In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Something funny happened at the end of last year: A New Yorker short story went viral. Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” is a fictional story about a college student who has an awkward, coercive sexual encounter with an older townie and then ghosts him. Nothing that happens in the story is rape or assault, exactly. Instead, the story explores the gray area, the points where pressure distorts consent and where people regret what they’re doing in the moment they’re doing it. I thought it was great. Opinions varied.
For a week or two, “Cat Person” was a hot topic online. Some people thought it was a major literary arrival. Some people thought that nothing happened in the story, or that the protagonist hadn’t been drawn clearly enough. There were even plenty of assholes who took the position that the guy in the story had done nothing wrong, that the woman was the one who turned everything bad and who should’ve known better. And it was vaguely surreal to see this much conversation surrounding a literary work. “Cat Person” had impacted the world — or, at least, the tiny sliver of it that I can see from my Twitter feed. That kind of thing is not supposed to happen anymore. We’re supposed to have too many distractions. But a well-told story can still captivate a whole lot of people.
Something like that happened in the late summer of 1967, on a much grander scale. Bobbie Gentry’s debut single “Ode To Billie Joe” is a rare thing: a story-song where the story matters at least as much as the song. In Gentry’s song, a Mississippi family sits around a dinner table discussing the suicide of some kid they knew. Details come out slowly and deliberately, shaded with ambiguity. The unnamed girl telling the story has some connection to Billie Joe McAllister, the boy who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. But she never comments on it, and the other people in her family are too into their own bullshit to notice that she’s devastated: “Child, what’s happened to your appetite? I’ve been cooking all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
Eventually, a key plot point emerges: The town preacher has seen the narrator and Billie Joe throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge. We never find out what they threw. That was the big question when the song came out: What did they throw off the bridge? Theories abounded. Maybe they were just flowers, like what the narrator throws a year after Billie Joe’s death. Maybe a wedding ring. Maybe a draft card. Maybe drugs. Maybe a baby. Gentry never said.
Gentry’s point was that it didn’t matter. The striking thing about “Ode To Billie Joe” isn’t the way it leaves that question open. It’s in the way the people in the song treat each other. Even in a tight-knit rural family, there’s no empathy. The brother, who seems like he was friends with Billie Joe, takes a minute to wonder at his peer’s suicide, but he quickly shrugs it off and keeps eating. The parents dismiss it. Nobody notices the way this girl’s whole world is being torn apart in front of them, and she never admits it. Later in the song, she’s just as cold. Her father has died, something she mentions almost as an aside. Her mother “doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.” And yet she’s too consumed with her own depression to help — too busy throwing flowers off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Gentry, like the the characters in her song, had grown up in boondock-ass Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in a house without electricity. But as a teenager, she’d moved to Palm Springs with her mother. She’d studied at UCLA and held jobs on the periphery of the entertainment industry, working as a nightclub performer or as a model. But she was also writing songs. In 1967, when she was 25, she recorded a demo of her song “Mississippi Delta.” She needed a B-side to go with it, so she wrote “Ode To Billie Joe.”
Initially, “Ode To Billie Joe” was seven minutes long. She’d recorded it solo acoustic. But she was embarrassed at how it sounded, so she asked Jimmie Haskell, the guy who would later write the Hollywood Squares theme music, to arrange strings for it. Haskell loved the song, and he had the idea of scoring the song the way you’d score a movie. So the strings set the scene. In a way, they’re the most expressive thing about the song. I love the way, for instance, they plunge downward when Gentry sings about dropping flowers off of the bridge.
That demo, cut down to a still-long-for-radio four minutes, is “Ode To Billie Joe.” It’s what came out. (Gentry was the de facto producer, though she was never credited.) The people at Capitol somehow recognized “Ode To Billie Joe” as a hit. It was immediately enormous. Bob Dylan wrote an answer song. Ella Fitzgerald and Tammy Wynette and any number of jazz musicians covered it. So many people went to Chickasaw County and jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, which was only 20 feet of the ground, that local police started fining people for doing it. Nine years after the song came out, Warner Bros. turned “Ode To Billie Joe” into a movie, which offered a singularly unsatisfying answer to the question of what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the bridge. (In the movie, it’s the narrator’s childhood rag doll, and Billie Joe killed himself because he’d had a gay encounter.)
The song resonated because of its story, but it also resonated because it’s a really good song. As a singer, the Gentry of “Billie Joe” is chilly and controlled, but that’s a literary device; she’s mirroring the sort of traumatized in-shock blankness that her narrator radiated. But her voice is warm and conversational, and it draws you in. On her guitar, she plays a lulling blues riff, and Haskell’s strings color in the empty spaces around her voice. The song isn’t soul or country or jazz, but it’s also all of those things. It’s a chameleon. It makes sense anywhere.
Gentry never had another massive, boundary-crushing hit like “Ode To Billie Joe,” though she kept trying for a while. (Her biggest non-Billie Joe hit was the 1969 Glen Campbell duet “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” which peaked at #27.) Gentry was also one of the original owners of the Phoenix Suns, buying into the team for $50,000 in 1967 and selling her share 20 years later. She performed in Vegas for a while, building her own glitzy and larger-than-life stage show. She hosted short-lived variety shows in both the UK and the US. But celebrity life didn’t work for her. And so she walked away. (There’s a great episode of the fascinating country-music-history podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones about Gentry’s life and about “Ode To Billie Joe”; I can’t recommend it enough.)
Gentry never released another album after 1971, and she never played live again after 1983. She utterly vanished from public life, giving no interviews and making no public appearances. Nobody knew what happened to her. Two years ago, a Washington Post reporter wrote that she was living in a gated community in the Memphis suburbs and that her neighbors had no idea who she was. Her total and complete disappearing act is almost as impressive an achievement as “Ode To Billie Joe.”
BONUS BEATS: In 1967, the jazz trumpeter Lou Donaldson released his cover of “Ode To Billy Joe.” Donaldson’s cover opens with what would become a famous and frequently sampled drum break. Here’s Donaldson’s cover:
And here are a few of the many, many songs that used that drum break:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Reflections” peaked at #2, spending two weeks stuck behind “Ode To Billie Joe.” It would’ve been a 10. Here it is: