Florence Ballard, once the star of the Supremes, was found dead at the age of 32, on the night of February 1976. She was the founder of the most successful group of all time - the Supremes. But who is this singer who sang better than Diana Ross? How did she disappear from the limelight?
Ballard had been wealthy, famous, and feted. She was considered a better singer than Diana Ross, who dethroned her. Before her death, Ballard expressed fears for her safety in eight hours of taped interviews. She had raised concerns about the unexplained mysteries surrounding her death.
Florence Ballard was widely known as “Flo” and as “Blondie” because of her relatively light hair. She was born on June 30, 1943, into a large family often beset with financial problems. She sang as a teenager and entered a 1958 talent show, which her future Supremes members, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross also joined when they moved into the neighbourhood. Wilson wrote about how impressed she was with Ballard’s voice in her autobiography Dreamgirl.
Wilson and Ballard formed a bond quickly. When Ballard was invited to join the Primettes, a sister group to local Detroit attractions the Primes, she promptly invited Wilson as well. Wilson in turn brought Ross into the fold with Betty McGlown completing the original quartet. McGlown was replaced by Barbara Martin in 1960. The group auditioned at Motown, whose founder Berry Gordy told them to return after they finished high school.
Ballard met Gordy in 1958. Gordy was a former professional boxer turned record producer who launched Tamla Motown with only $800 in 1959. He had a knack for spotting great talents from The Supremes, the Jackson 5 to Smokey Robinson, and The Miracles. Ballard was a bubbly teenager with a big voice honed from childhood singing gospel in her local church. Gordy promised her fame and fortune and she regarded Gordy as a father figure.
Soon, on Ballard’s suggestions, The Primettes became The Supremes. Shepherded by Gordy, the trio became a pop sensation, crossing all racial barriers to become a super successful girl group.
Their first hit record, Where Did Our Love Go? Went to number one and stayed at the top for 11 weeks. Hit after hit followed. Ballard was originally the group’s lead singer, but soon, Ross started to steal the limelight from her in a bitter rivalry.
What Ballard didn’t know was that Ross had become Gordy’s lover and had born him a child. Ross expressed her desire to take over Ballard as the leader of the group. With Gordy on Ross’ side, he edged out Ballard from the group she had founded. Florence Ballard gave her last performance as a Supreme at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in July 1967.
The next morning, she received a call from Gordy who fired her. Immediately afterward, the group became Diana Ross and The Supremes. Ballard’s career ended at the tender age of 24.
After The Supremes
The Supremes routinely grossed $100,000 in ten days of touring and their hits made millions. But Gordy kept the girls on a weekly allowance of just $225 and deducted all their recording the touring expenses from their royalties. Ballard was denied to see the statements and she sued Gordy for her missing millions but lost the case.
She began drinking heavily. In 1975, when Ballad began taping her memoirs, she was planning a comeback and had begun a new legal action to reclaim her future. Her autobiography would have lifted the truth about The Supremes, Berry Gordy, and Motown. But that book was never written because Ballard died.
The official story is that Ballard’s dependency on alcohol led to tensions with Ross that led to her departure. Although Ballard went on to sign a solo deal with ABC in 1968, her career never took off.
Which is the real story? No one knows. But Ballard’s legacy is renewed every day as the Supremes’ golden hits continue to play around the world.