Hulton Archive In December 1970 John Lennon released a song called "God" with…
- Posted on Oct 8th 2010 4:30PM by James Sullivan
Gilles Petard, Redferns
But Flo Ballard was estranged from the group she started by 1967. A few years later, she was back in the projects.
Faith Evans said this week that she will portray the tragic Supremes singer in an upcoming film about her life. Ballard's downfall inspired the character of Effie White in the 1980s Broadway smash 'Dreamgirls,' which became the 2006 film of the same name. Jennifer Hudson dedicated the Golden Globe she received for the movie to Ballard, who wasn't around to take credit.
The ninth of 15 children, called "Blondie" from a young age for her light hair and complexion, a teenage Ballard auditioned in the late 1950s for the manager of a Detroit group called the Primes, who would soon evolve into the Temptations. Ballard and Betty McGlown, the wife of the Temptations' Paul Williams, were made the core members of a new group called the Primettes. Ballard invited her childhood friend Mary Wilson to join, and they soon welcomed another girl from the projects, "Diane" Ross, as she was then known.
After McGlown and another short-lived member left, the group settled in as a trio, taking the new name the Supremes at Ballard's suggestion. By 1964 the group was the pride of Motown Records, beginning an amazing streak of five straight US No. 1 singles with 'Where Did Our Love Go.' By early 1967 they'd already compiled 10 No. 1's in all, including 'Stop! In the Name of Love,' 'You Can't Hurry Love' and 'You Keep Me Hangin' On.'
Though Ballard had the group's strongest voice -- during recording sessions she was instructed to stand several feet away from her microphone -- she was quickly upstaged by Ross, who had the support of Motown founder Berry Gordy. By the summer of 1967s the group was being billed as Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Ballard struggled with her diminishing role. She put on weight and began showing up for gigs and sessions drunk -- or not at all. Years before, her carefree personality had been shattered when she was allegedly raped at knifepoint by a future NBA player, Reggie Harding. (Harding, whose career was marred by his threats to shoot fellow players and his general manager, was himself shot to death in Detroit at age 30.)
Ballard's behavior grew so unpredictable that Gordy sent her home and replaced her with Cindy Birdsong, who had started out with Patti Labelle's group, the Bluebelles. Managed by her husband, a former Motown chauffeur, Ballard cut two unsuccessful singles for ABC Records before she was dropped from the label.
Though she played Richard Nixon's inaugural ball in early 1969, her career was in trouble. Prohibited from presenting herself as a former Supreme, or even a product of Motown, she was unable to secure another record deal. Meanwhile, her lawyers frittered away a settlement payment from Motown worth more than $100,000. By the early 1970s, separated from her husband, Ballard and her three daughters were forced to move into the projects when the bank foreclosed on their house.
In 1975, however, Ballard's prospects finally took a turn for the better. She began discussing a return to music, and she received a mysterious $50,000 – reportedly a settlement from her lawyers' embezzlement, though she didn't rule out the possibility the check had come from Ross. She even called her former bandmate, with whom she hadn't spoken in years.
"The next thing I knew," Ross would recall, "she was dead."
In February 1976, Ballard checked into a hospital complaining of numbness in her arms and legs. She died the next day of heart failure resulting from a blood clot in a coronary artery. She weighed 200 pounds. She was just 32 years old. Ballard's mother said that the cause of death wasn't her daughter's medical condition but "a broken heart."
Though Ross was booed when she arrived at the funeral, she sat in the front pew with Ballard's mother and children anyway. The Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha's father, presided. At the end of the service, the church organist played the recessional hymn -- the Supremes' 'Someday We'll Be Together.'