Singer Florence Ballard was a founding member of The Supremes. On what would have been her 69th birthday, we look back on her life and career tragically cut short when she was just 32 years old.
Florence Ballard (Wikimedia Commons/ABC Records)
Born in Detroit as the ninth of fifteen children, young Florence Ballard moved all around the city as her father struggled to support the large family while working at General Motors. When she was fifteen, the family settled in the Brewster-Douglas housing project.
Around that time, she became friends with a doo wop trio called The Primes (two of the group's members would later form The Temptations). Milton Jenkins, manager of the group, decided to create a sister act called The Primettes and made Ballard its founding member. He also relied on her to find the rest of the band. Ballard convinced Mary Wilson, whom she’d met at a talent show, to join and also enlisted the services of her neighbor, 15-year-old Diana Ross. Betty McGlown – who was dating Primes member Paul Williams at the time – was the final member of the quartet.
The group played talent shows, sock hops and parties around Detroit and landed an audition with Berry Gordy, head of what would eventually become Motown Records. Gordy liked their sound but told them they were too young and advised them to stay in school.
Two years later, he felt they were ready.
Relaunched as The Supremes – a name chosen by Ballard – the group was signed by Berry Gordy to Tamla Records. Betty McGlown was replaced by Barbara Martin and The Supremes released the single “I Want a Guy,” which failed to chart. Their next, “Buttered Popcorn,” would be the only single to feature Ballard as the lone vocal lead. The song didn’t make a dent nationally, but was a regional hit. After that, the band would release all their songs under the Motown label. The next, “Your Heart Belongs To Me,” would be their first hit.
It was also the first to feature Diana Ross as the lead.
A year later, Ross had taken over as the group’s lead vocalist, with the others now mostly relegated to back up roles. The situation did not sit well with Ballard – known as the ‘sassy’ one of the group she was never shy about expressing her opinions – but she wanted to stick with the group anyway. Finally, in 1964, the group jokingly referred to inside the Hitsville U.S.A. studios as “the no-hit Supremes” topped the charts with “Where Did Our Love Go” – a tune they’d been reluctant to even record.
It began a remarkable run, with their next four singles all reaching #1. Within a year they were international stars, and were arguably the second most popular act in the world behind The Beatles. They were one of the first black acts to achieve crossover success with white audiences, recording movie soundtracks, appearing in films, performing on The Ed Sullivan Show no fewer than 17 times and even marketing their own brand of bread.
But tensions in the group were simmering as it became clear that Berry Gordy considered Diana Ross the star. When Ballard was ill for one show, Gordy had Ross sing the Ballard number “People” and never gave it back to Ballard when she recovered. Ballard also struggled with her weight and alcohol abuse, struggling at times to fit into her dresses, and began missing shows and recording dates because of her drinking. Berry Gordy quietly started grooming another singer, Cindy Birdsong, to take her place – even going so far as to secretly fly Birdsong to all Supremes shows just in case Ballard failed to show up. Ballard got wind of the plot when she discovered five dresses in the dressing room, and reacted by getting drunk before a show at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1967.
It would be the last time she took the stage as a Supreme.
Gordon sent her packing back to Detroit. For her six-year tenure with The Supremes – one which saw them release ten #1 singles – she was given a one-time payment of $139,804. As part of the agreement, in promoting her solo career she wasn’t allowed to mention she was a former Supreme or had even been associated with Motown Records.
Nonetheless, Ballard tried to launch a solo career following her dismissal from the group, but after two singles that failed to chart, ABC Records shelved her album. She took some time off to raise the three children she had between 1968 and 1971. But in 1971, her husband left and her house was foreclosed on. She sued Motown for additional royalties but lost. Fewer than ten years after being in the hottest group in country, she was on welfare.
Ballard began drinking heavily and putting on more weight. Her fortunes improved a bit when she won an insurance settlement and was able to buy a small house for her family in Detroit. By 1975, she had reconciled with Diana Ross and was talking about trying to relaunch her singing career.
But years of hard living caught up with her. On February 21, 1976, she died from a blood clot in one of her arteries.
Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross all came to Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church to pay tribute to the founder one of the most important acts of the 1960s.
Years later, when Jennifer Hudson won the Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls, a movie inspired by The Supremes, she dedicated her award to Florence Ballard, “who never got a chance.” An overstatement, perhaps, but one which captures the sadness behind one of the more tragic tales of the Motown era.
Originally published June 2011