Founding member of The Supremes, Florence Ballard, promo photos for ABC Records in 1968
Florence Ballard was born in Detroit on June 30, 1943,
the ninth of fifteen children. She was friends with doo-wop trio The Primes (two of whom would later form The Temptations). When the group’s manager decided to create a sister act called The Primettes, he made Florence its founding member. She recruited Mary Wilson, Diane Ross, and Betty McGlown to form the quartet in 1958. Soon after, Florence was raped at knife point by a high school basketball player. She went into seclusion for a while and dropped out of high school, but eventually rejoined The Primettes.
By 1960, they signed to Berry Gordy’s Tamla Records (later Motown) and were relaunched as The Supremes. Their first few singles didn’t chart and they were jokingly referred to as “the no-hit Supremes.” Finally, they topped the charts with “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964. Their next four singles all reached No. 1 and within a year The Supremes were international stars. But there was tension in the group because Berry Gordy considered Diane (now going by Diana) the star. He was having an affair with Diana and gave her all the songs to sing lead. Florence became depressed and struggled with her weight and alcohol. She began missing shows and recording dates.
Berry Gordy groomed another singer, Cindy Birdsong, to replace her. After Florence got drunk before a show at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1967, she was kicked out of the group and sent back to Detroit. For her tenure with The Supremes which included ten No. 1 singles, she was given a one-time payment of $139,804. As part of the agreement, she wasn’t allowed to promote herself as a former Supreme or even mention any association with Motown Records.
Florence tried to launch a solo career, but after her two singles failed to chart in 1968, ABC Records shelved her album.
She married Thomas Chapman, they had three children between 1968 and 1971. Her husband was reportedly abusive and he left her in 1971.
Florence ended up on welfare and her house was foreclosed. She sued Motown for royalties but lost. Now at rock bottom, Florence entered rehab. Her situation improved when she won an insurance settlement and was able to buy house for her family in 1975. Florence reconciled with her husband and returned to singing. She was attempting to revive her career when she died from cardiac arrest (caused by a blood clot) at 32 years old on February 21, 1976.