The Way It Was – Flo Ballard, 1969

The Supremes’ singer, who died at the age of 32, pushed for more leads on songs
Flo Ballard
Photograph courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

1969 Backup singers seem to be consigned to anonymity. That wasn’t the case with The Supremes in their heyday. Anyone even remotely interested in pop music knew the women providing harmonic support for lead singer Diana Ross: Mary Wilson and Flo Ballard, who is pictured here circa 1969 with husband Tommy Chapman in front of their home on Buena Vista in Detroit. Ballard founded the group in 1959 as The Primettes, a quartet.

Their name was changed to The Supremes when they signed with Motown in 1961, and the next year they became a trio. After a few false starts trying to chart, the group struck gold in 1964 with “Where Did Our Love Go,” and a string of hits followed. Ross was undeniably the lead singer, but Ballard, born in Detroit in 1943, took the reins on a few numbers, including “Buttered Popcorn” and “Ain’t That Good News.” Fans heard a strong, dusky, gospel-inflected voice. Marvin Gaye called Ballard “a hell of a singer.”

Ballard pushed for more leads, which didn’t sit well with Ross and Motown founder Berry Gordy, who were romantically involved. Ballard was also outspoken. In the summer of ’67, she was sacked, setting the stage for a tragic downward spiral. She released a solo album on ABC that gained little traction. She lost a lawsuit against Motown — along with her house, her car, and her enthusiasm. Her lawyer also fleeced her.

By the ’70s she was on welfare, battling depression, alcoholism, and the lingering emotional scars of a 1960 rape at knifepoint. When she died in Detroit in 1976, she was just 32. Her death certificate cited “coronary thrombosis” as the cause of death, but “a broken spirit” could easily have been substituted.

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