Sunday, February 25, 2007
R&B singer and founder of one of America's most successful female vocal groups of all time, the Supremes.
In Detroit's Brewster Housing Project, teenager Florence Ballard's sister was dating the manager of a male R&B group, The Primes (later to become the Temptations). Flo was encouraged to form a female group that became known as The Primettes. There were originally four Primettes but the final two to join Flo were singers Mary Wilson and Diana Ross both also from the Brewster housing project.
In January 1961, the Primettes were signed by Motown Records, who re-named them the Supremes. Florence was the lead singer on most of their early records but she also shared lead with Diana Ross and occasionally Mary. By 1963, with songs written by Holland, Dozier, Holland - Diana became the lone featured vocalist with Flo and Mary singing backup.
Motown released eight singles by the group over the next two years. It wasn't until 1964's Where Did Our Love Go that the record-buying public began to take notice, but after this first hit The Supremes were rarely out of the number one position, songs such as Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop! In The Name Of Love and Back In My Arms Again establishing them as one of the top acts in the country. The group scored 10 No. 1 hits, appeared on the "The Ed Sullivan Show" 20 times, headlined top night clubs and starred in their own top-rated TV specials.
This period of triumph for The Supremes became one of personal torment for Ballard, as she was believed to have the style, temperament and capacity to be a solo singer.
Velvet voiced Mary Wilson never pictured herself as a solo singer. Her dream was to use singing to leave the Detroit ghetto and become famous. With The Supremes, her dream came true. Stuck between her two ambitious friends, she was content to sing in the background.
Gordy continued his reconstruction of the group as a vehicle for Diana alone, reducing Ballard and Wilson's role even more. Ballard resisted this change.
The resulting friction took a toll on Florence and on her relationship with Motown. She was ousted from the group in 1967. The group became Diana Ross and the Supremes with Cindy Birdsong replacing Florence.
In 1968 Ballard married Tommy Chapman, a former Motown Chauffeur, and they had three children together. Flo struggled with a solo career but was making a come back when she died of heart failure at age 32 in 1976.
I find it hard to think that Dreamgirls is not inspired by the Supremes. There are unmistakable similarities with Effie and Florence's story. Dreamgirl actress Jennifer Hudson has said that she feels she is giving voice and tribute to Florence Ballard in her role as Effie.
During the shows, Diana would introduce Florence as "the quiet one". In reality, however, Florence was anything but quiet. Everyone knew her loud voice and her roaring laugh.