Black History Month- Day 20

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Florence Ballard (1943-1976)

Born in Detroit, Michigan, on June 30, 1943. The ninth in a household of 13 children, Florence 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 which 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, Dian Ross, and Betty McGlown soon completed the quartet. (McGlown would leave the group in 1962 and was 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 a 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 public, even hiding from her bewildered band mates 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. Mary 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.

In 1963, Motown leader Berry Gordy named Diana Ross lead singer of The Supremes. However, Ballard did sing lead parts throughout her Supremes career on several album tracks not released as singles. 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 Berry Gordy became more and more strained, as the all-powerful Motown boss sought to make Diana 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. When Gordy brought in a young Patti LaBelle to stand in for Ballard, it was the beginning of the end of Ballard’s run with The Supremes. Her last performance with the legendary trio came in Las Vegas in June 1967. 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. 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.

Just when Ballard’s life finally seemed to be on an upward swing, tragedy struck. On February 21, 1976, she checked herself into Detroit’s Mt. Carmel Mercy Hospital, complaining of pain in her extremities. A day later, she died of a blood clot on one of her coronary arteries. She was only 32 years old.

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, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson dazzled the world with their talent and style, becoming role models to millions of people.

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