Ode to Billie Joe” is haunting story tune that never leaves your head. My hand instinctively hits the volume button when Bobbie Gentry’s distinctive guitar opens the song.  Just what did Billy Joe McAllister and the singer throw off the Tallahatchie bridge. And why did Billy Joe jump?

But while the song is always just a click away, the singer/songwriter has vanished. “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” It’s as stirring a question as “Who is John Galt?” She is now in her early 70s and is never seen or heard from. Someone said to me, “who cares, she’s just a one hit wonder?”

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 11.59.07 AMYeah, but what a hit. The mysterious southern gothic ballad knocked the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” from the top of the Billboard charts in 1967. An early handwritten draft of the song hangs in the special collections area at the University of Mississippi next to the works of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

Besides that, she wrote the song that put Reba McEntire on the map–”Fancy.”  Gentry and Glen Campbell combined for a number one album. She was a Vegas headliner for years. But after 1983, poof, she was gone.  We don’t see her at country music awards shows, Grammy shows (she won 3 for “Ode”), or anywhere.

Wikipedia reports Gentry turned 70 this past July 27th, but author Tara Murtha in her new new book “Ode to Billy Joe,” part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, says Capitol Records, back in the day, always made their stars younger. The sultry southern vixen was not so southern after all, and was actually born in 1942.

Murtha did her best to find the reclusive Gentry, or should we say Roberta Lee Streeter, but had no luck.  Jill Sobule wrote the  book’s forward, not to mention the song referenced above wondering as to Ms. Gentry’s whereabouts. Sobule sent Ms. Gentry an adoring note through friends at ASCAP (the people who send out royalty checks) who surely know where she lives.  There has been no response.

Even those who know Gentry and spoke with the author did it guardedly. Bobbie’s friends are still protecting her privacy. It’s a short book, less than 140 pages, footnotes and all. And it prompts more questions than it answers, about the song and especially the singer. But it’s like a good mystery novel, I couldn’t put it down.

Roberta Streeter was born and grew up in Chickasaw County Mississippi, raised by her grandparents Harvey Bell and Maude Streeter. Roberta’s parents, Ruby and Robert broke up when she was one. Ruby, described as “remarkably beautiful” could sing and play guitar and took off for California as soon as she could. Robert moved 50 miles away from the Streeter farm and when she was six his daughter came to live with him and a brutal stepmom. When she was 13 years old, Roberta moved to California to live with her mom.

After a couple years in Arcadia, Roberta, her mother, and stepfather moved to Palm Springs. Roberta became Bobbie, as well as, half of the Ruby and Bobbie Meyers mother-daughter singing act. During the day, “Bobbie spent her time modeling clothes for the local Saks, riding horses, playing golf, and studying music and art,” writes Murtha.  The little Mississippi girl who had played tea party in the dirt, living on a farm with no electricity, was now enjoying the lap of luxury.

After high school Bobbie headed to Los Angeles to pursue a music career: Not as a singer, but as a songwriter.  In fact, she didn’t have herself in mind to sing “Ode to Billy Joe” but Lou Rawls.

The author could not confirm the Gentry legend that she performed as a topless Las Vegas showgirl. However, Gentry did perform as a hulu girl with Johnny Ukulele. It was just after leaving high school that Bobbie took the name Gentry, getting the idea from a character in the movie “Ruby Gentry,” a story about a poor southern girl who wants to marry a rich man.

There were various people involved in the creation of “Ode to Billy Joe” and more than one, besides Gentry, claim to have either written it or produced it.  The first was Jim Ford, who according to Barry White (yes, the famous one), tried to sell the song for fifty dollars, but was turned down.

Pat Vegas, Bobby Paris, and Kelly Gordon are also part of the story.  On the original 45 Paris and Gordon are listed as producers, but by the time the album came out, Paris’s name was gone.  Paris took Gentry and Capitol Records to court over the rights and in the words of the author, “won the legal battle, but lost the war.” He was awarded $32,227.40, and left bitter for the rest of his life.

It’s likely that Gentry and Paris created the master recordings of “Ode” and “Mississippi Delta” together. Murtha writes, “Despite Capitol’s claim to the contrary, all evidence suggests ‘Ode to Billy Joe’ arrived at Capitol fully formed as well [along with ‘Mississippi Delta’].”

