Jim Stafford breaks silence on breathtaking song weaver Bobbie Gentry
Self-effacing “Spiders and Snakes” country rocker Jim Stafford sheds light on his rarely — if ever — discussed relationship with mysterious chanteuse Bobbie Gentry of “Ode to Billie Joe” fame, whose whereabouts continue to fascinate retro pop culture aficionados to this day.
According to vintage issues of the prestigious Los Angeles-based Variety magazine, in April 1978 the sophisticated siren debuted a fresh Las Vegas engagement entitled “Southern Nights” at the Aladdin Hotel. Gentry first laid eyes on her soon to be third husband, who was chosen to open each elaborately staged show, during rehearsals.
The business savvy lady from Chickasaw County, Mississippi, who maintained partial ownership of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, was astounded to learn that a fellow singer-songwriter could have such a nefarious recording and publishing contract that yielded paltry royalty checks to boot. Gentry advised Stafford to ditch his greedy handlers and start afresh.
The whirlwind courtship reached its apex a mere six months later. After living together in Van Nuys — a neighborhood in Los Angeles — for a spell and reportedly working on a joint studio album inside Stafford’s basement, on October 15 the couple officially tied the knot in a private, romantic ceremony held on their newly purchased 120-acre horse farm estate outside Somerville, Tennessee, about 20 miles east of Memphis.
Presided over by Tennessee Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, the only guests invited to the Methodist-themed wedding were a reporter and photographer representing The Memphis Commercial Appeal. While a traditionally solemn if anxiety-laden occasion, the reporter noted that the couple finally smiled as they exchanged rings beneath a pretty sycamore tree situated near a lake.
Upon toasting each other with champagne from silver goblets, the witty “My Girl, Bill” balladeer provided a brief summation of his second wedding to the newspaper, admitting that “We wanted the ceremony to be just between Bobbie and me…it was very simple, but very nice. It’s wonderful to stand on your own land, where you plan to live and raise a family. We’re both very, very happy.”
That radiant feeling followed the couple as they welcomed 1979 with a headlining two week stand at the Aladdin’s 850-seat Bagdad showroom and divided their free time between additional homes in Stafford’s Winter Haven, Florida hometown and Van Nuys…but it was not meant to last.
No surprise, professional commitments tended to keep the wandering minstrels apart. Stafford agreed to star in his debut film, E.S.P. [aka The Disc Jockey], a barely remembered independent flick costarring longtime Elvis Presley confidant Sonny West about a Nashville deejay who unexpectedly encounters a UFO and finds himself displaying psychic sensations.
A son named Tyler was welcomed on November 2 at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. The beaming daddy passed out 500 cigars to his receptive audience at the Riviera in Vegas upon receiving the wonderful announcement [Over a decade later Stafford would have two musically-inclined kids with third wife and business manager Ann Britt. Gentry would never conceive again].
During a mid-morning radio interview weeks later with WWJ NewsRadio 950 in Detroit plugging a show at db’s Club in the Hyatt Regency, Stafford was asked point blank by co-host Sue Carter if he was still married to the “Fancy” song weaver. Stafford’s tight-lipped reply: “Yes…we don’t talk about that.”
Gentry dealt the death blow on December 5 in L.A. Superior Court, filing for divorce after almost 14 months of marriage. Not seeking any spousal support, she requested that custody of Tyler be granted to her and that their community property be divided. Stafford wound up with the Van Nuys house and eventually sold it.
However, that’s not all she wrote. The country stars’ relationship was admittedly complicated during the years succeeding their divorce. Controversial paparazzo Ron Galella, infamously sucker punched by a menacing Marlon Brando outside a Chinatown restaurant, kept meticulous notes and dates. He photographed the couple hand in hand at the 16th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1981, at the Shrine Auditorium. Veteran New York gossip columnist Liz Smith revealed that the duo had been spotted at numerous Hollywood parties later that summer. Gentry unceremoniously retired from public life one year later as a multimillionaire and has incredibly granted not a single interview.
Stafford spent the 1980s touring, writing comedy material for the Smothers Brothers, acting alongside Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can, penning tunes for Disney’s animated The Fox and the Hound, hosting various TV programs, and perfecting his guitar expertise with Nashville luminaries such as Chet Atkins. By 1990 he had settled comfortably in Branson and contributed substantially to that city’s status as the preeminent musical destination for family entertainment.
You can easily catch up with the conversation by exploring Part Two, “Just Myself and a Guitar: Funny Shenanigans with…” Otherwise, sit back as Stafford cautiously tackles his former wife’s vast musical legacy below.
The Jim Stafford Interview, Part Four [conclusion]
Is there an anecdote about Bobbie Gentry that you would be willing to share with us?
The only thing I would really like to say about Bobbie is something I think people don’t know about, and that was how thoroughly she schooled herself in the job of live entertainment. I did a show with her in Las Vegas.
I was amazed that she could do all aspects well of any given show. If she needed to choreograph something, she could do it. I’ve seen her with a background vocal group of two guys and two girls. She would just point and say to each singer, “You sing this ‘buhhh,’ you sing this ‘ahhh’, you sing this ‘uhhh’ — she was familiar with every note.
If Bobbie did a show, she would script it out as if she were writing a novel, musical, or play. She was very efficient, bright, and into every aspect of a show — e.g. the costumes, choreography, and harmonies. Everything you could name in a successful show, she was good at. She knew exactly what her fans wanted.
Some people just see Bobbie as this girl from the Mississippi backwoods or delta. She was brilliant when it came to writing and her creative self. Even if “Ode to Billie Joe” was the only song that she ever released, it would speak volumes about her ability to weave something together correctly. Released on Capitol Records in the summer of 1967, that song changed the way people write songs in America [Author’s Note: “Ode to Billie Joe” has accumulated a staggering 50 million in sales. Check out Tara Murtha’s illuminating 2014 biography, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, for further analysis].
If it hadn’t been for “Ode to Billie Joe,” there wouldn’t have been Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” or Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn.” They didn’t exactly copy Bobbie’s songs, but they saw the value in how incredible she was at telling a story, creating a sense of place, and putting you around that supper table as casual people were talking casually about somebody’s death. That was an astonishing piece of work.
Did you sing any of Bobbie’s material in concert?
No, I didn’t. Bobbie wrote for Bobbie, but she probably could write songs for anybody. The songs that I heard her do seemed to be the kind of songs that she would probably do. Let’s just put it this way — the songs I’m most familiar with that she did are the ones that she actually recorded.
Can you envision Bobbie ever writing or singing again?
I don’t know. That’s something you’d have to talk to her about. All I have about her and anything pertaining to her career is an opinion. It isn’t necessarily how she might feel or what she might have done — that’s all her business and the way she handles things.
Put it this way — I’m a fan. There’s very few songs you listen to and say, “That’s not just a song, that’s breathtaking.” That’s what Bobbie was able to create.
- Exclusive Interview: “Hooked on a Feeling” song stylist B.J. Thomas, Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall, personal assistant Miriam Weiner, and Grammy-winning string arranger Jimmie Haskell all granted illuminating anecdotes exploring Gentry’s enduring significance and exactly why she abandoned her career for anonymity in “Nobody’s Bumpkin: Unmasking Mississippi Delta Chanteuse Bobbie Gentry.”
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