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The Lost Supreme
The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard
By Peter Benjaminson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2008 Peter Benjaminson
All rights reserved.
Detroit Is Where It's At
"I REMEMBER SINGING," Florence Ballard said.
"I was five years old. I remember singing in churches, at home, and in front of relatives. I even opened a window in the winter and sang out the window, mostly Christmas songs, because it was winter."
Flo was happy. Born on June 30, 1943, in Detroit, Michigan, she was one among many poor black Detroiters, poor enough to be forced to share a bed with four of her sisters and to resign herself to walking to school with holes in her shoes. "I walked real flat so no one could see the holes," she later told Look magazine. Still, many black Detroiters were optimistic in the late 1940s and the 1950s as they waited for new worlds to open to them. World War II had brought many blacks — including Flo's father — north to work on auto assembly lines and at other jobs at wages much higher than those their fathers and mothers had earned at hardscrabble labor in the Deep South. The winning of World War II and the consequent expansion of the peacetime auto industry offered the promise of even greater prosperity, in a city free of the South's segregationist laws and, to some extent, its segregationist ways.
Detroit was even a nice place to live. Its downtown has revived somewhat since it emptied out in the 1980s and now boasts two new stadiums, new hotels and condominiums, and a thriving Greektown entertainment district with a new casino. Detroit's neighborhoods have held their own since the 1970s, but the city is still troubled by crime and poverty. Dutch elm disease, the rise of foreign auto industries, the riots of 1967, and ongoing suburbanization made the years from 1967 into the 1990s Detroit's declining years, but all looked bright and open when Flo was young. With its two million people in 1950, Detroit was a metropolis of tree-lined streets that was voted "America's Most Beautiful City" by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Flo's mother was born Lurlee Wilson in Rosetta, Mississippi. Her father was born Jesse Lambert in Bessemer, Alabama. According to Flo, her paternal grandmother was shot in the back when Jesse was an infant, and he was adopted by a family named Ballard. Leaving his adoptive parents when he was thirteen, he hopped trains and hoboed around for a while. He would jump off the train after a day of riding the rails and go to sleep in the nearest graveyard. "He always used to tell us that the best place and the safest place to sleep was in a graveyard," Flo remembered. "You can imagine what I said! Have I ever slept in a graveyard? Are you joking? No way! I don't even look at them."
"While he was hoboing," Flo said, "he met my mother, when she was about fourteen. They got married, and she started having babies and never stopped." The couple moved to Detroit in 1929 and eventually had thirteen children, of which Flo was the eighth.
Like any other father with so many children, Jesse Ballard was forced to be a stern disciplinarian at times. On one occasion, according to Flo, "I was about an hour late coming home, and Mary [Wilson] and I were supposed to go to a record hop. I rushed into the house and was getting ready to change clothes. My father said, 'No, you can't go — you've been late coming home from school; you have to stay home.' That did it. I went upstairs and tore the sheet off the bed and started tearing up other things. He came up there and whipped my butt, and that ended that forever."
On another occasion, she recalled, "I threw a pipe at my sister. It hit the porch, ricocheted, and knocked the kitchen window out, and he knocked the hell out of me." Apparently he didn't spank her too hard. "I was spoiled," she said. "He spoiled me. I was the baby girl at one time until Linda and Pat were born, and now Linda's the baby girl, but I always felt I was closer to him than anyone. When I was four years old, I used to crawl up in the bed with him. I didn't want to sleep with anyone else; I wanted to sleep with my father." Her major memory involving her father was falling repeatedly out of her own bed and being gently lifted back into it by her loving dad. Flo's sister Maxine wrote in her self-published book, The True Story of Florence Ballard, that Jesse Ballard had a problem with alcohol, but Flo never mentioned it.
Jesse Ballard spent most of his life working at General Motors. He had started working there at age twenty or twenty-one. "He'd always have on his black pants and his red-and-white checked shirt or his black-and-white checked shirt. It was either one or the other. He'd go to work and come home to his family and then just sit until the next day," Flo said. But while he sat, he often played the blues on his old, boxlike string guitar. And Flo sat on his knee and listened. Sometimes, she sang.
After thirty years on the line, according to Flo, GM gave her dad a gold watch. "That was great — wow! — a gold watch," Flo said sarcastically.
The Ballard family would live in various places in Detroit, one of them a building that Flo called a "shelter for the poor" on East McDougall in Black Bottom, then a teeming, mostly black ghetto on the lower east side of Detroit. (These days the neighborhood is host to a successful racially and economically diverse low-rise housing project.) The family stayed there when Flo was eight or nine.
"The only people who stayed in that shelter were people with large families or people who were poor and couldn't afford to do any better," Flo said. "We slept here and there," in the small space they shared on McDougall. "There were five girls in one bed, five sisters, and maybe three brothers in another bed." Although Jesse Ballard received a relatively large salary working on the assembly line, with so many kids at home it couldn't be stretched far enough to keep the family out of a shelter.
"My mother once told me, 'If they had had all these things on the market when I was younger, to prevent pregnancy, I wouldn't have had all these children,'" Flo said. "But I think my mother wanted a lot of children."