This explains why Paris filed suit and Gentry contends she produced the song.  The original “Ode” was seven minutes long and had to be cut to ever have a chance of radio play.  Kelly Gordon did the edits before anyone heard the long version. The edited version was still risky at 4 minutes, 15 seconds as DJs in those days didn’t play songs lasting more than 3 minutes.

The song was released on July 10th (1967) and hit number one on August 26th. The record company needed to have their new star promote the record and tapped an up-and-coming record executive to take Gentry on the road. The problem was Ken Mansfield hated “Ode.” The song was too long and it was just a girl and guitar.

But Capitol was behind it and off he went with Gentry, a woman he says changed his life.  When I arrived at page 81 of Murtha’s book I nearly dropped it. The author spoke with Mansfield on the phone and how the singer/songwriter changed his life was, “Gentry turned him on to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.”

Murtha writes,

While on tour Mansfield and Gentry were so into Rand (Ayn, not Jess) that Mansfield left messages at the hotel for her using the code name “John Galt,” hero of Atlas Shrugged. And Gentry went by “Dagny,” a reference to Dagny Taggart. Gentry did, after all, study philosophy at UCLA in the mid-1960s.

Mansfield would go on to head Apple Records in the U.S. for the Beatles, hang out with music’s biggest stars, and eventually find God and become an author and ordained minister (Ms. Rand would not be pleased).

In a review of Mansfield’s Between Wyomings John Cody writes “ Gentry’s ‘aw shucks’ hayseed image might appear in stark contrast, but she embraced the philosophy [objectivism] wholeheartedly.”

“Oh boy, she did – absolutely. Here was this supposedly sleepy-eyed southern belle who was a simple person and all that,” Mansfield recalled in his book, “and this woman was sharp. She was focused. She knew what was going to happen in her life; this lady was going to be wealthy and rich and famous. She ended up marrying Bill Harrah [owner of Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe], and it was a matter of her whole Ayn Rand Objectivist philosophy.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 11.50.29 AMGentry “basically converted me to objectivism on a flight between Chicago and St. Louis, or someplace like that,” says Mansfield who describes Objectivism as, “I am not my brother’s keeper, and what is good for me, is good. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else, just as long as I took care of myself; that was the main thing. So boy, I loved that.”

Gentry left Capitol Records and created a stage show in Las Vegas that by 1974 was so popular Murtha calls her the “undisputed queen of the Vegas Strip.” The author reminds us how big a star she was at the time. “The Smithsonian requested a pair of her jeans for their permanent collection.”

Like her hero Dagny Taggart, Gentry was a driven businesswoman. Murtha quotes Boston Globe  columnist Marian Christy who wrote in a profile of the then Vegas headliner, “Bobbie, a Baptist, is made of iron–single-minded, seemingly unbreakable, projecting chilling inner strength. She’s also disarmingly honest.”

I’m not sure how Gentry was an Objectivist and Baptist at the same time.

Christy continued, “She’s the boss lady behind her Los Angeles-based music publishing company, Gentry, Ltd. Not one memo, not one letter, not one important telephone call gets by without her personal approval.”  While starring under the bright stage lights at night, Gentry was expanding her business empire during the day.  “She was a savvy investor,” writes Murtha, “building sustainable wealth while methodically working her way up from hula dancer to an international star managing million-dollar stage productions.”

So Roberta Lee Streeter became Bobbie Gentry, who turned into Dagny Taggart.

The CliffsNotes character analysis of Dagny Taggart explains, “Rand dramatizes a crucial point in Dagny’s character: Human greatness equals rational achievement irrespective of gender. Great human beings employ their intellectual ability to create the values on which human life depends. Stature of character is not gender-specific.”

Rand’s Dagny “has an unswerving dedication to truth, regards of social opinion,” and through her “Rand shows that a rational woman can create and deploy the technology to move mountains just as effectively as a rational man.”

After attending the Academy of Country Music Awards show in 1983, Gentry’s “public trail goes cold,” Murtha writes.  In recent years she reportedly left L.A. and moved to Savannah, Georgia. Murtha relates a story of a piano being delivered to a Bobbie Gentry on Skidaway Island.  But no one knows for sure.

The fact is the poor southern girl turned entertainment millionaire checked out, like the great minds and entrepreneurs in Atlas Shrugged who mysteriously disappeared from a world gone collectivist mad.

Where is Bobbie Gentry? In her own Galt’s Gulch.