Black History Month: Florence Ballard

I spent most of my childhood reading my mother’s books. One of my favorite books was Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme.

I enjoyed reading about the rise of the most successful Motown hitmakers of all time.

The glamour, the glitz, the dramatics and the dance routines.

Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.

The Supremes!

Florence “Blondie” Ballard featured far right.

Childhood friends and vocal powerhouses in their own right.

However.

I was always intrigued by one.

The troublemaker.

The sassy one.

Overlooked and unheard.

The one who struggled until the very end.

Florence Ballard.

The Power House.

Florence Glenda Ballard ( also known as Flo or Blondie) was born in Detroit, Michigan 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. 

It was there that Flo became friends with doo wop trio The Primes. 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.

The group played talent shows, sock hops and talent shows around Detroit and eventually landed an audition with Motown creator, Berry Gordy.

Berry Gordy was amazed. Florence was on cloud nine.

The Supremes were born.

Little know that Florence was the founder of the group and even named them The Supremes.

The group began recording songs and eventually became hit makers and international stars.

As told in the Daily Mail Online, Florence was initially the Supremes’ lead singer , but the ambitious Diana Ross started to steal the limelight from her and a bitter rivalry ensued. Flo would soon find out that her rival had become Berry Gordy’s love interest and wanted to take over as the leader of the group.

We all know what happens when your Boo is the boss!

There could  only be one Queen.

Gordy began to edge Flo out of the group.

Struggling to cope with label demands and her own bout with her weight and depression (she was raped at gunpoint at the age of 17; this contributed to the  self-destructive aspects of Ballard’s adult personality, like cynicism, pessimism, depression and distrust of others). Flo turned to alcohol for comfort, leading to arguments with her group members. Her alcoholism led to her missing performances and recording sessions.

Although Ballard had been wealthy, famous, feted and considered a better singer than Diana Ross, her fellow Supreme then dethroned her.

Gordy decided it was best to  remove her from the group altogether.

Well I’ll be damned.

Flo fought Gordy until the bitter end. Beat down and defeated, she gave up and left the group.

Immediately afterwards, the group became Diana Ross and The Supremes.

Flo’s career was over at 24 years old.

During her years with the Supremes, the group routinely grossed $100,00 in ten days of touring and their hits  made millions. The girls were allowed an allowance of only 225.00.

Flo realized that she was missing some coins. Like, MILLIONS!!

She demanded to see the receipts. There were none.

Furious and distraught, Flo sued Gordy for the missing millions. She lost.

Florence Ballard.

The girl with the big voice.

Founder of The Supremes.

Left with a settlement of $160,00.

Flo began drinking heavily. She shied away from the spotlight.

She lost her money, her home, her car and ended up on welfare.

She struggled with alcoholism, depression and poverty for years.

She contemplated suicide several times, but because of her three daughters, she kept pushing.

I always thought Faith Evans could play Flo in a biopic. The resemblance is uncanny.

Flo’s downward spiral started to be reported in newspapers as word got around that the singer had applied for welfare. She entered Henry Ford Hospital for rehab treatment. Following six weeks of treatment, Flo slowly started to recover.

In early 1975, Ballard received an insurance settlement from her former attorney’s insurance company. The settlement money helped her to purchase a new home. Inspired by the financial success, Ballard decided to return to singing. Her first concert performance in more than five years took place at the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium in Detroit on June 25, 1975

On February 21, 1976, Flo entered Mt. Carmel Mercy Hospital, complaining of numbness in her extremities. She died at 10:05 the next morning from cardiac arrest caused by a blood clot in one of her coronary arteries).

Flo died at the age of 32.

In most of her pictures, I’ve always seen sadness in Florence Ballard’s eyes.

Even at the height of her career, there was always a sadness about Flo.

Perhaps that’s what drew me in.

To this day, I enjoy the song “Buttered Popcorn”. Flo’s voice was so strong and her vocals lead the song. The only song ever recorded with her as the lead.

Always in the background.

Flo had so much to say.

A sassy, powerful voice unheard.

The quiet power house.

The lost Supreme.

Ballard’s short life witnessed more than it’s share of disappointment and sadness. But her contribution to music, especially as a member of The Supremes, brought joy to fans around the world.

RIP Queen