In the 1960s, Motown’s flagship group The Supremes were not just the label’s biggest female act, but they were also one of the biggest bands of the decade, period. To this day, their songs continue to be radio playlist staples, and it doesn’t take long to find such classics as ”You Can’t Hurry Love,” ”Baby Love,” or “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Yet in spite of the happy, joyous sound of their smash hits, things were not so sunny and bright, with those in the know being aware that behind the scenes, the Supremes hid some dark secrets, many involving its founding member, Florence Ballard. Two Reelz Channel programs this evening, Breaking The Band and Autopsy: The Last Hours Of Florence Ballard,(10 PM Eastern /7 PM Pacific) take a further look behind the curtain of the most successful female pop groups of all time.
The Supremes came to be when Florence Ballard, a high school student, decided she wanted to form a group with one of her childhood friends, Mary Wilson. That group, The Primettes, would attract another member, Diana Ross, and they would record one single. Ballard was ambitious and wanted to get the group on Motown, but to do so they would have to win over the label owner, Berry Gordy, who did not care for them. Undaunted by the rejection, the girls were hang out in the reception area of the Motown offices for no other reason than visibility. One day, in need of some studio assistance, Gordy called for the girls to help, and impressed with their ability, gave them a recording contract, on one condition: they must change their name. Ballard selected the Supremes, a name not initially liked by the rest of the group, but one that stuck. Unfortunately, success did not come quickly, as over the next three years they would release a total of seven singles, all of which flopped. Gordy insisted on one major change: Ballard would have to step aside as primary lead singer, giving the role to Diana Ross for their next single, “Where Did Our Love Go.” Gordy’s call was right, and the single was a smash hit.
Unfortunately ––and not surprisingly––it is this change that sets in the rot that will ultimately break up the trio. Gordy quickly turned his professional and personal focus to Ross, pushing Ballard aside and unfairly recasting her in the role of backing singer in her own group. As a result, Ballard developed a serious depression, which she tempered with alcohol, and quickly became unreliable. She rightly believed she was being pushed out of the group, and in 1967 she was fired. The group would continue on without her, but the damage was done and Ross decided to become a solo act. Mary Wilson would continue the band with Ballard’s replacement Cindy Birdsong, but they never achieved the same level of success. February 1976 would close the book on the original Supremes when Ballard died suddenly at the young age of 32.
Considering the young age at which she died, the circumstances behind Ballard’s death provide for a compelling episode of Autopsy: The Last Hours. With the dedicated focus to her life, we are given a glimpse as to just why the Supremes meant so much to her. In a way, it served as an outlet for her to escape some of her personal torment, with the allure of fame and fortune seemingly a way for her to forget her tough upbringing and the pain of being raped as a young girl. Unfortunately, fame brought in its own set of new and more insidious demons, especially after the dramatic lineup change in 1964. Seeing that she was on the outs, she began to drink heavily as well as suffering bouts of severe depression, which only grew worse after she left the group. Autopsy details many of the factors that play a part into what could have killed her, ranging from the unlikely to the absurd.
In a way, the story of Florence Ballard is not too different from the story of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, another musician who had a vision for a group yet had to witness it not only being taken away from him, but also having to deal with the unimaginable indignity of watching those around him heartlessly write the visionary out of that history. To this day, Florence Ballard is often written out of her own history, so these two episodes provide essential watching and help shed light on a true talent neglected by those who know the truth.