HOUSTON – September 30 came and went this year and, well, like the song goes, it was just “another sleepy, dusty Delta day.”
But in 1967 more than 2,000 people jammed the Square in downtown Houston to catch a glimpse of country music star Bobbie Gentry as the community honored the Chickasaw County native with “Bobbie Gentry Day.”
“Everybody was there and downtown was packed,” said Robin Mathis, manager of WCPC radio. “We planned it for months.
“We had local officials and handed her the key to the city and proclamations because we were so proud of her,” said Mathis. “And then she sang a song.”
Forty-six years later, Mathis didn’t remember that song, but the world will never forget Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” that rocketed to the top of the country and pop music charts in the summer of 1967.
“She was so famous,” said Mathis, “and she was from Chickasaw County.”
Mathis remembers all the stores on the Square selling Gentry’s albums and the tall, raven-haired beauty sitting at a table that day and signing autographs.
Born Roberta Lee Streeter, Gentry spent the week at her grandparent’s home in Woodland and used the occasion to clear up some questions raised by the haunting lyrics of the song that talks about a boy and girl and the Tallahatchie River Bridge.
The Houston Times Post reported she said Choctaw Ridge is an actual place near Greenwood and there really is a Tallahatchie River Bridge. Gentry has never explained what was thrown off the bridge by Billie Joe before he jumped off himself.
“It is a symbol,” was all she said.
Her acoustic guitar on the melancholy and mysterious tune still captures the imagination of the world.
“For years we had people come from all over the country and from as far away as Europe and Australia to see where she grew up,” said Mathis. “People would send them to the radio station and we would pull out our pictures and tell them what we knew about here.”
Mathis said he never really got to know Bobbie Gentry until she became famous.
“We all knew her family and we all knew more about them than we did Bobbie,” Mathis said. “She was just a pretty little girl who grew up on the Streeter farm south of town. The house where she grew up is still standing.”
Gentry moved to California as a teenager. She was “discovered” singing backup-vocals in a Los Angeles night club.
In 1968, Gentry received multiple Grammy nominations, including Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Female Vocal Performance, New Artist, Best Contemporary Single, Best Contemporary Album and Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance.
In her brief career, she had 11 singles that made it to the charts, including “Fancy,” which she wrote in 1969. It was recorded in 1991 by Reba McEntire.
Clearly, her Mississippi roots played a large part in Gentry’s writing, with songs like “Chickasaw County Child,” “Delta Man,” “Mississippi Delta” and “Okolona River Bottom Band,” a song that made it into the Top 60 on Billboard charts.
She recorded 19 albums, which include several greatest hits collections and an album of duets with Glen Campbell.
Mathis said he was always pleased with the way Gentry handled her fame.
“She always came back to family reunions and to visit the Streeters,” said Mathis. “Chickasaw County always seemed to be home to her.”
That was one of the few quotes attributed to Gentry in the press that day in 1967.
“It’s great to be home,” is all she simply said.