What happened to Bobbie Gentry? Country singer who vanished from public life over 40 years ago

27 July 2020, 17:30 | Updated: 27 July 2020, 17:38

Bobbie Gentry
Bobbie Gentry. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

Bobbie Gentry was one of the biggest music stars of the late 1960s, thanks to her massive international number one single 'Ode to Billie Joe'.

Her brand of super-cool country-folk music came just at the right time, and she soon had her own TV variety series, and even recorded a equal-billing duet album with Glen Campbell.

She was one of the first female artists to compose and produce her own material, and she has inspired countless singers ever since from Taylor Swift to Sheryl Crow.

But by the 1980s, she had all but vanished from the public eye. For the past 40+ years, little is known about the reclusive star. Here is what people know so far:

  1. Who is Bobbie Gentry?

    Ode to Billie Joe - Bobbie Gentry (BBC Live 1968)

    Bobbie Gentry is a retired American singer-songwriter. She found fame in 1967 with her song 'Ode to Billie Joe'.

    The song spent four weeks at number one in the US, and won several Grammy Awards. It tells the story of Mississippi family's reaction to the news of the death of Billie Joe McAllister, a local boy to whom the daughter (and narrator) is connected.

    Gentry had several other hits, including 'I'll Never Fall in Love Again' (a UK number one), 'Fancy' and her Glen Campbell duets 'Little Green Apples' and 'All I Have to Do is Dream'.

    Born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1942 in Mississippi, she became a TV star in the UK in 1968, after she was asked to host a variety show on BBC Two, making her the first female songwriter to host such a series.

    Bobbie Gentry in 1969
    Bobbie Gentry in 1969. Picture: Getty

    In 1971, she released her final studio album, Patchwork. On the album's closing track, 'Lookin' In', Gentry appears to be singing about herself: "I'm packing up and checking out. I just can't bring myself to compromise." Fans have pondered whether this was Gentry explaining her decision to leave her recording career behind for Las Vegas.

    In 1976, a film titled Ode to Billie Joe, based on her song, was released. She also recorded an album a year later, but the project was shelved.

    She was married three times: to casino businessman Bill Harrah for a year in 1969 when he was 58 and she was 27.

    Gentry then married Thomas R Toutant in 1976 until 1978. That same year, she married singer and comedian Jim Stafford, with whom she had a son, Tyler Gentry Stafford. They divorced in 1980.

    Bobbie Gentry and Jim Stafford in 1981
    Bobbie Gentry and Jim Stafford in 1981. Picture: Getty
  2. When was she last seen in public?

    Her final few appearances were:

    She appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on Christmas Day 1978.

    She attended the Best of Vegas Awards on March 21, 1980.

    In 1981, Gentry was one of many guests taking part in An All-Star Salute to Mother's Day. During the TV special, she performed 'Mama, a Rainbow' from the musical Minnie's Boys for her mother who was seated in the audience. This was Gentry's final public performance.

    Bobbie Gentry - Mama, a Rainbow (An All-Star Salute to Mother’s Day) Final TV Performace

    Her final public appearance was when she attended the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982, aged 40.

  3. Where is she now?

    Bobbie Gentry
    Bobbie Gentry. Picture: Getty

    Since then, Bobbie Gentry has not recorded music, performed live or been interviewed.

    It wasn't until 2016 that any concrete news about Gentry was discovered, when an investigation by The Washington Post found that she was living in a gated community near Memphis, Tennessee.

    She is thought to be living about two hours from the site of the Tallahatchie Bridge in the song that made her famous, in a house that cost around $1.5 million.

    Only some of her neighbours and real estate agents apparently know who she is, having cut ties with many of her friends and family decades before.