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The Lost Supreme. The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard (Peter Benjaminson) - a review by Toby Broom.

The bare bones of the tragic story of the lost Supreme, Florence Ballard, will be known to most music fans; the founder-member elbowed aside by Diana Ross, sacked by Berry Gordy, ripped off by Motown, and, on welfare and with a  drink problem, dead before her 33rd birthday. Peter Benjaminson’s book, centred on extensive interviews with Florence Ballard (always ‘Flo’ in his narrative) in the year before her death puts the flesh on the bones with insight, conciseness, and empathy.

Growing up in Detroit in a large family with southern roots, Florence Ballard’s church-soaked teenage voice came to the attention of The Temptations’ (then The Primes) management. The Primettes, formed by Flo with her childhood friend Mary Wilson first recruited Betty McGlown and subsequently, after a recommendation from their Brewster Projects neighbourhood, then Diane Ross (as she was known then). The Primettes soon signed – without legal counsel - for Motown on little better than a ‘sharecropper’ style contract, actually signatured by their mothers. Later, the girls were given an hour to come up with a better name than The Primettes, too 1950s for Berry Gordy’s tastes. Overriding objections from Diane, Flo chose ‘The Supremes’.

After a hitless start to their careers, leading to an in-house nickname of the No Hit Supremes and behind-the-hands snickering at Diane’s nasal singing tone, Gordy teamed the girls, on a roll of the dice, with Holland-Dozier-Holland for (Baby Baby) Where Did Our Love Go and the rest is history. Ten Billboard number 1’s, 5 consecutively, between 1964 and 1967, millions of record sales, tours, TV appearances, commercials… The global renown of The Supremes at their peak was matched only by The Beatles.

As Benjaminson carefully dissects, behind the hits and behind The Supremes’ spearheading of the Motown march to greatness, two interlocking dynamics were at work. Berry Gordy’s vision for Motown was a hit-making machine turning out music with a propulsive beat and upbeat lyrics aimed squarely beyond the confines of the black, R and B audience and charts to young, white Americans with radios at home and in their (Detroit built) cars. The lead vehicle in Gordy’s convoy, The Supremes lead by (now) Diana Ross, a limited vocalist but an artist with star-power and an ambition to succeed matched only by his own.

Gordy effectively lit the long fuse of Florence Ballard’s departure from her own group in 1965 by making Diana lead singer on People, a tune better suited to Flo’s voice, and then declaring that Diana was to lead the group on stage and on all future recordings. Benjaminson inserts the stiletto on Diana’s vocal abilities with precision, citing a school report grading Diana only a D for singing, and giving examples of singing off-key or singing through her nose.

Diana Ross’s professional and personal relationship with Berry Gordy and the overwhelming commercial success of The Supremes swept all before them, but drove wedges between the singers themselves. By 1967, fuelled by relentless touring and Motown politics, gaps between the girls had become chasms and Flo’s resentment at her lot was on public show. Gordy went all-in; fat-shaming Flo, picking on Flo’s liking for alcohol and then openly grooming Cindy Birdsong as a fill-in Supreme. Flo, seeing the writing on the wall for her place in her group, fell further into depression and a beer or two too many culminating in a poor performance at the Las Vegas Flamingo in July 1967. Berry Gordy sacked her the next day.

Benjaminson’s account pivots on this moment. Crushed and bewildered, Flo signs away, again without counsel, her past and future life as ‘the former Supreme’ for $15,000 with a Motown suit. Shortly afterwards, someone, Flo presumes Gordy, had delivered a 1967 Cadillac El Dorado in plum rose. $15k and a Caddy against millions in royalties, future royalties and even propriety over the name ‘Supremes’.

Flo’s legal travails and her own woeful choices of blood-sucking lawyers loom darkly over the second half of the book. Attorney Leonard Blaun sued Motown for Flo and secured $160,000 cash and $300,000 in stocks which had been held in her name. Blaun trousered nearly all of it. Flo then sued Blaun’s firm and, exhausted and desperate, finally settles for $75,000.

Florence Ballard’s singing career enjoyed a short-lived post Supremes revival. She signed for ABC, showcased her classically soulful voice on Van McCoy’s Love Ain’t Love and then watched the release die a death through lack of promotion.

Benjaminson tactfully pieces together the fragments of the tragic final act. Losing her home through foreclosure, her health and, for a while, her sanity, Flo and her three daughters end up living with Flo’s sister, one of 12 surviving Ballard siblings. Flo’s on/off, opportunistic husband Tommy Chapman, once Berry Gordy’s factotum, finally vacates the picture. On welfare and on the beers, Florence Ballard died of coronary artery thrombosis in February 1976, 8 years to the day since signing her life as a Supreme away. She was 32.

The Lost Supreme is concise, crisply written and covers much of the Motown hinterland to Florence Ballard’s story. Although he attempts to be even-handed towards them, the case that Gordy and Ross trampled over Ballard to achieve their dreams is coldly made. Telling vignettes abound. Gordy throws Flo out of a party at his mansion after Ross picks a fight with her. Flo passes a portrait of Gordy as Napoleon on the way out. Ross, booed by sections of the 5,000 strong crowd at Flo’s funeral, marches straight up to the family seats in the church, takes one and then plonks Flo’s youngest daughter on her knee for the cameras.

Readers keen for more may well want to turn next to Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl, My Life As A Supreme not least because Mary remains an enigmatic figure in The Lost Supreme, forever holding the ring between Gordy, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard.

Toby Broom, April 2020.

The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard by Peter Benjaminson is a 2009 Chicago Review Press Laurence Hill book publication. Available to order in the new book section.

 



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