Tuesday, June 7, 2016

ODE TO BILLIE JOE ... The Mystery ... And The Controversy ... Continues

It seems like each new posting regarding this record just raises more questions ...    

Hey Kent,  
There has been a lot of coverage of the anniversary of Bobbie Gentry's hit, "Ode to Billie Joe". We all remember when it came out, and how it ended up being the record of the year. Her guitar of choice was a tiny 6-string parlor guitar, which I thought sounded more like a baritone ukulele, when I first heard the song on the radio. I really enjoyed her duets with Glen Campbell, and wished they would have kept the albums coming. I think we were all disappointed when the pull-it-out-of-your-ass movie, starring Robby Benson, was made of the song. It seemed to have had a desperate conclusion. I remember seeing director, Max Baer, Jr. (aka Jethro Bodine) sitting in a chair with Bobbie, looking so cool (sarcastic), and the two, wearing their large sunglasses on the set. If the original recording of the song was over seven minutes long, were there any additional lyrics? Were there more guitar riffs? Was it slower in tempo? What was edited out? I can't find any of this online. It would be so nice if she would do an interview at this time. I understand the privacy factor, but her fans would love to hear how she's doing.  
- John LaPuzza   

I'd never heard anything about a seven minute version before ... or this track being anything other than the intended A-Side ... according to one reader, it sounds like some of this speculation may be much more fiction than fact ... read on.  (kk)  

>>>"Ode To Billie Joe" was intended to be the B side of "Mississippi Delta," a Bobby Gentry song no one heard unless they flipped over their single of "Ode to Billie Joe" or bought Bobbie's debut album. Ms. Gentry got signed to Capitol on the strength of her demo version of "Mississippi Delta," which she offered to them as a composer, not a singer.  Capitol A&R Director Kelly Gordon, though, liked her vocal performance on the demo so much that he insisted on signing her as a vocalist as well.  He then told Bobbie to come with enough other tunes to flesh out a full LP.  While leafing through her notebook of song ideas, Bobbie came cross the phrase "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge."  She then worked through the night to finish the tune which, when cut in the Capitol studios on July 10, 1967 with only Bobbie's guitar as accompaniment, ran over seven minutes. Jimmy Haskell later added strings (a couple cellos and six violins).  When the track was chosen as the B side of "Mississippi Delta," Capitol cut its running time down to 4:13.   Still believing it was too long and too slow to gain any airplay, the label then put all their marketing muscle behind "Mississippi Delta."  Among the radio programmers who listened to both sides of Bobbie's 45 and chose the "Ode To Billie Joe" side was Bill Drake, whose own Southern upbringing paralleled Bobbie's. They met; he told me he found her charming and the two even dated for a while as Bill got the entire RKO General radio chain to pick up on Ms. Gentry's record.  The result: a coast-to-coast #1 hit for four weeks that earned three Grammy Awards.   (Gary Theroux)   

I'd love to know where myths like this originate.  
There is absolutely nothing in the Capitol logs to substantiate the idea that Ode To Billie Joe started out as a B side, or even as a seven minute long demo recording.   
Yes, Mississippi Delta was recorded first. However when it came time to issue a single, Capitol knew which side would be the hit, and promoted it accordingly (for the record, neither side of the promo 45 shows a plug stamp on it).  
The idea that the original demo ran over seven minutes long is a long held myth that has no merit behind it. A vault search over twenty years back turned up no such longer version, nor any version with alleged missing verses (as the story I've heard goes, the alleged seven minute version contained a verse about what was thrown off the bridge, something Bobbie has stated in interviews that even she doesn't know what was thrown off the bridge -- and she would know, if there was a seven minute version with a missing verse).
Regarding Capitol putting all of their marketing muscle behind Mississippi Delta ... No. That side did chart regionally, but only on a couple of stations, several weeks after many other stations jumped on Ode To Billie Joe.  
Billboard magazine shows a very distinct push behind Ode, and none behind Mississippi. In fact, the August 19, 1967, issue of Billboard states the single was issued three weeks earlier which, if true, still comes two weeks after Ode began getting airplay (and Mississippi only began to get airplay at the time they said the single was released).  
I think, like many other tales told over time, the truth gets stretched a bit. I also have no problem believing Bobbie wanted to be a performer as well, as she had been performing for some time, with her debut disc being a duet 45 with Jody Reynolds. 
One other thing I'd like to add ... 
If Bobbie recorded the song on July 10, 1967, how were three stations in the country (per ARSA) making Ode To Billie Joe a pick hit on or before July 10th? 
I don't know how much time elapsed between the time Bobbie Gentry finished writing the song and when she actually went into the studio to record it, but copyright registrations show that the work was first copyrighted as an unpublished work on June 27, 1967 (as a two page publication), and again as a published work on August 16, 1967 (finally as a three page publication). Incidentally, June 27th was also when Mississippi Delta was first published, as an unpublished work as well (of just one page). It would be my guess that both tracks were demoed around that time, and not two weeks later. If Ode was really seven minutes in length, surely there would've been a bigger lead sheet copyrighted prior to the release of the disc and second copyright for the song. 
As far as I can tell, it's just another myth ... and the only person who knows the absolute truth refuses to ever talk about it. A real shame, but that's her choice. 
Tom Diehl   

So there you have it, right???

