To celebrate the upcoming release of our 102nd 33 1/3 on Ode to Billie Joe by Tara Murtha, we bring you the second installment of Bobbie Gentry week.
“If you’re a performer who likes to do a lot of things, [television is] the best field for you,” Gentry said to New York Times reporter Judy Klemesrud. “You can get involved with everything—from writing to set design to choreography.”
Bobbie Gentry was a performer who liked to do lots of things. She sang, of course; wrote lyrics hailed as sterling examples of Southern Gothic literature; composed her own haunting melodies; played piano, guitar, vibes, and banjo; often choreographed her own routines; danced alongside professionally trained artists; designed her own costumes and personal wardrobe; wrote scripts and screenplays; ran her own production company; and was a talented painter. Though not credited, it is assumed that she painted the portraits used for the covers of her albums Fancy and Patchwork.
Gentry liked television because, she said, everything you do could be an extension of something else. While her Southern charm & easy-going beauty made her a popular guest on network variety shows, she wanted her own show.
Meanwhile, she was invited to perform on Stanley Dorfman’s In Concert series on the BBC, a show that featured singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. Gentry’s performance and on-screen charisma impressed the head of the BBC so much that she was offered her own show produced by Dorfman.
Together, Dorfman and Gentry created six half-hour episodes every year for three years, for a total of 18 shows spanning 1968 to 1971. To work on the show while maintaining pace at Capitol Records and American appearances, Gentry spent nine weeks a year in London.
Despite the popularity of the BBC show, Gentry didn’t get a shot at her own television show in the States until 1974, when CBS executives requested she record four pilot episodes as they scrambled to replace The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.
“I had almost given up on the idea of my own show,” Gentry said at the time.
The “Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour” pilots competed against “Tony Orlando & Dawn,” “The Hudson Brothers” and the return of “Your Hit Parade.”
It didn’t get picked up, and reviewers noted that the show sanitized Gentry’s creativity. While the four “Happiness Hour” episodes pop up on eBay now and then, Gentry fans scour YouTube for snippets of her BBC show.
I recently talked with producer and director Stanley Dorfman about working with Bobbie Gentry and the lost BBC tapes. This is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
I doing a show called In Concert, a show about singer-songwriters. She came out to do that as a songwriter. We did the show and then Bill Cotton, who was the head of BBC, said, “Oh my god we’ve got to get her back! Let’s do a series.” So that’s what we did.
Tell me a bit about Gentry’s BBC show. Were there themes?
There weren’t themes to the show as much as they tended to be geared around a guest. If we had Glen Campbell, it would be … the sort of songs you could do with Glen. We had a group of dancers called Pan’s People, the dancers who were on Top of the Pops.
What do you recall of your initial meetings with Gentry?
We found we have very, very similar tastes in music and pretty much everything. After a few episodes, she was pretty much co-directing the show because she had such great ideas. [But] the BBC wouldn’t have it, wouldn’t have an artist credited as a director or producer, so the credit went to me as producer and director. But she definitely contributed as much as I did creatively to the show. She was just full of ideas.
We used to sit down and plan a show together. Normally, how you plan a show, is you get the star to come in and you say what you’re going to do. This wasn’t the case. I was very much planning with her, what guests to get, all those things as well were definitely a joint decision.
Do you remember your first impression of Bobbie?
I had seen pictures of this gorgeous woman. I met her first in the offices of the record company. She was just so bubbly and so completely just available to do anything, to go right into it and work. She was just a joy.
How was her show different from what else was on TV at the time?
It was mainly her songs. Usually in variety shows… it had the word variety… I did this series with Dusty Springfield, and she wasn’t a composer so all the songs were songs of other people… but [Bobbie’s] was specifically her music and her type of music. [And the Gentry shows] were visually very different, as much as she was in everything, you know.
You produced six episodes a year, for three years. Did the show change much in that time?
The only thing that changed is the music, really.
We had a scriptwriter, and we dumped him after the first series because [Bobbie] was better at doing her own licks and script, so she did that as well. So she did the costumes and the script and the songs, and worked closely with the music director on arrangements–so she really was very, very visible in the show. As we got on, she got more and more.
What was the audience reaction?
It was very popular, which is why she was brought back another two years … the rating system was not by numbers [of people] watching the show. This was on BBC2, which did not have a lot of years at the time, and the ratings were called “appreciation ratings.” It was based on people writing in saying what they thought of the show.
That’s so foreign to anything I can imagine here. She released her last big record for Capitol the same year as the last year of the BBC show. Had she expressed not wanting to make more records, that she wanted to focus on her stage act?
I thought she was just an incredible songwriter that I did expect a lot more great songs to come out from her. I came to America in 1974. I did go and see her show, and spend some time with her in Vegas, and it was a pretty incredible show. She obviously loved, loved performing on stage. But it’s disappointing… that she didn’t continue writing songs. She’s one of the great women songwriters, there’s no question about it.
From the outside, sifting through this stuff, and watching performances, it’s interesting because in her early press she always said that though she loved performing, she’d only do it so far as it didn’t take time away from writing and composing. But she seemed to love performing so much, so it’s confusing about which thing she wanted to do. She talked a lot about television. Why do you think the BBC was willing to give her a show, and it took another 5 or 6 years for American executives to do the same?
Mostly because BBC, and specifically BBC2 was not as interested in ratings as they are here, so you know. I had a good mini series with artists I made concerts with as well because of the strong reaction of the public saying, ‘we want to see more of this artist.’ I think it was the strength of the BBC series that got CBS to decide to do [“The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour.”]
Did you get to see any of the CBS shows?
I did, I came here in 1974 and saw the series.
As a producer, what did you think of it? Of course, it didn’t get picked up.
I think it [failed] because she wasn’t given enough input into it.
Fans hope the BBC shows get restored and released on DVD. But I read that some of the episodes are lost or destroyed.
The problem is… at that time, it was recorded on two-inch tape, which are very long, very huge tapes, so they couldn’t store them all. They used to wipe a lot of them and re-use them, and I have absolutely no idea if they kept these tapes. It’s a big shame. Obviously, some exist because there have been one or two on YouTube. I don’t know how they got on there other than maybe some editor who copied them at night, and kept them.
So you stayed in touch with Bobbie through the 1970s?
Yes, I saw a lot of her.
When did you fall out of touch? When did you lose track of what she was up to?
When she left California.
The last record I was able to find of her schedule was a canceled show in Las Vegas in 1983. And then that was it.
Has she been performing at all?
Not that I was able to find. She was so creative, and was also, as you know, painting and singing and choreographing. She strikes me as hilarious, too, even though she’s not known as a comedy person, she seems like a really funny person. I find it hard to believe that even though she rejected the spotlight that she just stopped creating things, making art.
I wonder if one day there will just suddenly be an autobiography, or a new record. Or maybe a ton of records.
She absolutely loved performing. She loved the limelight. She wasn’t withdrawn at all. To give that all up, I don’t know why she would even want to do that. She really enjoyed that.
No one has a definitive answer. Going through everything, I saw that she was in the tabloids in a way she didn’t want to be a bit in the 1970s, but that happens… So one of the things I write about is in the 1970s, after she left Capitol, she gave an interview where she said she produced Ode to Billie Joe, the record, but didn’t get credit. Did she ever talk with you about that?
Yes…that she put it all together, but that, Kelly Gordon, was that the producer? That the credit was given to him. And that’s what she was really worried about with our show, that she wouldn’t be given credit for all the input. So I publicized that she did, I told everybody that I talked to that she was responsible for the creation of a lot, as much as I was, because we weren’t able to give her legal credit.
Some of it seems sexist, like old-fashioned sexism. Do you recall her being frustrated with the industry being sexist?
What did she say along those lines?
I don’t remember exactly, but I remember her being not pleased with the situation.
In this clip, Gentry performs “Morning Glory, then Donovan sings “Young but Growing,” and then Gentry and Donovan duet on “There’s a Mountain.”
This next clip picks up where the last one left off. Here, Donovan and Gentry perform a hot and humid version of “Bugs.”
If you watched the clips above, pick up at 16:25 to hear the audio for the rest of the show. After “Bugs,” Donovan sings “A Sunny Day.” Gentry sings “Sunday Best” and “Hurry, Tuesday Child,” and closes out with “Chickasaw County Child.”
The second half of this clip features audio of an episode from the 1969 series. Gentry opens up with “Mississippi Delta,” “Sweete Peony” and “Recollection” before introducing guest James Taylor “He’s from the United States,” Gentry notes, [James Taylor is] the most beautiful album I’ve ever heard.” Taylor performs a brisk version of “Something in the Way She Moves,” and then “Knocking ‘round the Zoo.” Gentry duets with Taylor on “Something’s Wrong.”
– Tara Murtha
Two book release parties for Ode to Billie Joe are going down Friday, December 5. Get tickets for the evening show at Underground Arts here, RSVP for the WXPN Free at Noon here, or listen online Friday at noon here.