An Ode to Bill Harrah

Bill Harrah was a quiet milquetoast type of guy who grew up in the beach community of Venice, CA. At a young age, he became fascinated by figures. That led him to start promoting Bingo parlors in the Venice area, something that perturbed local law enforcement officers who considered it illegal.

After numerous run-ins with the law, Harrah decided to move his operations to Nevada. That was where his fascination with numbers paid off.

Harrah quietly promoted Bingo operations in downtown Reno near the Truckee River. Those operations grew into Harrah's Club. He built another casino by the same in Lake Tahoe. He was off and running as one of the most powerful casino owners in Nevada.

Roberta Lee Streeter was born in a sleepy Mississippi delta called Woodland on July 27, 1944. Her parents divorced when she was an infant and her mother moved to Palm Sprngs, CA., leaving her to live on a farm with her grandmother.

The grandmother loved the little girl. When Roberta became interested in music, her grandmother sold one of her milk cows and bought her a piano that she used to play songs and compose music. She even wrote a song on the piano, 'My Dog Sergeant was a Good Dog' that she sang in her lilting delta voice.

When Roberta was 13, her mother, who had remarried, invited her to come to Palm Springs and be with her. Roberta quickly accepted the invitation. She had taught herself to play several musical instruments -- the piano, guitar, banjo and bass.


In California, she pursued her interests in music. She met Bob Hope who encouraged her and introduced her to some important people at Capitol Records, where she later signed a recording contract. She also changed her name.

She called herself Bobbie Gentry.

Her first recording was 'Mississippi Delta.' On the other side of the record, she recorded a long, lilting ballad called 'Ode To Billie Joe,' a rambling account about a girl named Billie Joe McAllister who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

'Mississippi Delta' went nowhere on the charts. 'Ode To Billie Joe' became an international best-seller, selling 10s of millions of copies around the world and making Bobbie an overnight success.

Bobbie met Glen Campbell, recorded duets with him and appeared on his television show. She had her own TV show as a summer replacement for CBS television,'The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour.' She made a movie based on her best-selling record. She was in big demand as a performer and appeared in some of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas and Reno.


Bill Harrah heard about the soft-voiced vocalist from Mississippi. He booked her to perform at his club in Reno.

He fell in love with her.

Harrah was an eccentric multi-millionaire casino owner who had been married many times -- seven to be exact. He owned one of the world's largest antique car collections.

He wasn't a handsome man by world standards with his slim figure and silver hair. Some thought he resembled Harry Truman. But somehow in the neon atmosphere of Reno, gambling, midnight champagne and show business, he talked Bobbie Gentry into marrying him. He was 60, she was 26.

The marriage lasted four months.

When the marriage broke up, Bobbie didn't ask Harrah for anything except her freedom. He gave it to her and they reportedly remained friends after the divorce.

That was Bobbie's first marriage. She had two short-lived marriages after that and today lives in Los Angeles where she lives a quiet, even mysterious life. She doesn't do interviews and she bought an interest in the Phoenix Suns.

There was always a mystery about her song 'Ode To Billie Joe.' The mystery concerns something Billie and her boy friend threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge before she committed suicide.

Gentry never bothered to explain that. She did tell reporters the song was about lack of communication, something she suffered all of her life. Maybe that explains her brief marriage to Bill Harrah and why she is a recluse in her autumn years.

“He booked her to perform at his club in Reno. He fell in love with her.”

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