You know a good way to sell 3 million copies of a song? Put a mystery into it, simply smile when asked about it, reveal nothing, and leave everything open to the listener’s interpretation. Boom. There’s gold in them thar secrets.
Bobbie Gentry was born in a tiny town in Mississippi, not too far from the Tallahatchie Bridge of which she would later sing about, but moved to Los Angeles as a teen, just as the city was about to become the epicenter of an earthquake of cool. She later attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music while honing her guitar playing and songwriting chops, in classes during the day, and in nightclubs during the evenings.
Gentry recorded some demos with only her voice and guitar, and one of these, “Mississippi Delta,” made its way to the stereo of a Capitol Records producer. He liked what he heard and decided the song could be a single. But they needed a B-side. Could Gentry send something else for the flip? Well, sure. She had a Southern Gothic tale that might work.
Capitol liked “Ode To Billie Joe” even more. After editing out a few verses and overdubbing an atmospheric string arrangement onto her solo recording, it went out as the A-side of Bobbie Gentry’s debut single in the summer of 1967, quickly reaching #1. The sparse arrangement, the soon-to-be award-winning strings, and Gentry’s phenomenal vocal helped “Ode To Billie Joe” stand out on the radio and pushed it up the charts, but the unanswered questions in the lyrics turned the song into an enduring classic.
Why exactly did Billie Joe jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge? And what, everyone wanted to know, what did he and a girl who looked like the narrator throw off of that bridge?! Gentry said that people asked her that question all the time, but she always played coy. Might it have been a ring? Perhaps. Might it have been a draft card? Maybe. Might it have been a macaroni art picture in the shape of a flower? Probably not. But we’ll never know for sure.