Then again, maybe not.  

I decided to do a little more research of my own.    

In Fred Bronson's book "The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits" (first published in 1997) he quotes Bobbie Gentry thusly ...   

Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge ... flowers, a ring, even a baby.  Those who wondered about such matters missed the point of the song.  The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty, but everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of people expressed in the song ... and what was thrown off the bridge really isn't that important.
Anyone who hears the song can think anything they want ... but the real MESSAGE of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide.  They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe's girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family!
-- Bobbie Gentry

I don't know if Gentry has talked much about it since, preferring to live her life in private seclusion instead of reliving that one very special, high-profile moment of her life, no matter how significant it may have been in the lives of so many others around her affected by her poignant lyric.  (One thing I DO know for sure is that Jimmy Pilster ... JC Hooke of The Cryan' Shames ... HATES this song because it knocked their hit, "It Could Be We're In Love" out of the #1 position here in Chicago after a four week run at the top of both the WLS and the WCFL charts!)

According to Bronson's book, after appearing with a vocal and dance group in Las Vegas, for whom she wrote all of their material, Bobbie decided to seek out a publisher for her songs.  Bronson writes:

"She made a demo record of 'Mississippi Delta' and took it to publisher Larry Shayne, who played it for Kelly Gordon at Capitol Records.  To Bobbie's surprise, Capitol wanted her as an artist as well as a songwriter.

"'Ode To Billie Joe' was recorded on July 10, 1967, in Studio C in the Capitol Records Tower on Vine Street in Hollywood.  It took less than an hour to record the track, with Bobbie accompanying herself on the guitar.  Later, Gordon asked arranger Jimmie Haskell to add violins and cellos.  The result was a song that ran more than seven minutes long.  Capitol shortened the track and put it on the flip side of 'Mississippi Delta'."

Lending more credence to this version of the story, Gentry said ...

Those involved felt it had a number of drawbacks.  They said it was too long, that it couldn't be categorized and aimed at a specific audience, that I was a female vocalist and soloist and this was the day of group singers.
-- Bobbie Gentry

Bronson goes on to say ... 

"Despite Capitol's relegation of 'Ode To Billie Joe' to the B-Side, radio discovered it and disc jockeys around the country started playing it.  It debuted on The Hot 100 on August 5, 1967, and was number one three weeks later."
The record charted in many other countries and became an international hit.  Bobbie Gentry would also win three Grammy Awards that year for her hit record.  (Jimmie Haskell also won an award for his eerie arrangement.)  

The "mystery" of what was thrown off the bridge was never revealed by Gentry who, as stated above, feels that if THAT was the only matter you were focused on, you missed the whole point of the song.  (The liner notes to the "Bobbie Gentry's Greatest Hits" CD echoes Bronson's findings virtually to the letter.  My guess is that Gary Theroux would cite his source of information as one of these two published reports.)

In this photograph from the November 10, 1967 issue of Life Magazine, 
Bobbie Gentry strolls across the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi.
The bridge collapsed in June 1972.

In the movie made nearly ten years later (starring, if I recall correctly, a "full frontal" Robby Benson along with  Glynnis O'Connor"), Billie Joe threw his girlfriend's rag doll over the bridge and then committed suicide the next day, confused about his sexual identity and preferences.  The movie tanked ... and most fans of the song preferred to consider Bobbie's lyrical mystery "unsolved" rather than accept this "cop out" explanation(Reportedly, while making the film, Gentry confessed to Herman Raucher, who had written the screenplay and the book it was based on, that she had absolutely no idea what was thrown off the bridge ... it was never meant to be the significant focal point of the song so she never really gave it any thought.  According to Bobbie, the most common guesses were flowers, an engagement ring, an aborted baby, Billie Joe's draft card, drugs, and/or all of the above.  As such, we will never know the answer ... because there IS no answer.  Therefore, just go with whatever works best for you.)  Whatever it was, however, was significant enough to get Billie Joe McAllister to jump off The Tallahatchie Bridge the day after.

All I know for sure is that it certainly captured the attention of the entire nation during its Summer Of Love chart run.  25 years later Richard Marx would try a similar "musical murder mystery" tactic with his Top Ten Hit "Hazard", another one of my all time favorites. 

The speculation around the mystery is not unlike that which would besiege Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" a few years later.  The biggest difference, of course, is that Carly knows EXACTLY who she wrote the song about.  I believe Bobbie, on the other hand, never expected the focus to be on that one line and, as such, never really gave it a second thought.  She felt the REAL meaning of the song came in the way the family discussed this tragedy around passing the biscuits and the black eyed peas ... and Mama making sure that everyone remembered to wipe their feet before sitting down at the dinner table.  As such, it would appear the REAL message of the song was lost on most of us.

Be sure to check out the postings on Carl Wiser's SONGFACTS page, too.