A book-length portrait of the best singer in Motown’s biggest group, delivered three decades after her death.
Born in Detroit in 1943, Florence Ballard co-founded the Primettes in 1959 with Diana Ross and Mary Wilson. By 1960, they were working as background singers at Motown Records; when founder Berry Gordy insisted on a new name, Ballard chose the Supremes, and the rest was music history. But all was far from rosy. Ballard was haunted by memories of her rape by a family friend when she was 17; she could be difficult, and she refused to be the controlling Gordy’s “puppet on a string.” Around 1966, angered by all the attention focused on Ross, who made sure the boss liked her best, Ballard began hitting the bottle hard and was fired from the group the following year. Her post-Supremes solo career never took off, and by 1975, when the author was a reporter at the Detroit Free Press, she and her three children were on welfare. Benjaminson’s article about her plight ran nationally, and he won Ballard’s trust. She recounted her life to him in eight hours of interviews taped before she died in 1976. Benjaminson (Secret Police: Inside the New York City Department of Investigation, 1997, etc.) relies heavily on this material—indeed, at times it seems he reproduced the interviews in their entirety—but he works hard to place it in context and bring to light its natural narrative arc. He also read the relevant court documents, as well as dozens of books and magazines, and he interviewed Ballard’s key surviving family members and Mary Wilson. The book sometimes gets bogged down in minutiae and windy song analysis, but Motown obsessives will appreciate the attention to detail, which doesn’t detract too much from the final product.
Pair this with Wilson’s equally revealing autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme (1986), and you’ve got an unmatchable snapshot of the exhilarating yet often ugly 1960s soul music scene.