During their early years, members of The Supremes (originally called The Primettes) enjoyed a generally democratic distribution of leads on songs. Usually, Mary Wilson commanded smokier pieces, Diane Ross was given "poppier" numbers and Ballard sang lead on heavier-hitting ballads. However, by 1966, Ballard and Wilson had begun to feel ignored in the group as Ross and Motown executive Berry Gordy, Jr. spotlighted Ross's individual career. Consequent discontentment led Ballard to chronic depression and alcoholism, factors that weighed heavily in Gordy's decision to permanently dismiss Ballard from The Supremes in July 1967. Her replacement was former Bluebelle Cindy Birdsong.
After an unsuccessful attempt at a solo career in the late 1960s, Ballard spent much of the last five years of her life in relative poverty, attempting to avoid media attention while suing the various parties involved in her dismissal from Motown. By the mid-1970s, it appeared that Ballard had regained control of her mental and emotional health - making public appearances, doing interviews and featured in newspaper articles, she purchased a new home after receiving a sizable accident settlement. Around this time, Ballard also began receiving treatment for her alcoholism and reconciled with estranged husband Tommy Chapman.
In 1976, Ballard died of a coronary thrombosis at the age of thirty-two. Her death has been called "one of rock's greatest tragedies".
Florence was the eighth of fifteen children. Smart, low-key and tomboyish, she developed a love of music at an early age thanks in large part to her father's passion for the box-string guitar. Prone to singing with her family and belting songs from her open bedroom window at night, she was encouraged by relatives and neighbors to pursue her interest in singing. Soon she was singing solo at churches and other functions in addition to taking music classes in school. Nicknamed "Blondie" because of the soft auburn hair and fair complexion that reflected her mixed African-American, Native American and European American heritage, Ballard was noticed in the neighborhood by local youth Mary Wilson, with whom she would eventually establish a close friendship after they performed in the same talent competition.
Milton Jenkins, a local man then best known for his work with the promising all-male group The Primes (who would go on to form The Temptations), took an interest in Ballard's voice. In 1959, Jenkins arranged an audition for Ballard before The Primes's Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks. Impressed by Ballard's polished performance, Jenkins decided The Primes would have a sister group called The Primettes, of which Ballard and Williams' girlfriend, Betty McGlown, would be the first members. Ballard and Wilson had promised to remember one another if either had landed a spot in a singing group, and Ballard did not renege; shortly thereafter, Ballard invited Wilson to join The Primettes. Wilson, gladly accepting, then recruited her friend Diane Ross. In 1960 McGlown would be replaced by Detroit teenager Barbara Martin; in 1961, Martin would leave the group to start a family.
Described by Wilson and friend Jesse Greer as having been a generally happy if not somewhat mischievous and sassy teenager, Ballard experienced a change in personality from which she would seemingly never recover as the result of an incident that occurred in the summer of 1960. Leaving a sock hop at Detroit's Graystone Ballroom one evening, Ballard was accidentally separated from her brother Billy, with whom she had attended the event. Accepting a ride home from a young man she felt she recognized, local high-school basketball player Reginald Harding, Ballard was instead driven north to an empty parking lot off of Woodward Avenue. There, Harding raped Ballard at knife point. After weeks of sequestered silence that confused her group mates, Ballard finally told Wilson and Ross what had happened to her. The girls were sympathetic, but also as confused as Ballard herself, whom they had considered strong-willed and unflappable. Consequently, Ballard's assault was never mentioned again, either in clinical therapy or in social conversation - something that Wilson believes heavily contributed to the self-destructive aspects of Ballard's adult personality, such as her cynicism, pessimism, and fear or mistrust of others.
Ballard, Ross, and Wilson shared leads on the Primettes' songs, and performed in local venues around the Detroit area. The Primettes would eventually sign to the Motown label as The Supremes, a name chosen by Ballard, on January 15 1961.
In the early days of The Supremes, all three girls took turns singing lead vocals. Florence sang lead on the second Supremes single, "Buttered Popcorn." According to fellow Supreme Mary Wilson, Ballard's voice was so loud that she was made 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. During this period, Ballard also briefly toured with The Marvelettes as a replacement for Wanda Young, who was out on maternity leave.
Diana Ross was made lead singer of the Supremes in late 1963, as Motown CEO Berry Gordy believed that Ross' voice, with its high, nasal quality, would help the group cross over to white audiences. Assigned to work with songwriting/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ross, Ballard, and Mary Wilson subsequently released ten number-one US pop hits between 1964 and 1967, all of which featured Ross as lead. Ballard never again sang lead on another released 45 but she had several leads and lead parts throughout her Supreme career on Supremes albums. Most notable are the second verse of "It Makes No Difference Now" from The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop, "Ain't That Good News" from We Remember Sam Cooke plus a few later released Christmas songs, "Silent Night" and "O'Holy Night." Wilson was also given the lead on "Baby Don't Go", on their debut album, "Come and Get These Memories", on the A'Go Go album and a partial lead with Ross on "Falling in Love with Love" on the Supremes Sing Rogers and Hart album, while Florence and Ross traded leads on "Manhattan" on the same album. Initially Ballard continued to sing a spotlight solo number, "People" from the Broadway musical Funny Girl, for the Supremes' stage show. In 1966, just prior to opening at the Copacabana supper club in New York City, Ballard complained of a sore throat and asked that she not rehearse "People" to save her voice for the performance. Gordy assigned "People" to Ross. Thus began a marked decline between Gordy and Ballard.
Over the next two years, Ballard and Gordy argued frequently, particularly as Ross became the group's centerpiece.
In early 1967, it was announced that Gordy would be changing the groups name to "Diana Ross & the Supremes". As the year progressed, Ballard frequently missed public appearances; and sometimes missed recording sessions as well. Gordy hired Cindy Birdsong, a singer with Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles, as a stand-in for Ballard in April 1967. By May, it was agreed that Birdsong would become Ballard's permanent replacement. Ballard's final performance with the group was their first appearance at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. She was sent home following the first show, after having stuck out her stomach from between the jacket and pants of her outfit. This behavior so outraged Gordy that he ordered her not to go onstage for the next show and instructed her to take the next plane home to Detroit.
These songs were not on the original release of Meet The Supremes but recorded in the same sessions and have all now been released feature:
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. The singles failed to chart, and Ballard's album for ABC was shelved. Thus, her musical career went into a rapid decline, and the $139,000 in settlement money was systematically depleted by the Chapmans' management agency, Talent Management, Inc. This agency, created by lawyers who had no previous experience in show business, was headed by Leonard Baun, an attorney Ballard would later fire and sue upon discovering he was already facing multiple charges of embezzlement. Furthermore, stipulations in Ballard's contract with Motown prohibited Ballard from mentioning in any promotional materials or noting on the back of her album liner that she had ever been in the Supremes or recorded for Motown.
Ballard continued her efforts at a solo career. In September 1968, she performed alongside Bill Cosby at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. That same year, Ballard rode on a float in that city's Bud Billiken 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. In 1971, Ballard unsuccessfully sued Motown for additional royalty payments she believed were due.
Over the next few years, Ballard laid low from 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, with lead singer Scherrie Payne, were performing at Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Wilson invited Ballard onstage to sing with the group. Ballard joined them on stage, but did not sing: instead, she played the tambourine. Although her onstage appearance brought loud cheers from the crowd, Ballard told Wilson that she had no interest in continuing a career in music.
Upon her return to Detroit, Ballard's financial situation declined further. Uninterested in returning to showbusiness, and with three children to support, she applied for welfare. This news and the story of her downward spiral hit the national newspapers.
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 accident settlement money, Ballard purchased a small house on Shaftsbury Avenue in Detroit for herself and her children and made a decision to return to singing. Around this same time, Ballard also reconciled with her estranged husband.
Backed by the female rock group "The Deadly Nightshade," Ballard performed as a part of the Joan Little Defense League at a concert held at Detroit's Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium on June 25 1975. Following the success of this performance, Ballard received requests for newspaper and television interviews, including an appearance on the local Detroit 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 at 10:05 a.m. 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. In the years following Florence Ballard's death, Diana Ross established trust funds in the names of each of Ballard's three children. Berry Gordy paid for the funeral.
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.
Another biography, The True Story of Florence Ballard, was published by Ballard's sister Maxine Ballard in 2007. The book comes with a CD containing Flo's last interview, in which she shares her story behind her painful split from the group. The CD also contains a tribute from her sister, Maxine "Precious" Ballard. Peter Benjaminson's The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard was released on April 1, 2008.
Dreamgirls, a 1981 Broadway musical, was inspired by the Supremes, and the central character of Effie White, 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 significant notice: Holliday won the 1982 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance, while Hudson has been awarded a number of critics' awards, including a 2007 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture. At the conclusion of her Golden Globe Award acceptance speech, Hudson dedicated her win to Ballard. Hudson later went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture at the Academy Awards.