Bobbie Gentry had the most gorgeous legs ever: On the record with Grammy-winning arranger Jimmie Haskell
Savvy artist Bobbie Gentry clearly blazed a path for 21st century female singer/songwriters and is best known for her composition “Ode to Billie Joe,” a near-acoustic Southern gothic tale of two besotted young lovers irrecoverably transformed by a tragic incident on the Tallahatchie Bridge in Choctaw Ridge, Mississippi.
After Capitol purchased the recording, it became a bona fide smash number one record during the Summer of Love in 1967, usurping the Beatles and winning multiple Grammys. Recordings with Glen Campbell, critically acclaimed albums exemplified by The Delta Sweete and Patchwork, television specials, a popular choreographed Las Vegas-style revue, and a film adaptation of her signature song all followed within a few years.
In the first installment of an exclusive interview unearthed below, Grammy-winning “Ode to Billie Joe” string arranger Jimmie Haskell sets the record straight on an initial meeting with Gentry enhanced by mutual admiration for Haskell’s neatly trimmed whiskers, Capitol being initially embarrassed by the “Billie Joe” recording, and how the alluring songwriter handily dealt with a fellow musician who claimed he produced it.
Believe it or not, the easy-going and forthright gentleman briefly dated the girl with the most beautiful legs ever. Once she became wealthy, Haskell analyzes whether fame and fortune affected Gentry’s personality in an adverse manner. Keep reading to see what occurred backstage at a Memphis Symphony concert when a facility manager did not meet her demands.
And has the singer-songwriter ever attempted to rejuvenate her long-dormant recording career? You might be surprised at Haskell’s revelation that an out-of-the-blue phone call after decades of non-communication was poised to reunite the duo in the studio but inexplicably failed to materialize.
The Jimmie Haskell / Bobbie Gentry Interview [Part One]
Do you recall what projects you worked on with Bobbie Gentry?
Ode to Billie Joe , The Delta Sweete , and Fancy  are the three studio albums that I contributed to. Shorty Rogers did most of the arrangements on The Delta Sweete. He was an excellent arranger and a really good guy. He died too early. I do recall arranging “Okolona River Bottom Band”, which was released as a single from the album.
When she briefly signed with Warner Brothers in 1977, I arranged her final single, “Steal Away” b/w “He Did Me Wrong but He Did It Right.”
What do you remember about your first meeting with Bobbie?
I thought Bobbie had the most gorgeous legs ever [laughs]. She was quiet and soft-spoken. Kelly Gordon, her producer, initiated the meeting. Kelly called me one night and said, “Meet me at Capitol right now. I want you to meet a new girl singer and write an arrangement of her song to be recorded at the end of the Checkmates, Ltd. session tomorrow.”
The Checkmates, Ltd. recording had been set-up the week before, and I had written arrangements for that session. Capitol liked them, so they signed them to make inroads into the R&B field. They were a pretty good group featuring both black and white members. They had a couple of minor hits [the Phil Spector-produced “Black Pearl” was the Checkmates’ biggest at №13 Pop in 1969].
To get back to the story, I had been working on a movie for two weeks, so I hadn’t shaved. I had a beard and moustache, and I was looking scraggly. When I walked into the Capitol studio, I told Kelly, “I apologize. I didn’t take time to shave, since you told me to come over immediately.”
Bobbie spoke up and said, “I like your beard!” So I decided to keep it [laughs]. That was really her only remark during the session.
Kelly took me aside and presented Bobbie’s songs. He admitted, “We just signed her up for a song called ‘Mississippi Delta.’” It is a finished record. But we listened to some of her other songs, and we like this one called ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ We’re going to put it on the B-side.”
I asked, “What should I write on it?” Because up to that point, I was used to people telling me, “Oh, I want something here, something there.” They would even give me instructions or sing it to me. But Kelly responded, “Just put strings on it so we won’t be embarrassed. It’s a record with only a girl singing and playing a five-string guitar” [laughs].
