The Life of Florence Ballard:The Lost Supreme

How the tour ended for former Supreme

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.

Someday we'll be together

At Florence Ballard's funeral, Motown poured out its love and chaos
broke out.

March 31, 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 record
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 lawyer-ing that deprived
her of many 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 written "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. Today we present a second excerpt from the 213-page
opus. (The narrative of her dismissal from the Supremes ran Sunday and
is available on freep.com along with extensive photos of Ballard.) This
is the story of Ballard's funeral -- where she was upstaged one last
time by the not-so-divine Ms. Ross.

From Chapter 23, "The Lost Supreme"

On a winter day in 1976, Flo visited her mother's house, where her
sister Linda was also living, and ate one ice cube after another out of
the freezer. When her mother asked why, Flo said: "I feel hot all the
time." Then she told Mrs. Ballard, "If anything happens to me, Mommy,
take my kids."

Flo returned home but her condition worsened overnight. Her daughter
Nicole called Linda the next morning to report something was seriously
wrong.

Linda was anxious to reach her sister but couldn't start her car until
late morning. Nicole, growing increasingly frantic, also kept trying to
reach her father, Tommy Chapman, who was working as a chauffeur for a
local minister.

Linda was also calling him. "After I kept pleading with him to do
something," Linda said, "he finally picked me up."

When Linda and Tommy reached Flo's house, Linda found her sister, who
had protected her from a rock-throwing boy approximately a quarter of a
century earlier, lying on the floor unable to move. "I had to use all my
strength to pick her up off the floor and put her on the couch," Linda
said. "Tommy didn't help me. When I asked her what was wrong, she told
me in a robotic voice that she couldn't move from the waist down."

Linda, who died in 2007, told Flo that she was going to be all right and
called an ambulance to take the former Supreme to Mt. Carmel Mercy
Hospital. Linda stayed with the children while Tommy went with Flo to
the hospital, where doctors discovered she had a blood clot in a
coronary artery. Tommy Chapman said later that by 2:30 a.m. the doctors
had told him they felt that Flo was "pulling through" and he could go
home.

"Before I left the hospital, she was smiling and had just fallen off to
sleep," Chapman said. "About 7:30 a.m., I received a call from the
hospital asking me to get there as soon as possible. When I got there, I
waited for about 30 minutes and the doctor came out and told me my wife
was dead."

A date to remember

Florence Ballard died on Feb. 22, 1976. The cause on the death
certificate was coronary artery thrombosis. She was 32.

It was eight years to the day after Flo had signed the final agreement
giving up her membership in the Supremes. This may not have been a
coincidence. Studies have shown even gravely ill people often hang on to
life in order to die on a day that is meaningful to them.

The Wayne County medical examiner, Dr. Werner Spitz, indicated in news
articles at the time he'd been told that before Ballard had been
admitted to the emergency room, she had been drinking and taking two
medications, one to facilitate weight loss and the other to counteract
high blood pressure.

The autopsy told a different story. According to assistant medical
examiner James Mullaney, the physician who performed the procedure,
there were no drugs in Ballard's system except a small amount of
Seniquan, an antidepressant.

Although Dr. Mullaney indicated he'd been told that Flo also had been
taking Tenuate, an appetite suppressant, and Lasix, a drug used to treat
excessive fluid accumulation and swelling, he discovered no traces of
these drugs in her system and only a trace of alcohol.

What killed Flo, according to the autopsy, was a combination of heart
disease, a blood clot, hypertension and obesity. Mullaney described her
as "somewhat obese." A person of her height and weight -- 5-foot-7
Ballard weighed 195 -- is certainly heavy but not morbidly obese.

Ross arrives at funeral

Ballard's funeral was held at the New Bethel Baptist Church. The
congregation was ministered to by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, father of
Aretha Franklin. Before the funeral began, a group of about 5,000 fans
wearing everything from evening gowns to work clothes had gathered
outside the church. When a limousine pulled up next to the church and
Diana Ross jumped out, the fans booed. Diana's mother, standing nearby,
looked extremely unhappy.

It's not clear if Diana had been invited. Husband Tommy Chapman made the
funeral arrangements and he died in the 1980s. But Flo's daughters and
other relatives said Ross knew the family would welcome her.

Inside the church, Ross marched down the center aisle and was seated
next to Tommy in the front pew reserved for family. Taking Flo's
youngest girl, Lisa, from her father, Diana placed the child in her lap.
The picture of the former "first Supreme" holding the daughter of the
deceased "lost Supreme" would be printed around the world. It was the
only image of the funeral most people saw, making the occasion an emblem
of Diana's starhood rather than a celebration of Florence's life and a
scene of mourning for her death.

Every act from Motown sent a floral arrangement. Ross' said: "I Love
You, Blondie." Berry Gordy's said: "Good Bye, Flo."

Just as Rev. Franklin completed the ceremony, Ross jumped up and said:
"Can I have the microphone please? Mary and I would like to have a
silent prayer."

According to Wilson, Ross had not told her she was planning to do this.
The two weren't even on speaking terms. But Wilson could hardly refuse.
"I believe nothing disappears and Flo will always be with us," Ross
said. When she handed the mic to Wilson, all she could think of to say
was, "I loved her very much."

'Pandemonium'

As the mourners filed out, the organist played "Someday We'll Be
Together" -- a Supremes hit recorded and performed after Flo had been
thrown out of the group -- over and over. The crowd pushed toward
Ballard's coffin and the pallbearers -- Duke Fakir, Obie Benson, Levi
Stubbs and Lawrence Payton of the Four Tops and Marv Johnson and Thearon
Hill -- had to be escorted by attendants. The onlookers pressed forward
with such energy that the morticians tried to slow them down by throwing
into their midst the flower arrangements. The crowd destroyed them.

"It was pandemonium," Linda said. "The fans started jumping on top of
the hearse, taking Flo's flowers, trying to get something that belonged
to her." When the burial party reached the cemetery, Detroit Memorial
Park, only Flo's family, the pallbearers including the Four Tops and
Mary Wilson were there.

Flo's gravestone read: "Florence Glenda Chapman, Beloved Wife and Mother
June 30, 1943-Feb. 22, 1976."

The only indication of her musical career was a carving of two musical
notes between the dates of her birth and death.

Flo's mother, Lurlee, was understandably absent at the burial. She had
lost five children at various stages of their lives.

Also absent was Ross. The only person other than Mary Wilson who had
shared Flo's greatest moments had skipped out on the last act.

Excerpted with permission of Lawrence Hill Books