Singer Florence Ballard became famous in the 1960s as a member of The Supremes, a group that she started with childhood friends Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. She sang on 16 different Top 40 hits but left the group in 1967 after a dispute with Motown Records. She died on February 22, 1976, in Detroit, Michigan at only 32 years old.
Florence Ballard was born in Detroit, Michigan, on June 30, 1943. The ninth in a household of many children, Ballard and her large family moved around frequently among different public housing projects before finally settling down in the Brewster-Douglass Projects in 1958. Ballard participated in the church choir from an early age. Lovingly referred to as “Blondie” because of her auburn hair and mixed racial heritage, Ballard would befriend a neighborhood girl named Mary Wilson after competing against her in several local talent shows.
Milton Jenkins of The Primes (a singing group that would later become The Temptations) was recruiting girls to audition for an all-female quartet when he became impressed by Ballard’s singing style at a talent show. Having outdone herself at the audition, Ballard was commissioned by Jenkins to find other members to form The Primes’ new sister group, The Primettes. Ballard immediately invited her good friend Mary Wilson, who in turn recruited another neighborhood pal, Diane Earle, later known as Diana Ross. Betty McGlown soon completed the quartet. (McGlown would leave the group in 1962 and be replaced by Barbara Martin. When Martin also quit the group, Ballard, Wilson, and Ross decided it would remain a trio.)
In the summer of 1960, a 17-year-old Ballard endured a tragic incident that would permanently shape her personality and shift her previously happy outlook on life to mistrust and fear of strangers. After leaving a sock hop at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom one warm summer night, Ballard was separated from her brother Billy and accepted a ride home from a young man whom she thought she recognized, a local high-school basketball player. Instead of being driven home, Ballard was taken north of Detroit to an empty parking lot where the man raped her at knifepoint.
For the next several weeks, Ballard secluded herself from the public, even hiding from her bewildered bandmates who knew nothing of the horrible event that had transpired. Finally, Ballard told her group mates what happened to her. Although the girls were sympathetic, they remained confused about Ballard’s new behavior; she had always been a headstrong, unflappable character, but now there was an apparent change in her persona. Wilson would later attribute Ballard’s personality as an adult and subsequent self-destructive behavior to the assault Ballard experienced when she was a teen.
The Primettes never officially designated anyone as the lead vocalist, so often the group would just sing in unison or swap roles among the trio as lead singer. After a couple of years performing at sock hops and jubilees, the group signed with Motown Records as The Supremes, a name chosen by Ballard, on January 15, 1961. Ballard sang lead vocals on the hit “Buttered Popcorn” when she was just 17 years old. Her voice was so powerful on the track that studio engineers requested that she stand 17 feet away from the microphone while she sang. During this period, Ballard also stood in for Wanda Young of the Marvelettes, who was out on maternity leave. (Gladys Horton, lead singer of The Marvelettes, sought Ballard’s advice before she famously recorded “Please Mr. Postman.”)
Although Ballard had a huge and soulful voice, she never sang lead again on another released 45 single for the group. In 1963, Motown leader Berry Gordy named Ross the lead singer of The Supremes. However, Ballard did sing lead parts throughout her Supremes career on several album tracks. Most famous were the second verses of “It Makes No Difference Now” from The Supremes Sing Country Western And Pop and “Ain’t That Good News” from We Remember Sam Cooke, plus the Christmas songs “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.”
Over the next several years, the relationship between Ballard and Gordy became more and more strained, as the all-powerful Motown boss sought to make Ross the star of The Supremes. By the time Gordy renamed the act Diana Ross and The Supremes in 1967, Ballard had begun to retaliate by skipping scheduled public appearances and studio sessions. Her last performance with the legendary trio came in Las Vegas in June 1967, with Gordy bringing in vocalist Cindy Birdsong as a replacement. By August of the same year, the Detroit Free Press reported that she was taking a leave of absence from The Supremes to recover from “exhaustion.” In reality, Gordy had booted her from the group.
Ballard married a Motown chauffeur named Thomas Chapman in February 1968 and quickly hired him as her new manager after her departure from the label. 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, but the singles failed to chart. Ballard’s album for ABC was shelved, sending her musical career into a downward spiral. Ballard also faced financial troubles after hiring an alleged embezzler as her business attorney; she later sued him for money owed after discovering he had been skimming off the top of her earnings. To add insult to injury, there were stipulations in Ballard’s new contract with ABC that forbade Ballard from mentioning her earlier membership in The Supremes for promotional use or marketing any of her albums.
In October 1968, Ballard gave birth to twin girls Michelle and Nicole Chapman. She had a third child, Lisa, in 1971. Troubles in her personal life continued, however, as Thomas left Ballard later that year, causing her home to go into foreclosure. Ballard’s financial woes worsened because she refused to return to the stage. With three young girls at home and no income, she eventually had to file for welfare.
Ballard’s string of bad luck began to turn in 1975 when her former attorney’s office settled an insurance dispute with her. The settlement allowed her to purchase a small home for herself and her three children. Ballard also reconciled with her estranged husband. Fueled by a resurgence of energy, she began performing again with the female rock group The Deadly Nightshade. Following her return to the world of music, Ballard was booked for several television and magazine interviews and began exploring ways to revive her career.
Just when Ballard’s life finally seemed to be on an upward swing, tragedy struck. On February 21, 1976, she was checked into Detroit’s Mt. Carmel Mercy Hospital. She died the next day of a blood clot in one of her coronary arteries according to examiners. She was only 32 years old.
Questions have arisen about the cause of Ballard’s death over the years, with her sister Maxine Ballard Jenkins alleging that there was foul play. Ballard’s short life witnessed more than its share of disappointment and sadness. But her contribution to music, especially as a member of The Supremes, brought joy to fans around the world. Ballard sang on 16 different Top 40 hits; she, Ross, and Wilson dazzled the world with their talent and style, becoming role models to millions of people.