How did you come up with the “Ode to Billie Joe” string arrangement?
People ask me how I get my thoughts. I think I get ’em from God. Because I sit there, and I sit there. Then I play the song for awhile until it’s in my head. I’ll go about my business until all of a sudden, the ideas come to me.
I write as fast as I can on paper before I forget what I just heard in my head. I think it’s a wonderful miracle. That’s one of the things that happens to most arrangers I have found. Thoughts just pop into their head. I think the same criteria applies to songwriters. Who knows where it comes from. Some folks liken it to the “Universal Mind” concept.
After awhile I got to thinking, ‘Bobbie’s lyrics are like a movie,’ so I composed the string arrangement as if it were a movie.
For some strange and miraculous reason I was told to hire four violins and two celli. Usually it would have been four violins, one viola, and one cello. I say miraculous, because I was able to use one cello to play a pizzicato bass part, and the other cello to play a traditional bowed string part.
To illustrate a bit more, I had to think of a bass line that would not make the cello sound phony because the usual bass line in those days was “Doom, duh doom, duh doom, duh doom doom doom doom doom, duh doom…”
I thought, ‘What’s my cello player gonna play that has the fewest notes?’ Well, I figured out a bass line with only three notes every two bars. It was, “Doom — Haskell snaps fingers three times — duh doom — snaps fingers thrice — doom.” Every once in awhile the player might add an extra note.
Kelly listened to the first rehearsal. Then he walked over to where the cello was playing — it’s called pizzicato when you pluck the strings. Kelly kneeled in front of the cello and put his ear near the f-hole — on stringed instruments it sounds like a dirty word but it’s because it is shaped like the letter “F” — and remarked, “Keep playing.” Kelly then asked his engineer, Joe Polito, to put the mike right on the cello. And Kelly got a good sound.
I decided I couldn’t write too much, so after the introduction there isn’t much going on with the violins. But the cello is still playing along with Bobbie’s guitar. As it turned out, all Capitol had to do was pay the string players overtime. The Musicians’ Union eventually didn’t allow arrangers to score music for two artists on the same date.
How did Capitol feel about “Ode to Billie Joe’s” length?
Kelly Gordon told me a story one time. After we recorded “Ode to Billie Joe”, there was an A&R meeting upstairs. The president of Capitol Records at the time was Boyle Gilmore. The single was 4:15 minutes long — it had already been edited down from a seven-minute version.
In those days, people were striving to release records that were only two minutes or two and a half minutes long. Disc jockeys would be more inclined to play a short record, since they could get more records in between commercials.
Kelly submitted both sides of the record — “Mississippi Delta” and “Billie Joe”] for consideration as the A-side. Of course, the A&R folks chose “Billie Joe.” As the A&R meeting came to a close and everyone was leaving, Boyle told Kelly, “Stick around for a minute.”
Boyle put his arm around Kelly and inquired, “Why did you make a record that ran more than three minutes?” Kelly shot back, “Well, why did you choose it?” [laughs].
Was Kelly Gordon an underrated producer?
Kelly was an excellent producer. During the recording sessions, Kelly was always in charge. He was a very exuberant fellow. Kelly had good ears, and he knew how to communicate with people.
Did you know he cowrote a song called “That’s Life” for Frank Sinatra? [Haskell softly sings, “That’s life, that’s what the people say”]. It was a big hit. He was a pretty good songwriter.
I was very pleased to work with him. Kelly knew what he wanted, and he knew how it should be done. I liked his attitude and his thinking. Sometimes a producer doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but Kelly knew.
After the “Billie Joe” single did extremely well, Capitol asked Bobbie to record a full-length album named after the single. She and Kelly had already picked the tunes before I arrived to add the arrangements. When I got there, Bobbie began to talk more and add suggestions here and there. She always remained respectful of Kelly and me. I think we had a good time recording.