A large family suited Flo, who enjoyed her brothers and sisters. Her sister Bertie, the Ballards' first child, was twenty years older than Flo. Then came her eldest brother, Cornell, followed by Jesse Jr., Gilbert, Geraldine, Barbara, Maxine, Flo, Billy, Calvin, Pat, Linda, and Roy. But tragedy as well had struck the Ballard family. Before Flo was born, her mother had given birth to twins who had died at the age of five months and a girl who had died in infancy. And Flo's youngest brother, Roy, was killed by a drunk driver at the age of three.
Late at night, Flo and the other kids would run around pretending they were ghosts and scaring one another. "I woke up one night and Billy and Calvin had this sheet over their head, and they were saying they were ghosts," Flo remembered. "I said, 'If you're a ghost, then I can run right through you.' So I went running right into them and trampled them to death. I'll never forget that."
Flo wasn't the only artist in the family. Each of the brothers and sisters was a musician in his or her own way. Family jam sessions were common. Billy would demand the lead almost all of the time. "He couldn't really sing, but he'd be thinking he was really singing. That cracked us up," Florence said. When relatives came over, they'd often give the kids a dime to sing.
From an early age, Flo clearly saw herself as a solo performer as well as a member of a singing group. "My favorite song was 'Silent Night,'" she said. "Seemed like every winter I was pulling up the window and singing that. My voice was real high-pitched, and people used to tell me, 'I heard you singing last night, and you sounded pretty,' and that made me lift the window up even more."
Flo's parents, although not regular churchgoers themselves, pushed their children into organized religion via a storefront Baptist church on Detroit's East Side. A man Flo remembered as Rev. Williams would come by in his old black station wagon every Sunday and, to Flo's amazement, not only drive Flo and her siblings to church but also pay them, in small change or in candy and ice cream, for attending services. Attracted by such fine treatment, Flo was baptized, sang in the choir, attended services, and was singing by herself in front of church audiences by the time she was five years old.
The building where the family lived on East McDougall was four stories high. "I used to slide out the window and sit on the fire escape. It was always hot in there," Flo said. From her perch she could observe one teenage boy after another hopping over the little cement wall after the 10:00 P.M. curfew. "I used to turn handflips against the same wall. ... I was nice and skinny and carefree," Flo said.
"One day," Flo said, "we were all together playing, and I got lice in my head. I didn't know what lice were. My mother took me in the house, and she said, 'I see something in your hair,' because she used to comb my hair all the time. I said 'What!?' And she said, 'You've got lice in your head.' I said, 'Lice!?' and started trembling and got real nervous. I could see her picking these things out and putting them on paper. Then she filled my head up with some kind of DDT or some stuff. I said, 'Where do they come from?' And she said, 'White people have them in their hair.' The kind of white people we lived around weren't so clean. I had caught lice from the white children I played with. Mother went next door and told the lady about it, so then that lady checked her kids' heads, and she found out that they had lice too."
Soon after Flo's sister Pat's birth, the family moved, first to another housing project on Ethel in southwest Detroit, then to still another project on Eight Mile Road, the northern border of Detroit that Eminem later made famous.
Flo's description of the Eight Mile Road project as "cardboardlike" probably made an incident that occurred there seem more threatening than it was. An old stove sat in the living room, which Flo's father fed with wood and coal every day. "We didn't have a furnace, just an old stove sitting in the living room that went all the way up to the ceiling. Every day my father would be putting coal and wood in it. ... I walked past that stove one day, and my sleeve got caught on the stove door — and I jerked, and I burned my whole arm. I'll never forget that stove as long as I live." Nevertheless, she enjoyed her new home, partly because her family, which she considered stupendously large, was surrounded by even larger ones. A family across from her, the Moores, boasted sixteen children, putting Flo's family of thirteen kids into some sort of perspective.
Flo's warm family, and her secure place in it, made her happy, generous, and gregarious. It also made her determined to hold on to whatever she gained in life, partly because she felt loved and valuable and believed she deserved whatever good came her way. But being a middle child in a large family, she also learned early on that she had to speak up to get the attention she firmly believed she deserved and that she had to continue to speak up about her grievances at all costs if she wanted to avoid being overwhelmed by the needs and ambitions of others.
Flo was also particularly protective of her relatives. She aided them in the earliest days of their lives and would continue to aid them financially and otherwise later, when her income began to grow. Flo recalled that when she was still a child, "I was holding my baby sister Linda in my arms. She was about nine months old, and I was about ten. I was sitting on the porch, just rocking her, because I love babies, when a little white boy walked up and threw a rock that just missed her head. So I laid her in her crib, and I took off after him. He got inside his fence and told his father, 'That black girl is after me! And she's trying to beat me up!' His father came out and said, 'You better leave him alone, you little black boy.' He thought I was a boy because I always wore blue jeans then — my mother called me tomboyish — and my hair was pinned up. So I walked back home and told my mother. She said she thought the boy's father should have chastised him for throwing that rock. Then the father came over and started cursing us and carrying on and talking like he was really going to beat my butt. Another white guy, Paul Ayers, who lived next to us, heard him and came over from next door and told him, 'Look, cool it. You don't talk to people like that.' The father started calling Ayers 'you nigger lover' and this and that. He kept on running his mouth, so Paul hit him and knocked him out. He got up after a while and went home, and we had no more problems out of him."
