[29 May 2008]
In 1975, Detroit Free Press journalist Peter Benjaminson spent several weeks interviewing Florence Ballard, former and founding member of the Supremes, following a tip that the one-time superstar was now living on welfare. All but forced out of the legendary Motown act in 1967, Ballard had spent the following eight years struggling to salvage her professional life with an aborted and mismanaged solo career while making various futile attempts at litigation against the record label that trapped her in Motown founder Berry Gordy’s notoriously exploitive contracts. The result was a swift personal descent into alcoholism, depression and poverty, at the end of which less than a year after telling her story to Benjaminson, Florence Ballard was dead of coronary blood clot at age 32.
Benjaminson’s The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard is the second recent book to pay tribute to Ballard’s tragic legacy (following sister Maxine Ballard’s 2007 memoir The True Story of Florence Ballard), motivated in large part by the renewed wave of interest in the fallen singer that accompanied the hit 2006 film version of the Supremes-inspired musical Dreamgirls. Armed with some eight hours of tape-recorded conversations with Ballard, Benjaminson is left to sketch in many of the historical and biographical details around Ballard’s often vague and understated confessions.
If this inevitably leads to the repetition of what will be a lot of common knowledge among Motown scholars, Benjaminson’s book nevertheless houses at least one startling revelation in the form of Ballard’s recounting of her rape at knifepoint, as a teenager, by future NBA star Reginald Harding. While The Lost Supreme otherwise feels a little light on Ballard’s own words, these transcripts provide the book with what are its only truly valuable and poignant moments, the embittered and defeated Ballard shyly recounting her own turbulent past, occasionally managing a tangible smile through her words as she relives the stunning triumphs of her remarkable and destructive career.
Given the invaluable resource that Benjaminson has to work from, what is most disappointing about The Lost Supreme is his inability to mine any real depth from the loaded history that accompanies Ballard’s legacy. Instead, his text mostly serves to connect the dots between events, offering too little insight into either the music or the unavoidable sexual and racial politics inherent in the details of Ballard’s rise and fall. This is not to suggest that Ballard’s story does not deserve to be treated as uniquely her own, but rather that when writing about Ballard circa 2008, it would seem impossible not to connect her to the rags-to-riches-to-early-demise template that has since become so commonplace.
That Ballard is just one particularly sad and notable casualty of price of fame—that her story serves as its own brutal indictment of celebrity culture—is just one of many potentially compelling threads that Benjaminson leaves unexplored. His Florence Ballard is a hermetically sealed artifact, unrecognizable as a product of the numerous cultural and historical touchstones—the 1960s, the African American experience, the elusiveness of the American dream—that surrounded her, and as a result The Lost Supreme ends up the dullest possible rendering of its inherently fascinating subject matter.
A tellingly thin text, coming in at slightly fewer than 200 pages, The Lost Supreme is content to coast along to the beat of the standard Behind The Music formula, complete with prose (“This cloud of deception would not be dispersed until Flo sued Motown three years later”) that feels readymade for Jim Forbes’ melodramatic voiceovers, but never really gains any narrative momentum of its own. Benjaminson traces Ballard from her humble origins as the song-obsessed child of a lower-working-class Detroit family, finding her niche in the Motor City’s bourgeoning live entertainment industry of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. After forming one singing group (The Primettes, sister group of the The Primes, who themselves later became the Temptations) Ballard and her constantly shifting band mates eventually signed with the nascent record label Motown, founded by entrepreneurial former autoworker Berry Gordy.
Gradually settling on the quintessential lineup of Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson and the Ballard-selected name The Supremes (Motown executives feeling that the bands original name was “too 1950s”), the group did time in the label’s sprawling Motortown Revue tours while failing to produce any real hit singles, earning them the industry nickname of “the no-hit Supremes”. Finally assigned to work with ace songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland, the pairing turned it around, recording “Where Did Our Love Go?” which would become their first of ten singles to hit number one on the US pop charts during Ballard’s tenure with the group.
Benjaminson weaves a handful of Ballard’s more colorful anecdotes into the story of her time with the Supremes, from a comically awkward meeting with four very stoned Beatles to a few sobering accounts of the girls and their fellow Motown artists being harassed while touring the Southern United States. The Lost Supreme is mostly concerned, however, with chronicling both the famous struggles within the band and Ballard’s swift post-Supremes decline. Benjaminson is not at all shy about identifying two people as clear cut villains in the story: Berry Gordy and Diana Ross. From the beginning, Gordy’s business dealings with the group are deeply suspect, swindling the girls out of money from their eventual chart success while constructing contracts that leave the artists with the bulk of the financial responsibility and an unbalanced amount of the returns. Knowing a goldmine when he sees it, though, Gordy eventually recognized Ross as the natural star of the group, and the two proceeded to push the Supremes further and further along to becoming Ross’ solo gig.
Ross’ trademark diva behavior, along with her all-too-convenient romance with Gordy, are given significant enough weight in the book to indict Ross along with Gordy in the eventual seizure of the Supremes from founder Ballard. To his credit, Benjaminson does acknowledge Gordy’s motivations for highlighting Ross over Ballard, noting that Ross’ pop sensibilities made her far more palatable to white audiences than Ballard’s much more soulful (read: blacker) vocal style.
That Gordy was crafty enough to engineer his label’s music to appeal to the white mainstream was, of course, instrumental in Motown’s success (perhaps only thing that the sanitary and—given its portrayal of the Ballard character as a petulant brat—borderline inflammatory Dreamgirls film got right was Jamie Foxx’s slick Gordy pastiche), but it also invites a much deeper analysis than what Benjaminson attempts to provide. As a black entrepreneur navigating the racially charged landscape of 1960s America, Gordy’s willingness to play off of the public’s racial and sexual prejudices—with Ross’ eventual lead role in the group having as much to do with her being deemed “prettier” than the more full-figured Ballard as it did with Ross’ status as the more white-friendly member of the group—could easily inspire several trenchant volumes on the complexities of capitalism in a culturally stratified America. Benjaminson’s unwillingness to grant these issues more than a passing glance is indicative of the book’s numerous missed opportunities.
If it is difficult to question Benjaminson’s sympathy and affection for his subject, the general tone of The Lost Supreme is nevertheless one of a celebrity tell-all rather than a genuine tribute. Given the chance to resurrect her legacy for a generation that has come to know Florence Ballard as a classic rock relic and the inspiration for Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar winning Effie White, Benjaminson instead gives us little more than a historical footnote. To echo the sentiment of the spectator of one of Ballard’s disastrous late-career solo performances: “Flo, you deserved better.”