As a founding member of the Supremes, the late singer Florence Ballard was part of a
group that defined '60s soul-pop.
Ballard was born 56 years ago today in Detroit. She met singers Diana Ross and Mary
Wilson when they were all living in Detroit's Brewster housing project. While still in their
teens, they began singing together as a quartet, initially with Betty McGlown and then
with Barbara Martin.
During her high-school years, Ballard became friendly with the Primes, a male singing
group that included future Temptations Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. With
Williams' girlfriend, McGlown, as the fourth member, the Primes' manager dubbed
Ballard's group the Primettes. Because of her soulful Aretha Franklin-like singing style,
Ballard was initially the lead singer.
Ross arranged for the Primettes' to be introduced to the Miracles' Smokey Robinson,
who then set up an audition for the group with Motown Records President Berry Gordy Jr.
Gordy thought they were too young to sign, but the Primettes hung around the label and
sang backing vocals on various records.
In 1961 Gordy changed his mind and signed the group as a trio he called the Supremes.
With their good looks and bouncy pop-soul songs, the Supremes became Gordy's pet
At first they floundered. While developing their choreographed dance moves and vocal
style, the Supremes issued several flops and minor hits such as "When the Lovelight
Starts Shining Through His Eyes." Then the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland
was brought in to work with the group, and the chemistry proved to be magical.
The Holland-Dozier-Holland songs were fitted for Ross' sensuous, dramatic singing, and
the collaboration hit pay dirt in 1964 with the #1 "Where Did Our Love Go." By the end of
that year, both "Baby Love" and "Come See About Me" topped the Billboard Hot
100 as well.
In 1965 the Supremes' hit streak continued with the #1 hits "Stop! In the Name of Love"
(RealAudio excerpt), "Back in My
Arms Again" and "I Hear a Symphony." At one point, the Supremes had five consecutive
#1 hits in a row, at the time a record for a U.S. group.
Amazingly, the following year brought two more #1 songs: "You Can't Hurry Love" and
"You Keep Me Hangin' On." In 1967 the Supremes again topped the chart with "Love Is
Here and Now You're Gone" and "The Happening." They reached #2 with "Reflections,"
credited to "Diana Ross & the Supremes."
The Supremes toured the world to success and acclaim. They were held up as an
example of black and feminine achievement. But Ross, as the lead singer of all the hits,
saw her star rise even higher than her bandmates, despite Ballard's early leadership.
Ross and Wilson have also since revealed that around this time, Ballard began to have
mood swings and her drinking began to compromise the group's performances. In 1967
Ballard split from the Supremes.
She recorded an LP that was never released and issued two singles "It Doesn't
Matter How I Say It" and "Love Ain't Love" that performed poorly on the charts.
Wallowing in depression and alcoholism, and suffering from high blood pressure,
Ballard died of a heart attack in Detroit at age 32 on Feb. 22, 1976.
The Supremes continued successfully, replacing Ballard with Cindy Birdsong. The group
even soldiered on later without Ross. But they were never as successful as they were
when Ballard was a member.
In 1988 Ballard and the Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In his autobiography, "To Be Loved," Gordy said: "All three girls had qualities so unique
I'd often think: 'If they could make us feel the way we do, what could they do to the world
at large?' "
Other birthdays: Glenn Sherrock (Little River Band), 55; Stanley Clarke, 48; and Philip
Adrian Wright (Human League), 43.