During the 1950s the Ballards moved to the Brewster Projects, a gleaming new public housing project that was a fine place to live at the time. Flo recalled the family's bright and shining two-story row house, complete with four bedrooms, varnished floors, a basement, and a modern kitchen. But she didn't remember the Brewster Projects just because it was the best place she had ever lived. It was there that she met Mary Wilson and Diane Ross, and it was there that her public life began.
Like Flo, young Mary Wilson loved to sing. They both sang in church choirs and once performed at the same school talent show. After congratulating each other, the two girls started walking to school together. They attended the same elementary and junior high schools but would go on to different high schools, Mary to Northeastern and Flo to Northwestern.
"Mary was a skinny, homely little girl. I guess I must have been too," Flo said. In truth, earlier in her life, Flo had indeed been a skinny, homely little girl, but soon after she and Mary became friends, in 1958, Flo began to grow up. She became a tall young woman with long legs and auburn hair. She also had a big bust, large and sensuous lips, and an attractively pointed chin.
Flo, who was very interested in the dress and appearance of everyone she knew — male or female — throughout her life, added that Mary "had only one sister and one brother, so her mother was able to buy more clothes for her, and Mary was always sharp; boy, Mary was always sharp."
Mary was different from Flo in other ways as well. Born in Mississippi, she had been sent north to be raised by her aunt and uncle in Detroit while her parents and their other children stayed down south. The aunt who raised her, Mary said, believed that children should be seen but not heard. When Mary was eleven, her mother moved to Detroit with two younger children, and Mary moved in with her relocated mother, brother, and sister. Living with stern relatives who were not her parents for the first decade of her life, and then having to join an already established family at age eleven, prepared Mary to survive the subsequent massive changes in her life and also taught her to remain quiet and keep many of her thoughts to herself, no matter what the provocation. "I learned to keep my mouth shut," she said. She contrasted strongly with the outspoken Flo.
The singing classes that Flo and Mary took in school educated their voices. (One of the reasons Detroit produced so many singers in the 1950s and '60s was because of the extensive music program its public schools offered.) "You're supposed to sing from your stomach," Flo said, "not from your throat. And in order to breathe from your stomach, you have to breathe in, and as you're singing, you breathe out. Mr. Silvers, my vocal teacher in high school, always used to tell me, 'Drop your jaws.' You drop your jaws all the way down, and I swear I had earaches for weeks and weeks. It felt like knots were under my ears from dropping my jaws. When you drop your jaws, your tongue goes down to the bottom part of your mouth, it folds under, and then you sing."
Flo may have complained about her teacher, but those earaches would soon pay off.CHAPTER 2
Generosity and Betrayal
Yeah, I know a girl that can sing: Mary, Mary Wilson.
— Florence Ballard, 1959
The Detroit of the late 1950s and early 1960s wanted live entertainment and had the money to pay for it. The city boasted a pool of talented young singers and musicians, including the teenage Flo Ballard. A number of entrepreneurs soon appeared, hoping to unite the singers and the audiences and profit in the process.
Milton Jenkins was one such entrepreneur. Born into a family of thirteen children in Birmingham, Alabama, Jenkins had gone north to make his fortune in the music business and had situated himself in its Michigan epicenter, a residential hotel across the street from Detroit's Flame Show Bar. In many ways, Jenkins was a model entertainment impresario, with the requisite interest in flash and dash. He invested every dollar he could spare to make his groups look good and drove them to their gigs in his own Cadillac. When he met Flo, his major group was a male trio called the Primes. Jenkins was optimistic about them, but girl groups were also becoming popular, so Jenkins figured he'd recruit a sister group. Naturally, they'd be called the Primettes.
Excerpted from The Lost Supreme by Peter Benjaminson. Copyright © 2008 Peter Benjaminson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface: Flo and Me,
Introduction: Founder and Soul Sister,
1 Detroit Is Where It's At,
2 Generosity and Betrayal,
3 Always a Bridesmaid,
4 Roughing It,
5 "Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom, Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom, Ba-by, Ba-by",
6 In Pursuit of False Gods,
7 Supremes at the Summit,
8 Room at the Top,
9 Struggle Among the Stars,
10 The Corner of Hollywood and Woodward,
11 Trouble at the Top,
12 After the Fall,
13 "I Now Pronounce You",
14 Dashed Hopes,
15 Fleeced Again,
16 Bleak House,
17 Friend or Foe?,
18 Paranoid, Isolated, and Homeless,
19 Three into Two Won't Go,
20 Down, Down, Down and Out,
21 Inside the Mental Ward,
22 To Err Is Human,
23 The Lost Supreme,
24 Flo Sums It Up,
25 Where's the Rest of Me?,
Afterword: The Dreamgirls Resurrections,
Appendix 1: Florence Ballard, Primettes, and Supremes Discography,
Appendix 2: Excerpts from Florence Ballard's Legal Case Against Motown Records et al.,