More than 50 years down the line, it’s difficult to communicate to folks who weren’t around in 1967 just how BIG Bobbie Gentry’s hypnotic breakthrough hit, “Ode to Billie Joe,” was at the time. You couldn’t turn on the AM radio without hearing the mesmerizing, repeating guitar riff; the lazy, swooping strings; and Gentry’s drawled story-song about Billie Joe McAllister. A native of Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Gentry was on just about every TV variety show that existed at the time—always singing and playing live—and newspaper and magazine articles were full of speculation about the mystery of what Billie Joe had thrown of the Tallahatchee Bridge and why he later jumped to his death from that same bridge. It’s a really evocative song, filled with vivid Southern imagery and characters, and though the guitar part (she often played a small Martin) is rudimentary, it adds so much to the overall narrative flow of the tune. (Indeed, the original recorded version featured only Gentry and the guitar and lasted close to seven minutes, including some additional verses.)

The song was nominated for w whopping eight Grammy Awards in 1968, and it won three for Gentry and one for Jimmy Haskell’s wonderful string arrangement.  —Blair Jackson



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