Saturday, December 30, 2006

Florence Ballard: The Life Behind the Dreamgirls Character Portrayed by Jennifer Hudson

PANW Editor's Note: The film Dreamgirls has been cited as a fictional account of the careers of the Supremes and Motown Records. While the all-girl group portrayed in the film depict similarities to the Supremes, there are vast differences with the actual history of the real group and the life of Florence Ballard as well as others portrayed in the Hollywood movie. Below we are reprinting factual information on the life of Florence Ballard (1943-1976), who is credited with forming the original group, the Primettes, which later became the Supremes.

Florence Ballard
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Background information
Birth name Florence Glenda Ballard
Also known as Florence Chapman
Born June 30, 1943; Rosetta, Mississippi, USA
Origin Detroit, Michigan, USA
Died February 22, 1976; Detroit, Michigan
Genre(s) R&B/pop/soul
Occupation(s) Singer
Instrument(s) Vocals
Years active 1959-1970, 1974-1976
Label(s) Motown, ABC
Associated acts, The Supremes

Florence Glenda Ballard Chapman, nicknamed "Flo" or
"Blondie", (June 30, 1943 – February 22, 1976) was an American singer, best known as the founder and original lead singer of Motown act The Supremes.

Referred to by music journalist Richie Unterberger as "one of rock's greatest tragedies", Ballard was replaced as lead singer of the Supremes by Diana Ross, with whom Motown founder Berry Gordy was having an affair and who he believed had more crossover appeal. After a series of episodes consistent with chronic depression and alcohol abuse, Ballard was dropped from the Supremes in July 1967 and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. In the two years following her dismissal, Ballard made concerted but unsuccessful efforts at a solo career. The singer spent much of the last five years of her life in poverty before dying in 1976 at the age of thirty-two.

Early life

Ballard was born in Rosetta, Mississippi, but before the age of ten, her family moved to Detroit, Michigan to take advantage of the booming job market. She was of mixed African-American, Native American and white heritage. Ballard, nicknamed "Blondie" because of her auburn hair and light complexion, founded The Primettes, an all-girl singing group spinoff of The Primes (later known as The Temptations), in 1959. The Primettes would sign to the Motown label in 1961 and go on to make music history as The Supremes.

In 1960, a friend of one of Ballard's brothers offered her a ride home after she attended a local sock hop. Instead, he drove her to an empty street and raped her at knifepoint. Ballard was able to identify her attacker in a police lineup and later testified against him in court, leading to his conviction and imprisonment. Her rape was never again mentioned (either in a clinical or casual setting) and Ballard instead threw herself into her music.

The Supremes

In the early days of The Supremes, all three girls took turns singing lead vocals, with Ballard leading on songs such as "Buttered Popcorn", "Ain't That Good News", "Silent Night", "Oh Holy Night", "Heavenly Father", and her featured spot in their stage show, "People," the popular showstopper from the Broadway smash Funny Girl. Ballard's voice was so powerful that she was allegedly asked to stand up to seventeen feet away from her microphone during recording sessions, while the other two Supremes stood directly in front of their microphones.

Diana Ross was ultimately made the permanent lead singer of the Supremes in 1964 because Motown chief Berry Gordy, who was romantically involved with Ross, believed that her voice, with its higher register, would attract white audiences to the group. Ross, Ballard, and Mary Wilson released ten number-one US pop hits between 1964 and 1967, all of which featured Ross on lead vocals.

In 1965, Ross took over the singing duties on "People", Ballard's solo number in their stage show, beginning with their debut at the Copacabana in New York. This switch led to a marked decline in the relationship between Gordy and Ballard. Throughout the year, Ballard and Gordy -- with Ross more often than not taking his side -- argued frequently.

Resentful and depressed at having been pushed out of the spotlight, Ballard relied heavily on alcohol as a salve for her frustration. Among other problems, this caused her to gain weight, and the gowns and outfits she wore onstage no longer consistently fit her curvaceous figure. As 1967 progressed, Ballard frequently performed below the exacting standards Motown had for their premiere girl group. She was fired from The Supremes by Berry Gordy in July 1967 during an engagement at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Cindy Birdsong took her place in the group, which had been renamed "Diana Ross & The Supremes" just before Ballard's departure.

Solo career

Ballard married Thomas Chapman, a former chauffeur for Motown, on February 29, 1968, and signed with ABC Records in March 1968, two weeks after having negotiated her release from Motown on February 22, 1968. Ballard received a one-time payment of $139,804.94 in royalties and earnings from Motown for her six-year tenure with the label.

Billed as "Florence 'Flo' Ballard" and with her husband serving as her manager, Ballard released the singles "It Doesn't Matter How I Say It (It's What I Say That Matters)" and "Love Ain't Love" on ABC Records, but the album she recorded was shelved. After that, Ballard's musical career went into extreme decline and the $139,000 was gradually depleted by Chapman and Ballard's management agency.

Conditions in her contract with Motown reportedly kept Flo from mentioning in any promotional materials or even on the back of her own album liner that she had ever been in the Supremes or recorded for Motown, effectively tying the hands of any label trying to issue her new works.

In addition, it is reported that Motown threatened to sue vigorously any label that made reference to such on her behalf. While it is not entirely clear if this was a condition of her original Motown contract (signed when she was a minor, a condition Stevie Wonder would effectively exploit to break the legal shackles of the label) or was introduced as part of the settlement process is unclear. What is clear is that her legal counsel failed to protect the simple dignity of Florence owning her personal achievements and professional reputation. Ballard continued her efforts at a solo career.

