Assassinations  Ballard, Florence

Queen of the Supremes before Diana Ross, she died at 32. So was Florence Ballard murdered?

By Wendy Leigh
Last updated at 9:00 AM on 22nd May 2008

The little girl's screams pierced the quiet night outside the small, unprepossessing brick house in a rundown street in Detroit.

But if her high-pitched wailing woke the neighbours, they just turned over and went back to sleep, reasoning that the girl was probably having a nightmare - and anyway, screams in the night were not unusual in that part of the city.

In a way, they were right. The seven-year-old girl, Nicole, had indeed stumbled into a nightmare - but it was real.

After she had been awoken by a crashing sound, she had run downstairs into the living room and found her mother lying on the carpet, foaming at the mouth.

The unconscious woman was taken to Mount Carmel Hospital in Detroit, where she died eight hours later. She was just 32 years old.

And there the story would have ended that night of February 22, 1976, but for one thing: the woman who died was Florence Ballard, once the star of The Supremes, one of the most successful groups of all time.


Mystery: Florence Ballard (right), who founded The Supremes, was forced out of the group

Ballard had been wealthy, famous, feted and considered a better singer than Diana Ross, her fellow Supreme who eclipsed, then dethroned her.

This week, a major exhibition opens at London's Victoria and Albert Museum - The Story Of The Supremes From The Mary Wilson Collection - displaying the sparkling gowns once worn by Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Florence Ballard during their glory years when they recorded hits such as Stop! In The Name Of Love and Baby Love.

To the many thousands of Supremes fans, the exhibition represents yet another sparkling tribute to the legendary girl group.

But to Florence Ballard's surviving family, the glamour and the glitter has long since worn off.

After the recent discovery of eight hours of taped interviews with Florence shortly before she died, in which she expresses fears for her safety, the Ballard family has raised its own concerns about the unexplained mysteries which still surround her death.

More than 32 years later, her sister, Maxine, now 65, firmly believes Florence did not die of natural causes and that she intends to have Florence's body exhumed in order to prove her case.

"We were told that my sister had died of coronary artery thrombosis, but she didn't have a history of heart disease," she said this week.

"There was no trace of alcohol or barbiturates in her system, but there was this brown cereal-type substance which was never identified.

"I believe she was killed because someone wanted to silence her."

But who? Maxine admits that she has privately confronted the man she suspects of being responsible for her sister's death.

Yet a close examination of the tragic story of Florence Ballard, her climb to stardom and how she was drummed out of the group and then died penniless, points to Flo's profligate husband, Tommy Chapman, known to have abused her, and who was found dead in 1985.


Diana Ross, centre, only took centre stage in the Supremes when she became Berry Gordy's lover

In the newly-released eight hours of taped interviews Florence conducted just a year before her death, she told Detroit Free Press journalist Peter Benjaminson that after she left the group she sued Motown and its creator, Berry Gordy.

Gordy, now 78 a former professional boxer turned record producer, launched Tamla Motown records with just $800 in 1959.

He had an extraordinary ability for spotting talent, including the Jackson 5, The Supremes and Smokey Robinson And The Miracles.

Gordy gave the world a whole new sound, which became known simply as "Motown".

He would frequently promote some artists at the expense of others, ruthlessly cutting from his roster of stars any which failed to please him.

He is a formidable man to take on in any circumstances. Florence says on the tape that after she began her legal action:

"I began to get scared. I don't know why, I just had a fear."

Florence met Gordy in 1958 when she was just 15, growing up in the tough Detroit Brewster-Douglass projects, the eighth of 15 children born to a General Motors worker and his wife, Lurlee.

The bubbly teenager with the big voice, honed during a childhood of gospel singing in her local church, was overflowing with talent.


Suddenly, here was Berry, all talk of fame and fortune, throwing the world at her feet.

"Flo thought Berry was a father figure. She trusted him implicitly," her sister, Maxine recalls.

