Florence Ballard, right, with the Supremes, Diane Ross, center and Mary Wilson on the left.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
March 30, 2008
Florence Ballard was one of the original three Supremes, credited as the group's founding member and perhaps its best singer. Yet she was undone professionally by Diana Ross and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who had her forced from the glamorous trio in favor of Cindy Birdsong in 1967.
Afterward, she was undone financially by bad lawyering that deprived her of much of the riches she should have received for her early work with the group.
In the wake of the 2006 hit film "Dreamgirls," former Free Press reporter Peter Benjaminson, who chronicled the sad post-Supremes demise of Ballard for the paper in the mid-1970s, has authored "The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard (Lawrence Hill Books, $24.95). It is based on exclusive interviews Benjaminson conducted in the years before her death. The Free Press will present two excerpts from the 213-page opus.
Today's is about Ballard's separation from the group as her relationship with Gordy soured and his interest in Ross soared.
On Monday in the Life section, there's the story of Ballard's funeral -- where she was upstaged one last time by the not-so-divine Ms. Ross.
From Chapter 11, "Trouble at the Top"
As Berry Gordy's attraction to and admiration of Florence Ballard waned, his criticism began. "He would say, 'Flo, you don't know how to be a star,' " she said, "and maybe I didn't because as far as I was concerned, I was a person and I had to be a person. I couldn't be anything else. It's frightening to go all the way to the top, and somebody says to you that you have to be a star, that you can't mingle with certain people.
"People, to me, has always meant people, and I've always felt that if I don't have people, then I don't have everything; and I still feel that way. I was supposed to carry myself like a star. I knew I was a big entertainer. I knew I was rich. I knew I was making lots of money; I knew this. I had beautiful clothes, diamonds, everything at my feet; but to me a star is something in the sky, and to me I was a human being."
Her friend Pat Cosby said: "Flo was always her own person. She realized we have to be dictated to in life. There has to be a leader. But she knew who she was. ... Flo never got lost in the fame, as far as her personality and as far as being herself. You have to be a strong individual not to get yourself lost in that."
Flo was not only strong but also ahead of her times. She tried writing songs for the Supremes. "Yeah, I tried; I sure did try, and Berry Gordy said 'Hm, that ain't nothing.' The other girls thought it was pretty good ... for some reason, me and Berry didn't click."
A few years later, the majority of the top-selling hits would be written by the artists performing them. The singer-songwriter became an icon. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder began trying to convince Motown to allow them to write and produce their own songs. Motown refused at first, leading to major strains between the company and its creative artists.
Otis Williams wrote that when the Temptations formally asked Gordy for the publishing rights to songs they wrote, Gordy replied: " 'What are you going to do with publishing? Who's going to administer it?' (Music publishing involves giving others permission to record or use your songs and collecting for that usage. It can be a very lucrative business and certainly has been for Motown.) He continued running down all the details" and as he did so, he became angrier and angrier. "We looked at one another as if to say, 'Whew! We really touched a nerve with this!' We'd never seen him so angry."
Conflict with Ross
In spite of, or perhaps because of, Flo's attempts to relate to the fans and increase her contributions to the Supremes, Diana Ross' ambitions grew and according to Flo, her treatment of her girlhood friends became atrocious.
Ballard recalled: "We had a routine when performing 'Stop! In the Name of Love' where at the end of the tune we'd throw both arms up in the air. Well, people used to ask me. 'Why did Diana always get in front of Mary, right in front of her when she threw her arms up?," blocking Wilson completely from view.
Flo, by contrast, came to Diana's aid during a Boston performance in 1966. "We were singing the tune 'I Hear a Symphony' and everything was fine with me and Mary; we were singing in the background, just singing back, and all of a sudden Diana began to back up ... 'I feel so little ... Everything looks so tiny. I feel like I'm shrinking,' she said. Our road manager at the time, George McArthur, carried her into her dressing room.
"That's when I called Berry Gordy and told him Diana couldn't perform, she was ill. I had her head in my lap and I was trying to massage her head. And she was just moving her head from side to side and crying. ...
"Berry Gordy flew in, and we went back to Detroit and she went into Ford Hospital. The nurses, when I went in (in 1968) to have my twins, they were telling me how nasty she was when she was in the hospital. But Flo defended her longtime persecutor. "I said, 'Well, she was ill, though' and the nurses said, 'We were trying to be nice to her; we knew she was ill.' They said she slammed the door in their face and carried on ... they have never forgotten her for that."