Kelly eventually fell in love with Bobbie and left his wife and kids in San Diego and moved in with her. After awhile, she got tired of him and kicked him out. A few years later she heard he was dying of cancer. Bobbie invited Kelly back to her spare house behind her house, and she took care of him until he died.
The gritty rock and roll “Mississippi Delta” sticks out like a sore thumb on the Ode to Billie Joe album.
That was the only song on the album where I had nothing to do with the arrangement. As I tell people, if that record had been released as the A-side, Bobbie would have been known as a gravel-voiced artist instead of “Billie Joe”, where she was an interesting singer.
There was something infectious about “Billie Joe”, something that appealed to people more than “Delta.” She was just another rock singer on “Delta.”
You won a Grammy for Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist for “Ode to Billie Joe” in February 1968. What do you remember about that moment?
I knew I was nominated for the award, but I didn’t really count on winning. It was held at the Hollywood Palladium. I was sitting there with my wife and kids. They called my name, and I simply walked forward and got it. It was wonderful.
Bobbie won three Grammys that night, too, including Best New Artist and Best Vocal Performance by a Female.
I wrote a song in appreciation to Bobbie called “Owed to Bobbie Gentry” [available on the extremely hard-to-find vinyl only French Horns Volume Two, 1968]. I put it in minor, and I liked my melody. I got the same rhythm feel as “Ode to Billie Joe,” but I had French horns on it. Now that I think of it, I also covered “Ode to Billie Joe” on that record.
Did any unscrupulous folks take advantage of Bobbie?
Bobbie told me an interesting story about the way she came to record “Ode to Billie Joe.” She had been asked to play guitar and sing backup for a guy named Bobby Paris. He told her, “I can’t pay you any money, so how can we work it out?”
She replied, “Let me use your previously booked studio time and record some of my demos.” That’s how she came to record “Mississippi Delta” b/w “Ode to Billie Joe,” which ultimately became her first Capitol single — deejays preferred the B-side and flipped it over.
After “Billie Joe” became a hit, Paris told her, “You know, I produced those two songs.” She replied, “You were in the booth moving the knobs. I don’t call that real producing because you didn’t give me any guidance. So why are you saying you produced those records?” Paris didn’t really have a good reason but boldly replied, “I think we should split the royalties 50/50.” Bobbie thought a bit and said, “Well, I guess that’s okay.”
Some way or other, Bobbie let Capitol know that Paris was the producer of the accompanying album and they were splitting it 50/50. I guess he was a smooth talker. After awhile Bobbie called Capitol and inquired, “Don’t you have any checks for me yet?” They said, “Yeah, we had one check for $1,000, but we gave it to your partner, Bobby Paris.”
Bobbie immediately called up Paris and asked him where her $500 was. Paris sheepishly replied, “I’m sorry, but I was really down and needed the money. So I spent it.” She went, “Okay, you’re off the record. You’re not my producer anymore. You’re not sharing anything with me.” It was the biggest mistake Paris ever made [Author’s Note: Paris had the last laugh. In 1975 he sued Gentry for one percent of her Capitol royalties based on their original verbal agreement. He won the case and the singer paid him $35,000 to settle the judgment].
There was a rumor going around that someone else had written “Ode to Billie Joe.” I mentioned that to Bobbie. She said, “If they wrote it, why don’t they show up and claim it?” [laughs].
When Bobbie became wealthy, did it affect her personality?
I think she was a little more exclusive and a little more reclusive. Up ’til then, she was trying to make it. I don’t suppose she really changed. She could simply afford to become more reclusive.
In the early days, she said to me, “Jimmie, I’m gonna be rich. My mother’s been married twice — once to a regular guy and then to a rich man. I like being rich. If I don’t make it in music, I’m gonna start a company and make really inexpensive dresses out of burlap bags.” She already had great business savvy. Eventually she bought a big house up near Laurel Canyon.