Canny and set on creating a black girl group capable of conquering the predominantly white pop music world, Gordy became a Svengali to Florence and the two friends she invited to join her.

Soon, Flo and her pals, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, became The Primettes, then - on Florence's suggestion - The Supremes.


Florence, left, thought of Motown boss Berry Gordy as a father figure - until he dropped her from the group

Shepherded by Gordy, they became a pop sensation, crossing all racial barriers and making it to the top.

Their first hit record, Where Did Our Love Go?, went to Number One, and stayed there for 11 weeks. Hit after hit followed.

Flo was initially The Supremes' lead singer, but soon the ambitious Diana Ross started to steal the limelight from her, and a bitter rivalry ensued.

What Florence didn't know was that her rival had become Gordy's lover (Ross later gave birth to his daughter, Rhonda) - and wanted to take over from Florence as the leader of the group.

With Gordy on Ross's side, there could be only one winner. Gordy was intent on edging Flo out of the group she'd founded.

Aware that she could out-sing and upstage Diana, he wanted Flo out of the group altogether, and had a replacement for her waiting in the wings - Cindy Birdsong.

Florence Ballard gave her last performance as a Supreme at the Flamingo Hotel, Las Vegas, in July 1967.

The morning after, Berry Gordy called her and coldly informed her that she was fired.

She and Gordy fought all morning, until, finally beaten down, Florence gave up and left the group.

Immediately afterwards, the group became Diana Ross And The Supremes. Florence Ballard's career was over at the age of 24.

During her years with The Supremes, the group routinely grossed $100,000 in ten days of touring, and their hits made millions.

Yet Gordy had kept the girls on a weekly allowance of just $225, and deducted all their recording and touring expenses from their royalties.

When Flo finally demanded to see statements, there were none.

Distraught, she sued Gordy for her missing millions, but lost her case. Florence Ballard, the girl who had founded The Supremes, was left with a settlement of just $160,000.

She began to drink heavily, and during her drunken binges, would walk the streets of Detroit, feverishly asking herself what had gone wrong for her.

"I kept saying: 'The money's gone, the house is gone and the car is gone. I just don't care any more.' I thought about suicide."

But however broken Florence might have been, by then living on welfare and married to former Motown chauffeur Tommy Chapman, she had three children, so suicide was out of the question.

In 1975, when she began taping her memoirs, Florence was rebuilding her life. She was planning a comeback and had begun a new legal action to reclaim her fortune. And she had started an autobiography.

That autobiography would have lifted the lid on The Supremes, Motown and Berry Gordy, the Svengali who had made and then broken her.

Fortunately for Gordy, that book was never written because Florence died. But is it fanciful to suggest that her death was anything other than natural causes?

"So many lies were told," Maxine recalls. "The rumour was put about that she had died of drink or an overdose, but that isn't true."

Peter Benjaminson, who was co-writing Florence's autobiography at the time of her death, says: "The Wayne County medical examiner, Dr Werner Spitz, said he had been told Flo had been drinking and taking two different medications, one to facilitate weight loss, the other to counteract high blood pressure."

However, according to assistant medical examiner James Mullaney, who performed the autopsy, only a minuscule amount of the antidepressant Seniquan was found in Flo's body, along with a trace of alcohol.

The autopsy report concluded that she had died of a combination of a blood clot, hypertension, and heart disease.

But what was the unidentified brown substance found in her stomach? Was some substance administered to Florence which brought on her sudden death?

Maxine is determined to find out what really happened, hence her campaign to have her sister's body exhumed and new tests carried out.

To many, it may seem that after almost 30 years it would be better to let matters rest. Florence's abusive husband, Tommy Chapman, is long dead.

But her family wants to know what happened. Maxine said: "My sister was healthy, she was happy, she loved her children and she had big plans for the future.

"I don't believe that she died of natural causes. She was outspoken and talking too much, and I believe that she was killed."

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