Occasionally, Diana broke the pattern by supporting Flo against Gordy. "We were going to take some pictures in front of one of the Detroit high schools and Mary and I were deciding which school to use -- Cass, Northeastern or Northwestern -- and I said it really didn't make any difference. So Berry Gordy said something I'll never forget. 'I can see why it doesn't make any difference to you, Flo, since you never finished high school.' So Diana looked at him and said 'Well, you didn't finish high school either, Berry.' It was the one time she stood up for me."
In general, though, Diana attacked Flo and Flo responded. "I didn't take no stuff off Diana. If she said something to me, I'll say it back to her."
Ballard said Mary Wilson "would always tell me, 'Whatever she says to you, don't say anything back to her, because you know what they want you to do -- they want you to keep arguing back and forth so they can get you out of the group.'
"This was the first I'd heard of that. I told Mary that if Diana said something mean to me ... I would tell her to go to hell -- and a lot of other things. I couldn't understand exactly what was going on. The three of us didn't do anything together anymore. The only time we'd see each other would be in a dressing room or onstage. And our rooms were all on different floors and miles apart."
Rumors of a split
By 1967, rumors were circulating feverishly that Diana would be leaving the group to perform on her own. Mary Wilson, in a tribute to Florence's voice and performing ability, claimed, "I still retained the smallest hope that when and if Diana left, Flo would be made the lead singer."
Diana remained a queen to Gordy, however, and Flo sank further and further in his estimation. "It seemed like I was always under pressure from Berry," she said. "I remember we were in Canada ... and just out of the clear blue he walks up to me and says, 'You know, you told me you wouldn't try to stand in Diana's way if she wanted to be a single artist.' And I told him, "That's right ... but by the same token, I didn't say I would leave the group either.' "
Flo's increasingly precarious position became vividly clear to her in May 1967. She recalled: "We got to the Copacabana (in New York) and Cindy Birdsong (a singer who had substituted for Flo on one occasion) was there. They had been grooming her with tapes for a whole year and I didn't have any knowledge of it. They had a whole tape of the show we were doing. ... Having Cindy at the Copa caused me to feel more pressure because it was as if they were saying, 'We're getting ready to put you out now.' I was thinking 'I may be out, I may be in,' that sort of thing. But I was trying to keep calm about it and not worry about it."
When the limousine pulled up in front of the hotel to take the women to the Copa, "Instead of me getting in the limousine, Cindy Birdsong was asked to get in the limousine."
"So I rode to the Copa in a Lincoln that Tommy (later her husband, Tommy Chapman) was driving. Cindy was there mainly to study me, to study my performance. We finished the engagement at the Copa and I don't know which way Cindy Birdsong went after that."
A Supreme for the last time
Then in July 1967 at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, "I made my last performance with the Supremes," Ballard recalled.
Gordy had also been thickening the steady stream of criticism he directed at her. "Berry ... knew how to get to me," she said, "because he always said he wanted to control me and if he couldn't control me, he didn't want me around."
The contrast could not have been clearer between Flo and Mary Wilson, who did everything she was told until the original Supremes broke up, and Diana Ross, who almost always made sure well in advance that Gordy would give her only the directions she wanted to hear.
On Flo's last night performing as a Supreme, she recalled: "At this particular incident at the Flamingo, I had me a few drinks. ... And they kept calling me fat so much until I went on stage and I poked my stomach out as far as I could" -- giving Gordy the excuse he'd been looking for.
Gordy "called me up the next morning and he said 'You're fired.' And I said, 'I'm what?' And he said 'You're fired.' I said, "I'm not' And he said, 'Well you're not going on stage tonight.' I said 'Yes, I am; who's going to stop me?' He said: 'I will. I'll have you thrown off if you go on.' And so it went on and on.
"And then his sister Gwen called and said, 'I guess you know that my brother can't make you leave the group because you have a contract ... finally I said to myself, 'Oh well ... I'll be miserable as hell out here anyways as long as he's around so I just might as well leave.' So I left. They already had Cindy there."
Flo's expulsion from the Supremes in the summer of 1967 was immediately followed by the renaming of the group "Diana Ross and the Supremes." The meaning and the symbolism were obvious. With her major rival for lead singer finally out of the way, Ross could take over. It was the first step toward Gordy's ultimate goal of moving Ross out of the group and into solo stardom.
Motown's official announcement said that Flo had left the group owing to exhaustion and a desire to settle down. A story in the Free Press in August '67 said that Flo was leaving the group for only a month. A story in yet another publication said Flo was leaving the group to go into the antiques business. This cloud of deception would not be dispersed until Flo sued Motown three years later.
Excerpted with permission of Lawrence Hill Books.
Part II: The final act -- Diana Ross grabs the spotlight at Ballard's funeral.