Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Tale of Florence Ballard of the Supremes.


This is one  of the best recordings made by Florence Ballard with The Supremes . "Flo" along with Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson was one of the three original Supremes in their classic 1960's lineup.   There are actually not that many lead vocals by Flo, because despite her obvious talent she and jazz voiced Mary Wilson were largely pushed aside so as to allow Diana Ross to sing almost all the leads on Supreme records even on B-sides and album tracks. (It's as if the Eagles only had Don Henley sing lead vocals. ) Clearly, Ross had a more distinctive, more commercial voice, then her trio partners, but Ross's   thin and unemotional voice was not necessarily always a  particularly better singing voice. Still, can one really argue  when Diana Ross was the lead vocalist on  18 #1 hits? Ross has sung lead vocals on more American number one hits than any other female singer except Mariah Carey who has also has 18 #1's.

Florence Ballard had great range, she could sing high and low, and sang more soulfully than Ross.  Oddly, she was most renowned for her ability to sing loud.  However, she also had poor phrasing, and lacked the poise and confidence of a lead singer.  In the early 1960's before  the Supremes became big, in the early 1960's all three girls sang lead vocals, and did a lot more ensemble singing,  which meant that group did not have any clear distinct sound. Barry Gordy Jr., the President  of Motown eventually decided that Ross' voice was the most distinct and most commercial, and when the group was paired with songwriters Holland -Dozier Holland in 1964,  they finally took off after having released numerous failed singles. 

 At first, it didn't matter that Ross was being groomed to be a superstar, because between  1964 and 1967 the Supremes were the most successful  female vocal group in the world- placing ten songs at number one on the American charts- all written by that  legendary Motown songwriter team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Wilson and Ballard were a key part of the success more for their  visual appeal than for their  vocal abilities. These three Black girls from the Detroit housing projects were  transformed into elegant ladies who were  seen in fancy clubs and on national television dozens of times  in the early years, and they became the creme-De-Le creme of Motown acts. Wilson was uncommonly beautiful and sexy; Ballard was   cute, tall, homey,  endearing and sexy. The rail thin, bug eyed, Ross was perhaps  less attractive, but she was a natural performer, and  a intelligent  women with a considerable sense of flair and style. Ross  also improved as a singer, as she aged, while Florence voice  was it' s worst when she finally got a chance to sing a whole solo album. Most of  all they looked great as a team, and Holland-Dozier-Holland songs  they sang are classics. 

Diana Ross, is  a particularly selfish person, and over time thorough hers and  Berry Gordy's manipulations she went from being just one of the girls in 1959, to in 1967 being billed as the group's star accompanied by  two increasingly  irrelevant backing singers. Ross  went from singing with the girls, to singing to the side of them, and finally to  just singing in front of them. This was true of many Motown groups , one lead singer in front-but most  of  these other groups did not have two backing singers who were world famous. Ross also had a close (partly romantic ) relationship with Barry Gordy and she  took advantage  of this to go over the head of anybody at Motown who crossed her.

After awhile, Ross  was the only one allowed to talk to the press or talk on stage. Bizarrely, in most of the  Supremes later recordings (in 1968 and  1969)  session musicians are used to sing backup vocals.  The group had two more number one songs in this period (for a total of 12)  but were  not as successful as they had been.  Still, Mary Wilson hung on  through the constant  indignities and in 1970, Diana Ross left for her solo career and was replaced by a Jean Terrell, a  new lead singer, and the group continued with some other changes all the way through 1977.  Mary Wilson even sang lead on a few  of the latter day Supremes hits.  Since 1977, Mary Wilson has continued singing in a modest solo career, where she is the lead singer.

Things didn't work out as well for  Florence Ballard. By late 1966,  Florence Ballard became unhappy with the way things were going in the Supremes, and she began to become to internalize her anger, and she  became  unreliable and sometimes  drunk. Flo had been raped as a teenager, and that may also have played into her anger issues. Motown made very little effort to help her with problems and just discarded her . On July 1, 1967, Ballard  was fired from the group, and  she never recovered from this humiliation   in the years that followed. (Flo  was replaced by Cindy Birdsong.)

Flo's solo album on the ABC  record label was left unreleased after two failed singles.   Her small settlement from  Motown, was either squandered or  stolen by her lawyer, and in the early 1970's,  she found herself having to go on welfare to care for her children. Imagine being on the top of the world in 1965, to sinking to such depths partly through the actions of others, but also through one's own bad choices.   In 1976 she died, from a heart issue.   Her death is  considered one of the the saddest events in rock-n-roll history.

People have not forgotten Florence Ballard. In 2007 actress/singer Jennifer Hudson won a supporting actress for her  portrayal of Effie White, the character inspired by Florence Ballard, in the movie adaption of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls.  What strikes me about Florence Ballard, is that she was a  human being,  not a star.  There is some cool footage  of the Supremes, performing  "Stop in the Name of Love" on the Hollywood Palace TV show.  In the beginning,  there's one of the Supremes' trademark chorus girl dance moves. They all move their left to right feet  five  times in unison.  Florence misses the last step.  

Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard

Supremes performing "Stop In The Name of Love".

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