1976: Ode to Billy Joe, a secret gay tryst

ode to billy joe robby benson

Ode to Billy Joe — Bobby Gentry’s haunting lyrics, teen idol Robby Benson, and a secret gay tryst — all under the direction of Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies. How’d that turn out?

Bobby Gentry’s evocative recital of a 1950s small-town suicide was a huge hit in 1967. Ode to Billy Joe sold a million copies in just the first six weeks of its release.

Was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay.

Starting out as a tale of everyday life in a Mississippi Delta farming family, the song takes a sudden dark turn.

And Mama hollered out the back door, “Y’all, remember to wipe your feet!”
And then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge.
Today, Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

But no one around the kitchen table seemed to care.

And Papa said to Mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please.”

No one, that is, except the song’s narrator. As the song progresses, it seems that — unknown to her family — she has been in a relationship with Billy Joe.

A girl that looked a lot like you

That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way,
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge.
And she and Billie Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

The mystery of why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge and what the couple threw from it transfixed listeners for years.

It was almost a decade before Bobby Gentry moved to provide answers. She sold book and movie rights to the song to producer Max Baer Jr, best known for playing dimwitted cousin Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies.

Baer paid popular seventies writer Herman Rauch a quarter of a million dollars to pen the novel and screenplay.

…and to answer the two questions Bobby Gentry claimed never to have thought about.

The answer, it turns out, was to turn Robby Benson gay.

Robby Benson

A working actor from the age of five, teen idol Robby Benson possessed good looks, abs of steel and a squeaky-clean reputation. (Despite the short, short cut-off shorts he wore in pin-up pics. Daisy Dukes before there was a Daisy Dukes.)

robby benson ode to billy joe

But Robby Benson was twenty years old and wanted to transition to an adult acting career. So he became the first major star to play gay in a Hollywood movie.

(He later appeared nude in 1981’s Running Brave. While a full-frontal scene ended up on the cutting room floor, a  magazine obtained and printed an outtake.)

NSFW! Outtake of Robby Benson full-frontal nude in Running Brave (1981).

Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

In the movie version of Ode to Billie Joe, the title character is indeed in a relationship with the song’s narrator. However, after he proves incapable of heterosexual intercourse, he admits to having sex with a man and enjoying it.

Naturally, he then kills himself. That’s what gays did in movies in the sixties and seventies. Regulation forbade mention of gays in Hollywood movies before then but even in literature during the twentieth century, gays were destined to meet tragic ends. The law demanded it.

The gay writer E.M. Forster gifted his gay protagonists a happy ending in the novel Maurice which he started work on in 1913. But the book was only published in 1971, following his death, because he feared the happy ending would invite prosecution.

So how did Americans respond to every teenage girl’s favourite actor playing gay?

It seems they shrugged.

No boycotts of a movie promoted as a teen romance. Indeed, the movie made Jethro a tidy fortune.

Reviewers mostly favoured the view that the movie illustrated an intolerant America of days gone by — that in 1976, Billy Joe would not kill himself but head to a nearby city and find happiness in a gay bar.

Scott Beaven in the Calgary Albertan wrote of homophobia and all of that nastiness in past tense.

“The movie is an ode — an ode to all the Billy Joes who had the bad fortune to live in repressive cultures that turned their closets into tombs.”

How fabulous! So, as everyone knows, after 1976, gays faced no more discrimination in the US and — like E.M. Forster’s characters — all lived happily ever after.

Music blasting down closet doors in 1976. : I Like It Both Ways, Dancing Queen, Killing of Georgie, Somebody To Love.

The Rocky Horror Show… Come up to the lab…

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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  1. 4 September 2023

    Proud to have done it! The idea that anyone is “judged” based on their sexual orientation is just – wrong – and lacks an emotional intelligence that should be embraced rather than shunned. eo, robby

    • Michael McTavish
      5 September 2023

      Perfect. Thank you!

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