The Bootleg Files: Bobbie Gentry

BOOTLEG FILES 735: “Bobbie Gentry” (1968-71 British television series starring Bobbie Gentry).

LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces can be found on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Most of the episodes from the series are considered lost and the surviving episodes would require restoration and the clearing of music and performance rights.


This week marked the 78th birthday of Bobbie Gentry, the genre-spanning singer who became a major star in 1967 with her mysteriously melancholic ballad “Ode to Billy Joe.” Gentry was a remarkable vocal talent who was equally at home in the folk, country and pop worlds, and she was also a charming on-camera presence who graced many U.S. television variety programs from the late 1960s into the early 1970s.

Gentry’s popularity crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and in 1968 she was invited by the BBC to host her own television program. “Bobbie Gentry” consisted of three seasons of six half-hour episodes that aired in 1968, 1969 and 1971. Sadly, the BBC has a dismal history of preserving its broadcast history and only five of the 18 “Bobbie Gentry” episodes are known to survive. The program was never shown in the U.S. – if it had reached American viewers, there is a better chance that all 18 episodes would still be with us.

What has survived of “Bobbie Gentry” can be found on YouTube in bits and pieces that were uploaded in unauthorized postings by the star’s fans. The surviving 1968 shows did not have a studio audience and most of the numbers were centered on a single, simple set; occasionally, there were cutaways to filmed footage designed to illustrate the lyrics, most uncomfortably in a presentation of the critters cited in Gentry’s tune “Bugs.”

This season focused primarily on Gentry offering renditions of her music – sometimes alone on a stage with just a guitar, other times in performance while backed by the female dance group Pan’s People in mildly choreographed numbers that enhanced the song without distracting from Gentry’s vocalizing. For the most part, the star was shot in medium or close-ups, and she mostly wore the same well-tailored outfit in the course of the show. It was a genteel and polite production, and while Gentry was beautifully photographed it often seemed that her full personality was not being tapped.

Gentry welcomed musical guests from the U.S. and U.K. show business worlds. In one of the surviving episodes, the Scottish singer/songwriter Donovan guested, performing both a solo number and then having duets with Gentry. Their time together is visually invigorating – two very attractive young singers sitting very close together cross-legged on the floor while playing guitars. Indeed, you half expect them to kiss at any moment. The pair did a version of Donovan’s hippy-dippy “There is a Mountain” and then offered Gentry’s “Bugs,” with its focus on the insect population’s havoc on Mississippi’s farms. Unfortunately, their vocal styles didn’t mesh – Gentry had a stronger singing voice and was more comfortable on camera than Donovan, who came across as a reedy singer ill-at-ease in the spotlight.

In another episode, Gentry teamed with The Hollies in a version of the Doug Kershaw tune “Louisiana Man.” Again, the pairing was somewhat off – while Gentry clearly enjoyed the raucous nature of Kershaw’s Cajun-flavored tune, The Hollies seemed somewhat lost in trying to wrap themselves around its Bayou-rich experience.

One might assume Gentry had better luck with other guests who joined her in the course of the show’s run: Glen Campbell (with whom she paired memorably on U.S. television), Billy Preston, James Taylor, John Hartford, Randy Newman and a young Elton John turned up on her show.

No footage from Gentry’s 1969 episodes are online, and the sole segment from the 1971 season is a blurry black-and-white copy of what must have been a color show. This segment has Gentry singing and dancing to the tune “Montego Bay” with a large ensemble, pausing to introduce American singer Jerry Reed and the British duet Sue and Sunny as her guests. This show had a studio audience to enjoy the proceedings – or, at least I hope they enjoyed it, as a quick camera cutaway found a mostly indifferent-looking bunch.

And it should be stated that the “Montego Bay” number has to be seen to be believed. Gentry was not the greatest dancer, but she sure knew how to wiggle in too-tight clothing. If that number was any indication, she was eager to lose the genteel lady of the 1968 season and dial up the sex appeal in the 1971 season.

Some of the Gentry’s audio tracks from her 1968 and 1969 seasons were released in 2018 as the album “Bobbie Gentry Live at the BBC,” while tracks from all three seasons were included in another 2018 album entitled “The Girl from Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters.”

In the unlikely event the lost “Bobbie Gentry” episodes are recovered, the show would require a digital restoration and a lengthy clearance of music and performance rights before any home entertainment release could be considered. For now, we have to be satisfied with the scraps of video that survived and rue the loss of what seemed to be a pleasantly entertaining endeavor.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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