By the way, Bobbie was working in a little club in Glendale at the time she recorded “Billie Joe.” She wouldn’t tell me where the club was because she didn’t want anybody to see her working in a less than perfect light.
Shortly after “Ode to Billie Joe” had been released and was becoming very popular, Bobbie called me up and said [Haskell imitates a Southern drawl], “Jimmie, I’m gonna be on The Ed Sullivan Show. We’re gonna hire a string quartet to play the chart. Can you send them the music?”
I replied, “Sure thing, Bobbie.” Then she exclaimed, “D — n, I’m freezing!” I said, “Why don’t you turn up the heat?” She said, “I can’t. My gas has been turned off for non-payment.” Within a year, she became a millionairess. If not a millionairess, then close to it, because of her publishing royalties.
Did you date Bobbie?
I actually went out with Bobbie a few times. I thought she was very pretty. My wife and I had separated at the time, and we were thinking of having a divorce. Luckily for me, that never went through because my wife is wonderful.
I remember taking Bobbie out to lunch. When a friend of mine in the music business remarked, “Why can’t you see me today?” I replied, “I’m going to lunch with Bobbie Gentry.” He blurted out, “Oh, the girl with the big nose!” I had never thought of her that way. I only thought of her as the girl with the great legs [laughs]. In addition, she had a great songwriting ability.
After we went out to lunch, I wanted to see Bobbie again. I called her two or three or four times. I finally left her a message on her answering machine. She finally returned my call. When I heard her voice, I blurted out, “I’ve been trying to call you. I was hoping you would call me back before now.”
She said, “Listen you, I don’t work for the phone company” [laughs]. Bobbie was definitely a firecracker, very strong-willed.
After The Delta Sweete was dropped in April 1968, you parted ways with Bobbie for two years. How did you reunite?
Producer Rick Hall of FAME Studios wanted to record with Bobbie, and he liked my work on “Billie Joe”. He asked me to write the arrangements for the Fancy album, so I traveled over to Muscle Shoals and had a wonderful time. They brought the violinists in from Memphis, and they were pretty good.
I was very pleased to do that. “Fancy” consisted of a lot of words moving at a fast pace, and it was a very impressive, clever song.
About eight years later, Bobbie had signed with Warner Bros. after the success of the Ode to Billy Joe film [1976; the movie slightly altered the spelling of the protagonist’s forename]. She returned to Muscle Shoals and worked with Rick on a single — “Steal Away” b/w “He Did Me Wrong but He Did It Right” [Author’s Note: Part of Gentry’s last official session circa December 1977 at Music Mill Studio, additional tunes were tracked with Hall at the helm but remain firmly ensconced in a vault somewhere or were piece-meal released in bewildering fashion on Curb Records’ 1991 Greatest Hits compilation, which is still in print].
Bobbie was wearing a cute little white fur jacket. I said, “Gee, Bobbie, you’re looking pretty good in that. I guess you’re doing well since you married Jim Stafford.” She snapped at me, “I paid for it myself!” [laughs].
Why do you think Capitol Records dropped Bobbie?
I don’t know if Bobbie would want this to be known, but I heard the main reason she was off Capitol is because she became difficult to deal with. By this time, Kelly Gordon was ill and not working with her. The A&R folks felt she was not worth worrying about. Another reason had to do with her final album, Patchwork , not selling very well.
I did two concerts with her — one was with a band in Carbondale, Illinois, at a racetrack. And then there was the Memphis Symphony. She asked me to write a couple of arrangements for her Memphis show.
I was rehearsing the band, and Bobbie was in her dressing room. The manager of the facility came over to me and said, “Mr. Haskell, will you please take a five-minute break and go talk to Ms. Gentry and tell her that we’re doing everything we can to please her. We don’t want to get her upset.”
Evidently, she was giving him a hard time. Bobbie was in her dressing room, and her window wouldn’t open. They had to find somebody to open the window. Little things like that. And there was some item that management had forgot to put in her dressing room.
