers through several genres, from haunting piano ballads like the title track and the serpentine “Kind of Woman”, to the rock edge of “Outside the Rain”, to the country charms of “After the Glitter Fades”. Enlisting members of the Heartbreakers and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Stevie was able to record top-notch performances. She skillfully worked with these distinctive musicians while maintaining her own unique sound.

Despite her ethereal looks, Stevie was not afraid to sound earthy. Her raspy voice, with its velvety undertones, could make any lyric sound world-weary and tough. On the hit duet “Leather and Lace”, with Don Henley, she scolds, “I have my own life, and I am stronger than you know.” On the album’s other hit duet, “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”, she more than holds her own with Tom Petty, and eventually tells him, “You need someone looking after you.”

stevieliveStevie was also in a unique position to examine her rock star reputation. On “After the Glitter Fades”, she reflects, “I never thought I’d make it here in Hollywood; I never thought I’d ever want to stay/What I seem to touch these days has turned to gold, what I seem to want, you know I find a way”. After discussing fading dreams and one night stands, she concludes, “Even though the living is sometimes laced with lies, it’s alright/The feeling remains even after the glitter fades.”

Perhaps the most enduring song from Bella Donna is the blistering “Edge of Seventeen”, a song Stevie wrote after hearing about the murder of John Lennon. “And so, with the slow graceful flow of age/I went forth with an age-old desire to please/On the edge of seventeen”, she sings, before dissolving into a guttural growl. In concert, this song became the centerpiece of the show. The clip below is from the final night of Stevie’s solo shows; her tears at the song’s conclusion are due to the end of the freedom of her own tour, since the next day she was due to rejoin Fleetwood Mac to begin recording their next album. Happily, Stevie was able to revisit her solo career, as she continues to release solo albums and tour. Bella Donna remains the most perfect encapsulation of her vision.