Florence Ballard in a photograph taken years after leaving the Supremes in 1967. This picture was taken in 1975 at her home in Detroit. She passed the next year in February of 1976.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
At Florence Ballard's funeral, Motown poured out its love and chaos broke out.
March 31, 2008
Florence Ballard was one of the original three Supremes, credited as the group's founding member and perhaps its best singer.
Yet she was undone professionally by Diana Ross and Motown record founder Berry Gordy, who had her forced from the glamorous trio in favor of Cindy Birdsong in 1967.
Afterward, she was undone financially by bad lawyer-ing that deprived her of many of the riches she should have received for her early work with the group.
In the wake of the 2006 hit film "Dreamgirls," former Free Press reporter Peter Benjaminson, who chronicled the sad post-Supremes demise of Ballard for the paper in the mid-1970s, has written "The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard" (Lawrence Hill Books, $24.95).
It is based on exclusive interviews Benjaminson conducted in the years before her death. Today we present a second excerpt from the 213-page opus. (The narrative of her dismissal from the Supremes ran Sunday and is available on freep.com along with extensive photos of Ballard.) This is the story of Ballard's funeral -- where she was upstaged one last time by the not-so-divine Ms. Ross.
From Chapter 23, "The Lost Supreme"
On a winter day in 1976, Flo visited her mother's house, where her sister Linda was also living, and ate one ice cube after another out of the freezer. When her mother asked why, Flo said: "I feel hot all the time." Then she told Mrs. Ballard, "If anything happens to me, Mommy, take my kids."
Flo returned home but her condition worsened overnight. Her daughter Nicole called Linda the next morning to report something was seriously wrong.
Linda was anxious to reach her sister but couldn't start her car until late morning. Nicole, growing increasingly frantic, also kept trying to reach her father, Tommy Chapman, who was working as a chauffeur for a local minister.
Linda was also calling him. "After I kept pleading with him to do something," Linda said, "he finally picked me up."
When Linda and Tommy reached Flo's house, Linda found her sister, who had protected her from a rock-throwing boy approximately a quarter of a century earlier, lying on the floor unable to move. "I had to use all my strength to pick her up off the floor and put her on the couch," Linda said. "Tommy didn't help me. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me in a robotic voice that she couldn't move from the waist down."
Linda, who died in 2007, told Flo that she was going to be all right and called an ambulance to take the former Supreme to Mt. Carmel Mercy Hospital. Linda stayed with the children while Tommy went with Flo to the hospital, where doctors discovered she had a blood clot in a coronary artery. Tommy Chapman said later that by 2:30 a.m. the doctors had told him they felt that Flo was "pulling through" and he could go home.
"Before I left the hospital, she was smiling and had just fallen off to sleep," Chapman said. "About 7:30 a.m., I received a call from the hospital asking me to get there as soon as possible. When I got there, I waited for about 30 minutes and the doctor came out and told me my wife was dead."
A date to remember
Florence Ballard died on Feb. 22, 1976. The cause on the death certificate was coronary artery thrombosis. She was 32.
It was eight years to the day after Flo had signed the final agreement giving up her membership in the Supremes. This may not have been a coincidence. Studies have shown even gravely ill people often hang on to life in order to die on a day that is meaningful to them.
The Wayne County medical examiner, Dr. Werner Spitz, indicated in news articles at the time he'd been told that before Ballard had been admitted to the emergency room, she had been drinking and taking two medications, one to facilitate weight loss and the other to counteract high blood pressure.
The autopsy told a different story. According to assistant medical examiner James Mullaney, the physician who performed the procedure, there were no drugs in Ballard's system except a small amount of Seniquan, an antidepressant.
Although Dr. Mullaney indicated he'd been told that Flo also had been taking Tenuate, an appetite suppressant, and Lasix, a drug used to treat excessive fluid accumulation and swelling, he discovered no traces of these drugs in her system and only a trace of alcohol.
What killed Flo, according to the autopsy, was a combination of heart disease, a blood clot, hypertension and obesity. Mullaney described her as "somewhat obese." A person of her height and weight -- 5-foot-7 Ballard weighed 195 -- is certainly heavy but not morbidly obese.
Ross arrives at funeral
Ballard's funeral was held at the New Bethel Baptist Church. The congregation was ministered to by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin. Before the funeral began, a group of about 5,000 fans wearing everything from evening gowns to work clothes had gathered outside the church. When a limousine pulled up next to the church and Diana Ross jumped out, the fans booed. Diana's mother, standing nearby, looked extremely unhappy.
It's not clear if Diana had been invited. Husband Tommy Chapman made the funeral arrangements and he died in the 1980s. But Flo's daughters and other relatives said Ross knew the family would welcome her.
Inside the church, Ross marched down the center aisle and was seated next to Tommy in the front pew reserved for family. Taking Flo's youngest girl, Lisa, from her father, Diana placed the child in her lap. The picture of the former "first Supreme" holding the daughter of the deceased "lost Supreme" would be printed around the world. It was the only image of the funeral most people saw, making the occasion an emblem of Diana's starhood rather than a celebration of Florence's life and a scene of mourning for her death.
Every act from Motown sent a floral arrangement. Ross' said: "I Love You, Blondie." Berry Gordy's said: "Good Bye, Flo."
Just as Rev. Franklin completed the ceremony, Ross jumped up and said: "Can I have the microphone please? Mary and I would like to have a silent prayer."
According to Wilson, Ross had not told her she was planning to do this. The two weren't even on speaking terms. But Wilson could hardly refuse. "I believe nothing disappears and Flo will always be with us," Ross said. When she handed the mic to Wilson, all she could think of to say was, "I loved her very much."
As the mourners filed out, the organist played "Someday We'll Be Together" -- a Supremes hit recorded and performed after Flo had been thrown out of the group -- over and over. The crowd pushed toward Ballard's coffin and the pallbearers -- Duke Fakir, Obie Benson, Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton of the Four Tops and Marv Johnson and Thearon Hill -- had to be escorted by attendants. The onlookers pressed forward with such energy that the morticians tried to slow them down by throwing into their midst the flower arrangements. The crowd destroyed them.
"It was pandemonium," Linda said. "The fans started jumping on top of the hearse, taking Flo's flowers, trying to get something that belonged to her." When the burial party reached the cemetery, Detroit Memorial Park, only Flo's family, the pallbearers including the Four Tops and Mary Wilson were there.
Flo's gravestone read: "Florence Glenda Chapman, Beloved Wife and Mother June 30, 1943-Feb. 22, 1976."
The only indication of her musical career was a carving of two musical notes between the dates of her birth and death.
Flo's mother, Lurlee, was understandably absent at the burial. She had lost five children at various stages of their lives.
Also absent was Ross. The only person other than Mary Wilson who had shared Flo's greatest moments had skipped out on the last act.
Excerpted with permission of Lawrence Hill Books