As a founding member of The Supremes, Florence Ballard should have had it all. On the day Ballard would have turned 70, we look back on a life and career tragically cut short.
Florence Ballard was born in Detroit on June 30, 1943, the ninth of fifteen children. Young Florence 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. Her father died of cancer the following year.
Around that time, she became friends with doo wop trio The Primes (two of whom would later form The Temptations). When the group’s manager, Milton Jenkins, decided to create a sister act called The Primettes, he 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 Diane Ross. Betty McGlown – who was dating one of The Primes 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.
Not long after, Ballard was raped at knife point by a high school basketball player. She went into seclusion for a while, months later finally telling her group mates about the attack. According to friends, Ballard was not the same after the rape, becoming more distrustful, pessimistic and self-destructive. She would later drop out of high school, but managed eventually to rejoin The Primettes.
By 1960, Berry Gordy felt the girls were ready to record. Relaunched as The Supremes – a name chosen by Ballard – the group was signed by Gordy to Tamla Records. With Barbara Martin replacing Betty McGlown, The Supremes released “I Want a Guy,” but the single failed to chart. Their next release, “Buttered Popcorn,” would be the only one to feature Ballard as the lone vocal lead. Though the song didn’t make a dent nationally, it was a regional hit. Their next single, 1962’s “Your Heart Belongs To Me,” was their first under the Motown name, and their first to chart.
It was also the first to feature Diane 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. Success didn’t come right away, however, and around the the Hitsville U.S.A. studios, the group was jokingly referred to as “the no-hit Supremes.” Finally, in 1964, they found their way to the top of the charts with a tune they’d been reluctant to even record – “Where Did Our Love Go.”
“Where Did Our Love Go” began a remarkable run, with their next four singles all reaching No. 1. Within a year The Supremes were international stars, and were arguably the second most popular act in the world behind The Beatles. They were one of the first African-American 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 Ross – now going by Diana with an “a” – the star. When Ballard came down with a sore throat before a show, Ross stepped in to sing lead on Ballard’s signature song, “People.” After that, Gordy gave the song to Ross. Depressed, Ballard battled with her weight and alcohol, struggling at times to fit into her dresses, and 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 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 that saw the group release ten No. 1 singles – she was given a one-time payment of $139,804. As part of the agreement, she wasn’t allowed to promote herself as a former Supreme or even mention having 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. Just a few years after founding the hottest group in country, she was on welfare.
Ballard began drinking heavily and put 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. She was just 32 years old.
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 of 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 that captures the sadness behind one of the more tragic tales of the Motown era.