If you know the song “Fancy,” you probably do so thanks to Reba McEntire. Her version of the song was a Top Ten country hit back in 1991. But the song actually originates with another powerful, influential female country singer with an incredible voice, Bobbie Gentry, who happens to be celebrating her 68th birthday this week.
A native of Mississippi, Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1944. Though she hit the country charts around the same time as icons like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, she never had the same career longevity.
However, that’s not the case with her songs, as she did wrote and recorded two in particular that are still some of the most iconic of the late 1960s–“Fancy” and “Ode to Billie Joe.”
It’s “Billie Joe” that truly turned Bobbie’s career, and her life, around. The song centers around the suicide of Billie Joe McAllister, who, as the song recounts, “jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” (a real bridge, by the way) after a mysterious encounter with the protagonist of the song–presumably his girlfriend. What drove him to jump, and what they threw of the bridge together before the jump, was the subject of intense speculation–and to her credit, Gentry has never revealed the details.
The lyrics unfold as conversation around a dinner table, as the girl’s family talks casually about the tragic event (“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please”).
All told a powerful song that feels like a scene in a short story, or maybe a film–and, in fact, it was turned into TV movie in the 1970s, starring teen heartthrob Robby Benson.
It wasn’t just the writing that stood out, though. Gentry’s voice had a soft, seductive, husky character (more Dusty Springfield than Patsy Cline) that wrapped itself around the words like toffee on a stick. (Check out this haunting performance of the song.)
The song hit Number One on the pop charts in 1967 (spending a month there), went on to win her three GRAMMYs, and made Bobbie Gentry a household name.
How does someone top a song, and a success, like that? They don’t. Nonetheless, Gentry did record quite a bit more–including duets with Glen Campbell–and her biggest followup success was with “Fancy.” Released in 1969, it tells of a girl who rises above her “plain white trash” background to “charm” the rich and powerful (the One Percent) and live the good life. The word “prostitution” is never used in the lyrics, but by song’s end it’s clear that’s what is going on here–and at a dubiously young age, too (“Lord forgive me for what I do,” the girl’s mother cries). It’s a powerful song, and Gentry’s voice belts it beautifully.
Reba recognized the powerful nature of the song, too. She took it to the Top Ten in 1991 (and even sang it on a Fritos commercial).
Gentry recorded plenty more songs, and even briefly had her own TV show. But whether it was the weight of fame or some other personal reason, by the 1980s, Gentry had retreated entirely from the spotlight. In fact, just this year, a BBC Radio 2 documentary was released titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? Apparently, the mystery of “whatever happened” to one of the greatest singer/songwriters of her time remains unsolved.
Happy birthday, Bobbie, wherever you are.
– Kurt Wolff, CBS Local