December 27, 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the 5th and final appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show of Bobbie Gentry, one of the most interesting and entertaining singer/songwriters to emerge from the late ‘60’s. Although often categorized as a country singer, Gentry’s blend of rock, pop, country and folk actually found its greatest success on the pop music charts.
By the time of Gentry’s first appearance on the show on December 27, 1967, Gentry’s debut album Ode To Billie Joe had already hit #1 on the Billboard pop album chart, with its title track also topping the pop singles chart. Rather than perform this song, Gentry instead sang the album’s country/funk cover “Niki Hoeky.” Her performance was intercut between close-ups of her singing the song live with pre-taped long shots of her strolling and dancing, but not singing, on a mock-up of a country bridge. She then performed a rendition of the seasonal “I Wonder As I Wander,” on which she provided her own accompaniment on acoustic guitar, demonstrating her mastery of a range of material. Afterwards, Ed Sullivan shook her hand and cheerfully asked her if she would be coming back, to which she replied yes.
Sure enough, Gentry was back on the show on February 18 the following year, around the time her second album The Delta Sweete was released. For this appearance she performed both sides of her latest single: starting off with the pretty yet sad “Courtyard” while standing beside a marble fountain, and then switching gears with the cheerful “Louisiana Man.” Similar to her “Niki Hoeky” performance, “Louisiana Man” again relied heavily on close-up shots of live singing, but this time employing a creative yet somewhat bizarre effect where outlines of her face were half-faded into photos of (presumably) Louisiana back-country. This effectively recreated the cover of The Delta Sweete album. Despite the Sullivan appearance however, the single went no higher than #100 on the pop chart.
Gentry would not return to the Ed Sullivan Theater until 1970, by which time she had hit #1 on the UK pop singles chart with “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” and reached the US top 40 with the self-written “Fancy” and also her duets with Glen Campbell on “Let It Be Me” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” She would perform none of these on Sullivan; instead for her March 29 appearance she finally performed her biggest hit “Ode To Billie Joe.” This was however no ordinary episode of Sullivan, with all of the acts performing in and around a veteran’s hospital. Gentry’s performance, while strolling in between the beds of wounded Vietnam veterans, perhaps wasn’t the ideal setting for the song, though the performance itself was excellent.
November 1st found her back on the regular Sullivan stage, opening with a rendition of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” which the Jackson brothers had performed on that very stage the previous year. Then it was back to her own material, with Gentry introducing a new, upbeat song called “Benjamin,” which would be released on her 1971 album Patchwork. Later in the show, she returned for another Patchwork song “Your Number One Fan.” Playing up the song’s whimsical 1920’s vibe, she surrounded herself with a group of male dancers dressed in tuxedos.
Gentry’s December 27th appearance was very different from her earlier ones, as she was supported on stage by the country band Goose Creek Symphony, who backed her on her cover of “He Made A Woman Out Of Me,” which had been a minor hit single for her the previous spring. She also forwent the glamour of her earlier performances, appearing in jeans and a tied-off button-down shirt. She then left the stage for a few minutes so the band could perform one of their own songs. Returning in a more conservative outfit, she took to the piano, with the band standing around her, and performed the single from the forthcoming Patchwork, the very beautiful “But I Can’t Get Back,” which then flowed into the gospel “I’ll Fly Away” and then a brief rendition of “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” before a beaming Ed Sullivan shook her hand once more.
Gentry would not return to the Sullivan show before it ended three months later. Despite performing 3 of its songs on Sullivan, Patchwork would fail to chart, and it would prove to be her final album. In the 70’s she focused mostly on her successful Vegas stage show, and had her own short-lived variety show on CBS in 1973, “The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour.” In 1981, after performing on a Mother’s Day TV special, she left show business entirely, her subsequent activities unknown. Thus ended the career of this talented, beautiful, and very unique artist. An excellent fan website can be found at www.thetalentedbobbiegentry.com.