The ‘original’ Supremes: Remembering Florence ‘Flo’ Ballard
By Anthony Maliki
Florence Ballard’s death on February 22, 1976 marked a dark watershed in the music industry in the United States of America (USA) and indeed the world. She would have been 70 years on June 30 this year. Ballard popularly called “Flo” by her friends, was credited as the pillar and “originator” of The Supremes-the highly successful all-female music group. Infact, she was behind the formation of the original group in 1959, made up of herself, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross and Betty McGlown.
This was how it started: while Ballard was at Northwestern High School in Michigan, she competed in a talent hunt show alongside Mary and shortly afterwards the two became friends. Thereafter, in 1959, she was spotted by a scout, Milton Jenkins, who managed a male group called Primes. He was looking for a female counterpart for the group and impressed by Ballard’s performance, he asked her to look for more singers and she invited Mary, who in turn called Diana with Betty McGlown completing the quartet and the group was named Primettes.
Shortly afterwards came the Motown Records audition when the group was introduced to founder Berry Gordy by his staff Richard Morris. However, he did not allow them an instant performance because they were still in school and would only grant them permit after graduation.
Even then, it was not easy going until the girls persisted and eventually Gordy allowed them to record songs with the labe in August 1960 with the recording, “After All”, which included all four members singing lead parts. Again, later that year, they recorded the songs “You can depend on me”, “I want a guy” and “Buttered popcorn”, the latter song featuring Ballard in her first song as lead vocalist.
The ladies also provided background vocals for more established Motown artistes including Marvin Gaye, Mary Johnson and Mary Wells. In January of 1961, Gordy relented and allowed the group to be signed under the condition they change their name. Gordy and his staff Janie Bradford then wrote a list of names for the girls which was presented to Ballard who eventually picked the name “Supremes”. Though the other members felt that they would be mistaken for a male vocal group, the name stuck and Gordy signed them on formally January 15.
By the spring of 1962, Martin had left the group to get married and the rest continued as a trio. That same year, Ballard briefly left the group to perform with The Marvelettes, replacing Wanda Young, who was on a maternity leave. Ballard returned to the Supremes in May of the year and the following June had their first charted single with “Young Heart Belongs to me”, recorded before Martin left the group. Between 1961 and 1963, eight Supremes singles failed to chart successfully. Though there had been no designated lead vocalist in the Supremes, Berry Gordy felt Diana Ross’ pop-oriented vocals would bring the group success.
In 1964, the group scored their first number-one single, “Where did our love go” and eventually scored a total of three number-one singles in 1964 alone including “Baby Love” and “Come see about me”. Ballard was given a lead vocal on the song, “People”, which became her trademark, lead onstage for a number of years and she became popular with audiences due to her onstage bluntness, which included telling jokes, which went over well.
According to Wilson, Ballard’s vocals were so loud that she was made to stand 17 feet away from her microphone during recording sessions. Her voice was often described as “soulful, big, rich and commanding”, ranging from deep contralto to operatic soprano. All-in-all, Ballard contributed vocals to ten number-one pop hits and 16 top forty hit singles between 1963 and 1967.
Despite the Supremes’ rise to fame, Ballard was reportedly depressed later complaining that their success had a negative impact on their once-close bond, once stressing in 1975 that she, Ross and Wilson would have their own hotel rooms whereas in the past they had shared one hotel room.
Ballard also felt that Motown’s role in making Diana Ross a star was also having a negative impact on the group. To combat these issues and more, Ballard turned to alcohol and constantly had arguments with Wilson and Diana and also began to have conflicts with Gordy as she felt he had cheapened the group’s sound from R&B to pop.
Born in Detriot, Michigan on June 30, 1943, Ballard was removed from the Supremes in 1967 and signed with ABC Records in 1968 forging on an unsuccessful solo career. She struggled with alcoholism, depression and poverty for three years making an attempt for a comeback when she died in February of 1976 at the age of 32 years. Her death was considered by one critic as “one of rock’s greatest tragedies”. Ballard was posthumously inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Supremes in 1988.(Daily Trust, June 22. 2013)