The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard
By Peter Benjaminson Lawrence
Hill Books, 212 pp., $24.95
When most people think of Florence Ballard - if people bother to think of her at all - she is usually categorized and dismissed as yet another terse cautionary tale about drugs, alcohol, and the toxicity of the music industry.
A member of the legendary Supremes, who more than 40 years after their chart-topping heyday remain the gold standard for all "girl groups," Ballard was barely out of her teens when she became an international star alongside childhood pals Mary Wilson and Diana Ross. Within three years, she was fired from the group, and at age 32, Ballard was dead.
Those are the headlines that, though accurate, undermine Ballard in death just as much as she was overshadowed during her brief life. Both the play and film "Dreamgirls," very loosely based on the rise of the Supremes, feature a Ballard-like character in Effie White, the big-voiced lead singer first shunted to the background, then exiled from the group. Effie ultimately gets a happy ending of sorts; for Ballard, there was only an overwhelming sense of potential wasted and a life interrupted.
What Ballard has instead received, especially in recent years, is a series of biographies, the latest of which is Peter Benjaminson's "The Lost Supreme." A former reporter in Ballard's hometown, Benjaminson was working for the Detroit Free Press in 1975 when he heard from an editor that Ballard was on welfare. He drove to her home and spoke with the singer, who was polite, but reticent to discuss her financial difficulties.
Benjaminson's subsequent story received attention worldwide, and Ballard was so surprised by the genuine sympathy and compassion she received, she invited the young reporter back for several interviews.
"Flo was more statuesque than heavy, with clear skin and a ready laugh," recalls Benjaminson, who says Ballard "spoke in a low, pleasant but somewhat depressed drawl about the ups and downs of her life."
Over a series of evenings and weekends, Ballard met with Benjaminson, always serving him Kool-Aid as well as stories filled with the glitter and heartache of her Motown years.
Written as much with a reporter's dry eye for facts as a fan's reverence, much of what Benjaminson discusses here may already be familiar to even casual music fans - Ballard (who founded and named the group), Wilson, and Ross meeting in Detroit's Brewster Projects, the public housing complex where they lived; the early failures and hunger for success; their emergence as stars and icons with a string of indelible hit songs such as "Where Did Our Love Go," "Stop! In the Name of Love," and "Back in My Arms Again."
Unsurprisingly, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy is portrayed as duplicitous and dictatorial, while Ross comes off as a pathologically ambitious woman who would stop at nothing to achieve the success she not only desired, but believed she deserved. (Her long-term affair with Gordy, with whom she had a daughter, certainly didn't hurt her crusade.) The fact that Ballard had the more dynamic voice - Marvin Gaye called Ballard "a hell of a singer" - only made Ross more determined to undercut Ballard as often as possible, even referring to her onstage as "the fat one," which the curvy Ballard was not.
Other than the background "baby-babys" and "oohs" that became part of the Supremes' signature sound, Ballard's voice was never prominently featured on the group's hits. Yet in "The Lost Supreme," we finally hear Ballard. This book is largely based on more than eight hours of taped interviews Benjaminson conducted with Ballard in 1975, the year before her death from heart disease and hypertension.
This perhaps gives the book more resonance than others written about Ballard. Dead for more than 30 years, Ballard finally gets to have her say, and while her memories are subjective, she manages to tell her story with more dignity than rancor. And while that isn't as glorious as being the lead singer for one of the most successful groups in pop music history, it shows more respect for Ballard than she was afforded during her meteoric but aborted career.
Renee Graham is a freelance writer.