It was 44 years ago Saturday (February 22nd, 1976) that Supremes' co-founder Florence Ballard died at the age of 32. The singer died of coronary thrombosis — a blood clot in one of her coronary arteries. She has been cited by many friends and peers from the early Motown era as being the strongest singer of the three original Supremes, which included Diana Ross and Mary Wilson. Unfortunately for Ballard and Wilson, Motown chief Berry Gordy's plan to spotlight Ross on all of the group's singles pushed them into the roles of Ross' background singers.
Ballard was featured on several of the group's album cuts throughout the years, including “Buttered Popcorn” — which was the group's third single, “Ain't That Good News,” “Silent Night,” “Heavenly Father,” and her live solo spot, a cover of Barbra Streisand's “People.”
Mary Wilson says she was amazed by Ballard's raw vocal talent and regrets that more people didn't recognize Ballard for her unique gift: “Florence actually was a great singer. In fact (laughs) every time I hear Etta James I think of Florence, because Florence had that same type of a voice as Etta James. And at a very young age. And had she lived, would've been really able to have really developed that style. I mean she would be like Aretha Franklin and Etta James today.”
Shortly before his recent death, former Temptations lead singer Dennis Edwards told us that it seemed as though Diana Ross' ambition ultimately forced Florence Ballard into the shadows: “They say Florence actually was the best singer in the group. She didn't get the opportunity to be the best singer in the group, because Diana was a little bit more energetic. Y'know Diana was the type — when she wanted something she got it, y'know? (laughs)”
When Ballard was forced out of the group in 1967 due to increasing personality clashes with the group and Motown, she was offered up a one-time severance payout of only $139,804.94. She unsuccessfully sued for back royalties in 1971.
She continued to record and perform occasionally and won a large legal settlement in 1975 after a “slip and fall” accident. Just prior to her death, she was reportedly making plans to begin recording again.
At her funeral, Ballard's Motown label mates, including Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and Ross, came to pay their final respects. A tearful Ross was booed by fans outside the church, and was photographed sitting with Ballard's immediate family, including her two small children, at the service.
Ballard's work lives on in the numerous hits she recorded during her time with the Supremes. These included “You Can't Hurry Love,” “Come See About Me,” “I Hear A Symphony,” “Baby Love,” “My World Is Empty Without You,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” and many, many more.
In 1988 she was inducted along with the classic era Supremes — Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and her replacement Cindy Birdsong — into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Wilson says that that Ballard's emotional problems stemmed from being sexually attacked as a teenager: “Probably the main thing that destroyed her was being raped when she was 14-years-old and we were still the Primettes, and that basically destroyed her. So people say that money and fame can make you happy and all that stuff, it really doesn't because it was always eating at Florence. And the minute that things happened to the Supremes that were bad, she was not able to do it because she was already weakened.”
In 1999, author Randall Wilson published the first major book on Ballard's life, titled Florence Ballard: Forever Faithful!
In 2006 Ballard's sister Maxine “Precious” Jenkins began publishing an online book, titled A Life Supreme: The True Story Of Florence Ballard.
Ballard's time with the Supremes is said to be the inspiration behind the Broadway hit musical, and Oscar-winning movie, Dreamgirls.
Following her 2007 Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Role for Dreamgirls, Jennifer Hudson acknowledged the connection to the Supremes and why she dedicated her award to the Ballard: “'Effie' is loosely based on Florence Ballard and we did our research and we studied the Supremes. And in reading Florence Ballard's story it gave me the passion to want to deliver it. And I felt as if Effie was created as Florence's voice. So I felt it was my job to deliver on her end.”
Mary Wilson regrets that the public never got to see the strength of Florence Ballard's many talents: “She was really just a wonderful kind of, how can you say, earthy person. And the thing that I think the mass public is not aware of is that she was tremendously humorous. She was as funny as Pearl Bailey, you know but in a deadpan kind of way. So her talent was really immense.”
In 2010 it was reported that filming was expected to start shortly in Atlanta on the first biopic on Ballard's life and career. At the suggestion of Ballard's daughters, R&B star Faith Evans — the widow of rapper Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace — will star as Ballard in Blondie — The Florence Ballard Story. There's been no word as to when filming will start on movie, which is based on author Peter Benjaminson's book The Lost Supreme.