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by Evelyn Renold, AARP The Magazine, April 2008
Florence Ballard isn't exactly the lost Supreme anymore. She was the inspiration for the plump, soulful Effie in the Broadway musical and subsequent movie Dreamgirls.There are now entire websites devoted to her. Indeed, if it weren't for the renewed interest in Ballard—one of the original Supremes and, according to widespread testimony, the girl group's strongest singer—this new book might never have been published.
Small wonder Ballard has attracted so much attention, however belated. Hers is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, a classic showbiz saga as well as an indictment of black-on-black racism. Peter Benjaminson's writing is often awkward, and he has a tendency to spew information without trying to shape it. Still, you want to keep reading: there is real drama here, and a spunky, sympathetic leading lady.
As a reporter for the Detroit Free Press in 1975, Benjaminson was assigned to write a piece on Ballard, who'd been fired by Motown kingmaker Berry Gordy and reduced to collecting welfare. Bejaminson taped eight hours of conversation with her, which form the basis of this account.
The eighth of 13 siblings, Ballard grew up in poor, mostly segregated neighborhoods in Detroit and began singing at an early age. At the Brewster Projects she met the two young women who would be catapulted to fame alongside her: Mary Wilson and Diane (not yet Diana) Ross.
While still in high school, the girls formed the Primettes, singing background vocals for Marvin Gaye and other Motown stars. But they struggled to score a hit of their own, even after Gordy signed them to a contract as the Supremes. Everything changed once they were paired with the legendary songwriting/producing team Holland-Dozier-Holland. "Where Did Our Love Go?" shot up to number one and stayed there for 11 weeks. After that, the hits—among them "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," and "You Keep Me Hangin' On"—just kept on coming.
From the beginning, Ballard and Ross vied to be the group's lead singer. Otis Williams of the Temptations has written that Flo's voice "had a real depth of feeling and a strong churchy sound. When [she] opened her mouth to sing, you sat up in your chair." Ross, on the other hand, had a small, high-pitched voice and a girlish demeanor. But Berry Gordy firmly believed she would have greater appeal to white audiences than Ballard. Tensions mounted between the two women, and the high-spirited Ballard became increasingly sullen and testy. After a Supremes performance in Las Vegas, Gordy replaced Ballard with Cindy Birdsong, whom he'd been quietly grooming. Tellingly, the group subsequently would be known as Diana Ross and the Supremes.
The rest of Ballard's life was consumed by legal battles with Motown—notorious for shortchanging its talent—and various lawyers she hired to represent her. When her attempts to launch a solo career fizzled, she spiraled downward, plagued by drinking and depression. (Benjaminson suggests that the depression may have been fueled by an early incident: As a teen, Ballard had been raped by a young man from the neighborhood—Reginald Harding, later a center for the Detroit Pistons, with a history of criminal activity. Mary Wilson has said that "the rape ate away at Flo's insides…. She was scared for the rest of her life.") The mother of three young daughters, Ballard died in 1976—the official cause of death was coronary artery thrombosis—at the absurdly young age of 32.
Both Mary Wilson and Diana Ross attended the funeral, which attracted some 5,000 fans, according to Benjaminson, who was there himself. But when Ross jumped out of her limo at the New Bethel Baptist Church, the fans actually booed her. Inside, seated with Flo's family, Ross grabbed Ballard's youngest daughter, Lisa, and placed the child on her lap. Photographers snapped away, and the image of Ross and little Lisa was published around the world—the only image, as it turned out, that most people ever saw of Florence Ballard's funeral.
So much for Dreamgirls' happy ending. And so much for the musical's tender treatment of Diana Ross, who definitely comes across as a heavy in these pages. Still, the author grudgingly acknowledges Ross's tremendous drive and ambition. And, from a purely business point of view, there is nothing in this book (or anywhere else, for that matter) to suggest that Berry Gordy placed his bet on the wrong horse.
Is there a grace note to Florence Ballard's sad story? Perhaps. The music she recorded with the Supremes served as a kind of soundtrack for the adolescent yearnings and melodramas of the boomer generation. The music is still very much with us. And while that doesn't negate the fact that Ballard was supremely unlucky in life, it does suggest that, at least in death, she won't be forgotten.
Evelyn Renold is an editor and writer who lives in New York City.
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