I was surprised to learn that she could be so hard-nosed about such petty things. But she was [laughs]. I said, “Bobbie, they told me that they want to take good care of you. They want to please you and make sure you’re satisfied with everything.” She replied, “Well, I hope they’re fast, because I’m getting very upset about this!”
After the concert had ended with the Memphis Symphony, we were backstage when Bobbie introduced me to her grandmother. She said, “Grandma, this is my music arranger, Jimmie Haskell.” Her grandmother remarked, “Oh, what a talented person you are. I like your work.” Bobbie quickly added, “You oughta, I’m paying him enough!” [laughs].
Did Bobbie eventually become an arranger?
I think so. She felt quite confident that she knew everything about what she should do. She was a good enough musician that she could have done it. She told a friend of mine one time, “If I were to hire Jimmie Haskell again, and we co-arranged a song, my fans wouldn’t believe that I wrote the arrangement. They would see Jimmie’s name and say he arranged the entire song.”
When did you last speak with Bobbie?
Bobbie moved a number of times over the years, and I had no way of contacting her. I would ask her business manager what she was doing. Out of the blue, in the late ’90s Bobbie called and asked me, “Jimmie, I’d like you to do a take down on a tune.” I said, “Bobbie, I’m working on an album and a movie simultaneously. I can’t do it now.”
I recommended a copyist who could listen to her record and give her a lead sheet. That’s all she was looking for. But she wanted me to do the lead sheet. She never contacted the person I recommended, and she hasn’t spoken to me since. There again, because she wanted to do it herself. Something within her does not allow her to think that anybody else is helping her.
Let’s put it this way — you are a well-rounded person. You think nice, and you are a gentleman. I don’t think that applies to her [laughs]. She’s a very willful girl. Bobbie won’t let anybody say no to her. Well, you can say it to her, but she won’t speak to you again [laughs]. Really weird.
What are some of your favorite Bobbie Gentry recordings?
I like most of what we did on the first album, Ode to Billie Joe. “Bugs” was an album cut on there that I had a lot of fun doing — arranging those pizzicato strings. Of course, she wrote some great songs, in particular “Ode to Billie Joe.” That will always be her main legacy.
[Author’s Note: Haskell regrettably passed away at age 89 on February 4, 2016, some four years after graciously granting the above conversation via telephone from his Laguna Nigel, California, home on July 21, 2012. The mischievous conductor incidentally bamboozled many recording industry insiders and journalists for decades by claiming he was born in 1936 instead of 1926. Before Haskell received widespread recognition in the recording industry, he earned his musical chops in a decades-long partnership with Rick Nelson that yielded a ton of essential hits. In Part Two of our exclusive conversation, “Only the Good Die Young: Jimmie Haskell Revisits Hit Records with Rick Nelson,” the often uncredited producer reveals what instrument he played on the iconic “Hello Mary Lou”, the day Nelson nearly got in big trouble with his father, the singer’s surprise cowboy expertise on the set of Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin, Glen Campbell’s guitar and vocal contributions to Nelson’s music, a premonitory conversation about the unsafe 40-year-old Douglas DC-3 airplane that the singer refused to sell, and where he was when he received the news of Nelson’s cruel date with destiny on New Year’s Eve 1985].
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Further Reading: According to former husband and fellow musician Jim Stafford, “Even if ‘Billie Joe’ was the only song that Bobbie ever released, it would speak volumes about her ability to weave something together correctly. She was incredible at telling a story, creating a sense of place, and putting you around that supper table as regular people were talking casually about somebody’s death.” Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall, personal assistant Miriam Weiner, “Hooked on a Feeling” song stylist B.J. Thomas, and other insiders all granted illuminating anecdotes exploring Gentry’s enduring significance and exactly why she abandoned her career for total anonymity in “Nobody’s Bumpkin: Unmasking Mississippi Delta Chanteuse Bobbie Gentry.”
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