Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Florence Ballard - The Powerhouse Behind the Dream

Florence Ballard - The Powerhouse Behind the Dream

On February 22, 1976, Florence Glenda Ballard passed away at the age of thirty-two due to heart failure. But just what makes this woman so special?

Florence "Flo", "Blondie" Ballard (b.1943 d.1976) was an African-American singer with great looks, and a booming and beautiful, soulful voice. She was also the founder of one of the world's most successfull groups of all time, the Supremes (1959-1977). These ladies, consisting of three girls Mary Wilson (b.1944), Diane (Diana) Ross (b.1944), and, of course, Florence Ballard, formed in 1959 as the Primettes and eventually were signed to Motown in January 1961. Flo, at the time, sang many leads, including their rendition of "(Night Time Is) The Right Time". However, in 1963, Flo's turn at lead mic began to fade away, as it was turned over to Diane, who had more of a "white", teen-boppy style.*

* - Berry Gordy, Jr, founder of Motown, made the change in leads.

By the end of 1965, the Supremes already had six number one hits (in order of release - Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop! In the Name of Love, Back In My Arms Again, and I Hear A Symphony). The first five were released one after the other one, and the Supremes is the only group to date that has acheived this feat. However, by 1966, Flo's resentment towards Gordy's decision began to take toll on Flo.

Eventually, Flo's relationship with Gordy and friendship with Diane would deteriorate as Gordy and Diane grew closer. Her leads were near gone and Flo and Mary's background vocals were often reduced to a low volume ("My World Is Empty Without You"), or almost no singing. By mid-1966, Flo began drinking and letting loose on her temper. Her dry sense of humor went flat as she became for depressed and angry. The end of 1966 also saw Flo throwing her drink at Gordy in public, after Gordy rudely commented (out loud) that Flo was fat. Many times, Flo and Diane would fight, and Gordy always took Diane's side. One occasion of their fights occured on the set of the Ed Sullivan Show in late 1966. They were completing a rehearsal of "My Favorite Things" when one of Flo's earrings fell off and Diane stepped on it. Flo took this as Diane purposefully doing it, so when they got backstage, Flo jumped on Diane and ripped off her wig and earrings. It took two people to get Flo off Diane.

1967 didn't get any better. After Flo had began arriving late at rehearsals, interviews and even missed a performance all together, she was suspended temporarily. Flo once said that she was not going to "bust her a--" for Diane to go solo. When Flo arrived, things did not go much better. Things finally came to a surprising hault on June 27, 1967 at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was their first performance for their engagement there, and it was also Flo's first and last performance performing partially drunk on stage. After the show, Gordy came back and began yelling at Flo. When she told him she didn't care, Gordy fired her from the group forever.

On February 22, 1968, Flo's final release contract from Motown was signed, and about a week later, she got married to Motown chauffer, Tommy Chapman, and was signed to ABC Records. There she recorded a shelved album ("The Supreme Florence Ballard" - containing those recordings - is available in online stores, like Amazon), and only two singles ("It Doesn't Matter How I Say It", "Love Ain't Love") were released. However, she was dropped from the label due to lack of interest in Flo. Yet this did not stop Flo. In October, she delivered twins and performed in a parade, and even performed with Bill Cosby. 1969 saw her performing at one of Ronald Reagan's innauguration balls.

Unfortunately, Flo soon went bankrupt and returned to alcohol. After a failed lawsuit against Motown and her third and final child, Chapman left Flo, as her situation grew worse. Flo's house was evicted and she moved in with her sister temporarily. She had also been out of the music business for some time now, and was not welcoming any public recognition (she wore big sunglasses to hide her face, and one time denied who she was when a store clerk recognized her). She was staying away from the public for a long while. By 1974, Flo was in welfare.

However, in 1974, Mary, who was the only original member in the Supremes at this point (Diane had left to go on to a very successfull solo career in 1970), treated Flo to a visit in California, where the Supremes were performing at Magic Mountain. When Mary brought Flo onstage, the audience roared with excitement, as it was the first time Flo had appeared with the Supremes in seven years. Then, in 1975, Flo managed to get herself cleaned up, out of welfare and out of a depressed state. Tommy even returned. That summer, Flo made a surprise appearance at the Henry and Edsel Ford Stadium in Detroit as a part of the Joan Little Defense League. She first sang Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman". Then when she was finished, the audience demanded an encore, so Flo sang "Come See About Me" and was received with a standing ovation. The rest of the year followed with TV and live performances, interviews, and record companies coming to her with recording contracts. Flo was at last at the top of her game.

However, the beginning of 1976 turned to the worse for Flo, again. This time, for the final time.

In January 1976, Flo started to have breathing problems in her sleep. After failing to get help from her family, Flo resorted to the Mt. Carmel Mercy Hospital in Detroit on February 21, reporting of numbness in her extremities. The next day, her sister found her on the floor in her home, paralyzed. Though she was immediately rushed to the hospital, Florence Glenda Ballard passed away at 10:05 AM of heart failure. The news shocked the world.

Flo's funeral saw over 5,000 people at the procession. Many celebrities appeared and were praised for coming. However, one person's appearance was not welcomed with respect. When Diane Ross stepped out of her limo in her furs, everyone started booing and hissing at her. Diane was famous for putting Flo down in her demise. However, Diane gave a wreath of flowers with "I love you, Blondie" on them.

Flo's death brought sadness to many fans. However, it also proved that the perfect image of Motown was long gone, and that Gordy's heroic image was now that of a business man, stepping out of his way to eliminate flaws of his plan (eg Flo). Today, Florence's memory is shown through books, memorials, websites, and even the 2002 release of her only album, which was shelved until 2002.

Though Flo is physically gone, her spirit is still with those who truely love her.

As Flo would say, "Honey, we is terrific!"


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that is all true! i wish there was that proformance of her doing come see about me, im one of her many fans and i miss her i want her here with us!