In September of 1968, she performed alongside Bill Cosby at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. That same year, Ballard rode in a Chicago parade with comedian Godfrey Cambridge. On October 20, 1968, she was the featured personality of Detroit's magazine, Detroit and that same month, she gave birth to twin girls, Michelle Chapman and Nicole Chapman, the first two of her three children. She began the new year by performing at one of Richard Nixon's inaugural balls in Washington, DC on January 20, 1969.

By 1971, Ballard unsuccessfully sued Motown for additional royalty payments she believed were due to her.


In 1973, Ballard gave birth to her third child, Lisa Chapman. Soon after, Thomas Chapman left Ballard and her house was seized by foreclosure. These events effectively ended her career. She had three daughters to support, and was forced to move in with her mother. Deeply depressed, she continued to drink and her health deteriorated.

Over the next few years, Ballard excluded herself from almost all publicity. In 1974, Mary Wilson, who had maintained a rapport with Ballard over the years, invited Ballard to fly out to California to visit. The Supremes, now with Scherrie Payne as lead singer, were performing at Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Wilson invited Ballard onstage to sing with the group. She joined them onstage, but she did not sing, only shaking a tambourine to the beat of the music as the group sang. Although her appearance onstage brought tremendous cheers from the crowd, Ballard told Wilson that she had no desire to continue pursuing a career in music.

Upon her return to Detroit, Ballard's financial situation continued to decline. Uninterested in a return to the entertainment business, and with three children to support, she applied for welfare. This news and the story of her downward spiral hit the national newspapers instantly.

Comeback and sudden death

The cover of the UK release The Supreme Florence Ballard. Despite most of the songs on the album originally being recorded for ABC Records in 1968, the cover photo is actually a Motown publicity photo from 1965.In 1975, Ballard received a settlement from a slip-and-fall incident in which she had broken her leg after slipping on a patch of ice in Detroit.

With the money, Ballard purchased a small house on Shaftsbury Avenue in Detroit for herself and her children. She began to publicly discuss her desire to re-enter the entertainment world. Around this same time, Florence also reconciled with her estranged husband, Thomas Chapman.

On June 25, 1975, Ballard performed in Detroit as a part of the Joan Little Defense League at the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, backed by the female rock group, The Deadly Nightshade, to a highly receptive crowd. She sang the Helen Reddy hit, I Am Woman, and when the audience wanted an encore - a Supremes encore - Ballard sang "Come See About Me". Soon after, Ballard received requests for newspaper and television interviews, including a fairly candid conversation about her past and hoped future during an appearance on the local Detroit TV talk show, "The David Diles Show."

On February 21, 1976, Ballard entered Mt. Carmel Mercy Hospital, complaining of numbness in her extremities. The next day, she died of coronary thrombosis, a blood clot in one of her coronary arteries. She was thirty-two years old. Ballard is buried in Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery located in Warren, Michigan.

Florence Ballard: Forever Faithful!, a biography of Ballard written by Randall Wilson, was printed in 1999. In 2002, The Supreme Florence Ballard, which included all the tracks from the album she recorded for ABC Records in 1968, was released on compact disc by Spectrum, a London-based company.


Temptations singer Otis Williams disclosed that he and Ballard had an affair during their early years at Motown.

Before the Supremes became famous, Ballard toured with The Marvelettes as a replacement for Wanda Young while she was on maternity leave.

It had once been rumored that Marlene Barrow of The Andantes filled in for Ballard when she was unable to attend the recording session for "My World Is Empty Without You." This was disproved by the release of the remastered and remixed tracks utilized for the "Motown Karaoke" CD series when Ballard's and Wilson's vocals were isolated for a "karaoke" background track of the song. In this new mix, Ballard's participation was more obvious and the rumor thus disproved.

Dreamgirls, a 1981 Broadway musical, is said to be inspired by the Supremes, and the character of Effie, originated by Jennifer Holliday is said to be modeled after Ballard. That character was played by Jennifer Hudson in the film version of Dreamgirls released in 2006, which featured more overt references to Ballard's life and the Supremes' story than the stage musical. Both Holliday and Hudson's portrayals of Effie have received rave reviews: Holliday won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance, while Hudson has been awarded a number of critics awards as well as a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

2002: The Supreme Florence Ballard (originally shelved by ABC Records in 1968 under the proposed title, "...You Don't Have To")

1968: "It Doesn't Matter How I Say It (It's What I Say That Matters)" b/w "Goin' Out Of My Head" (ABC Records #45-11074A/B)
1968: "Love Ain't Love" b/w "Forever Faithful" (ABC Records #45-11144A/B)


Denney said...

Excellent, honest account of a woman who gave much and accepted what fate held instore for her. Fame allowed her to convay her message differently and we are richer for the gift. The truth will set us free.

mary marshall 1980 said...


yoyo50 said...

Boycott everything that Barry and Diana stands to gain revenue from...They both are selfish individual...

ms duchess said...

this story is so sad and hurtful.something needs to be done for her children.they were rob of a good life and their mother's fame. what goes around comes around and they will have their day.bless flo may her work be remembered.

moon said...

diana look like a bug eye frog wanna be more than she is and she is hiding something berry look crooked look in his eye that was wrong what yall did so have your fun enjoy your riches there is a god ahead your world will end

mingina1 said...

This is a sad story. Throughout my life, I have found this type of story to be the norm. Diana and Berry made it because they are ruthless and uncaring. It's the American way..that is if you want to have a piece of the American Dream (slice of the American Pie) or however it is versed. In this highly Christian world, the good lose and the bad prosper. So to most of the other commenters: I hope you are right about the Karma. I only see Karma happening when a good person does something small. Nothing happens to people like Diana and Berry.