As the 1960s drew to a close in October 1969, one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of the decade, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, had one more UK number 1 in the bag, thanks to enigmatic US country music singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry. The shocking Je t’aime… moi non plus made way after only a week for a more typical pop song, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, making Gentry the final female artist to have a UK number 1 in the 1960s.
A year previous, Bacharach and David had been asked to write the score for the musical Promises Promises, which was based on the 1960 comedy film The Apartment. David Merrick felt his production was missing a catchy song in the middle of the second act. Unfortunately, Bacharach was in hospital with pneumonia and unable to work his magic on a tune, but David didn’t waste time in coming up with some lyrics, and inspired by his friend, he wrote the line ‘What do you get when you kiss a girl?/You get enough germs to catch pneumonia/After you do, she’ll never phone you.’
Bacharach loved it, and as soon as he was well enough, he composed the tune, quicker, he said, than anything else he’d ever written. I’ll Never Fall in Love Again was ready for the Broadway premiere of Promises Promises on 1 December 1968, and, sung by Jill O’Hara and Jerry Orbach, became the most famous song of the show.
As always, singers queued up to record a Bacharach and David song, and it had even more hitmaking potential than usual as it was already popular. Johnny Mathis was first, in May 1969, then Bacharach, with female singers, shortly after. But it took trailblazing Bobbie Gentry, who was at the height of her popularity in the UK, to get it to number 1 here.
Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in July 1942 near Woodland in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Her parents divorced soon after birth and her mother moved away, so Streeter was raised on her paternal grandparents’ farm. She loved music from a young age, so much so that her grandmother traded one of their cows for a neighbour’s piano. Aged seven, she composed her first song on it, My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog… aww.
While at school she taught herself to play the guitar, bass, banjo and vibraphone. Aged 13, she moved away from Chickasaw County to live with her mother in California, but she never forgot her childhood home, and based most of her material from place names around there.
Upon graduating in 1960 she chose her stage name, which was inspired by the 1952 film Ruby Gentry. The heroine of the movie was a girl born into poverty but determined to be successful. Bobbie Gentry meant business.
She started out at local country clubs, and upon moving to Los Angeles to major in philosophy, Gentry would occasionally perform in nightclubs. Blessed with a distinctive beauty, she also worked as a fashion model. She transferred to Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to develop her songwriting. Then in 1967, Capitol Records executive Kelly Gordon heard a demo tape that featured her self-penned Ode to Billie Joe.
Set to nothing more than Gentry strumming a guitar and a string arrangement added after she was signed, this unique tale of a family’s indifference to the news of a local boy’s suicide topped the Billboard chart in the US and made it to number 13 in the UK too. Such was its impact, the Tallahatchie Bridge that Billy Joe jumped off became a popular suicide spot, despite only being 20ft high.
Gentry was catapulted to fame. Her debut album that shared the name of her debut single knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band off the top of the US charts, and she won three Grammy Awards in 1967. And what an inspiration for women – a female artist writing and producing her own material (even if, as Gentry alleged, her name was replaced by male producers in the credits) was extremely rare back then.
Although her second album, The Delta Sweete (1968) didn’t perform as well, the concept album based on life in the Deep South was loved by critics, and it was around this time the UK really took to Gentry. She even had her own BBC series, despite the fact none of her singles and albums were charting here. She also released a joint album with Glenn Campbell that year, too.
In a sign that the well was perhaps running dry, her 1969 album Touch ‘Em with Love consisted mostly of covers, and among those was its second single, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.
It wasn’t unusual for Gentry to release covers – she recorded several Beatles songs – but I’ll Never Fall in Love Again was a rather MOR choice for such a hip, edgy feminist singer. It sounds like something from the mid-60s, which, whenever I’ve heard it crop up anywhere, is when I assumed it was released, and that Gentry was some swinging-60s, doe-eyed pop star. I’m going to guess that her management were keen on edging her towards a more light entertainment vein, to capitalise on her BBC series in the UK.
It opens well, with its pretty melody and great, memorable lyrics, and Gentry’s vocal is all wide-eyed melancholy. She sounds a little like Dusty Springfield, but also slightly off, and it turns out she had a cold when she recorded it. It’s very typical Bacharach and David, with clever lyrics offsetting the sugary-sweet tune. I’d argue it’s not one of their best songs though, and now I know it’s from a musical, perhaps that explains it. It may work better in the context of the show, which concerns a junior executive who aims to climb the corporate ladder by letting his apartment be used by his married superiors to conduct affairs. The final lines ‘So, for at least until tomorrow/I’ll never fall in love again’ are smart, but it outstays its welcome after the first minute. Had it been released a few years previous, my appreciation may have been higher.
But yes, the most interesting thing about this number 1 is the singer, and what happened next to Bobbie Gentry. Her follow-up single, Fancy, is considered by her fans to be perhaps her definitive work. A semi-autobiographical Southern Gothic track combined women’s lib with another catchy melody that blurred the lines of country, pop and soul. A number 1 in Canada, for some reason it failed to chart here.
Weirdly, her next album, also called Fancy, was renamed I’ll Never Fall in Love Again in the UK and featured a different track listing, to capitalise on her number 1, meaning it featured on two LPs in a row here.
In 1971 Gentry released her seventh and final album, Patchwork. Almost entirely self-penned and self-produced (she finally gained an official credit), it was critically adored, but didn’t sell. The introspective lyrics of the last song, Lookin’ In, suggested it was a final throw of the dice.
Like Elvis Presley, she spent most of the 70s in Las Vegas, with ever-more-elaborate stage shows that changed each year. She had an ‘Elvis spot’ in which she wore a high-collared bell-bottom jumpsuit like ‘the King’. There was also a 30-minute tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 1976 saw the release of the film Ode to Billy Joe, inspired by her debut hit, which she re-recorded for the movie.
Then in 1981, she walked out of showbusiness completely. She had just given birth to a son, Tyler, from her failed third marriage, and was caring for former partner and producer Kelly Gordon, co-writer of Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life, who died soon after of lung cancer. Rumours have circulated that, after her brief first marriage to casino magnate Bill Harrah ended in divorce, Gentry was so wealthy she need never work again, and so didn’t, choosing to live in a gated community in Memphis.
Whatever the reasoning behind her permanent disappearance from the public eye, it’s only added to Bobbie Gentry’s mystique. Last year, psychedelic alt-rockers Mercury Rev released their version of her second album The Delta Sweete, which briefly brought her back into the public eye. Now aged 77, it’s unlikely we’ll ever hear from her again. Fair play.
Written by: Burt Bacharach & Hal David
Producer: Kelso Herston
Weeks at number 1: 1 (18-24 October)