The singer who lives on through her music

April 25, 2017

How do we want to remembered and live on after death? For Florence Ballard, the young African American woman, the founding member of the most successful American female singing group in history, The Supremes, the answer is probably through music. Not just her own, but also the music she inspired.

Florence Ballard recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who in turn recruited classmate Diana Ross to form The Supremes, with 12 number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1960s and 1970s. At their peak, their popularity worldwide rivalled The Beatles and their success paved the way for future American R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream acclaim.

At the beginning of their career, for the most part, the three women performed equal leads on songs. But as the 1960s progressed Motown boss Berry Gordy, recognising the influence of TV on the sale of music records, saw Ross as the most appropriate figurehead to broaden the group’s appeal from mostly black audiences to white record buyers and concertgoers.

The Supremes had deliberately embraced a more glamorous image than previous black performers. They appeared on stage in detailed make-up and high-fashion gowns and wigs, and performed graceful choreography as Gordy challenged the often prevalent period image of black performers being unrefined. Ross’s cool tone and poise suited that ideal better than Ballard’s strong soulful voice and fiery temperament.

Ballard however began to chafe at the way her band had developed, and started behaving erratically. After she was removed from The Supremes in 1967, she struggled with depression, alcoholism, poverty and a physically abusive relationship over the next nine years. Just after she began a musical comeback, she died of a heart attack at the age of 32.

Yet her contribution to music has never been forgotten. Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Supremes in 1988. And her story has been alluded to by artists as varied as Billy Bragg, the hip-hop artist Nas and the actor Jennifer Hudson.

Ballard may not have had a long or particularly happy life, but her legacy lives on today. It is an extraordinary achievement and perhaps it’s more than she would have dared to dream of.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions