The Supremes - The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal (Book Review) (2009)

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These days, Florence Ballard is everyone's favorite Supreme. Actually, that has always been the case, according to Mark Ribowsky's entertaining and well researched book The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal. Ballard had soulful voice that made her a fan favorite on the Chitlin' Circuit, and a way with the perfectly timed one-liner that made her perfect for Vegas, the Copa and the other tony resorts favored by the Rat Pack crowd. She also didn't take in guff from Diana Ross and Barry Gordy. People loved her for that, too. However, when you mess with the boss (that would be Gordy, I guess) and his favored - ahem - employee, it's only a matter of time.

These days, Florence Ballard is everyone's favorite Supreme. Actually, that has always been the case, according to Mark Ribowsky's entertaining and well researched book The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success and Betrayal. Ballard had soulful voice that made her a fan favorite on the Chitlin' Circuit, and a way with the perfectly timed one-liner that made her perfect for Vegas, the Copa and the other tony resorts favored by the Rat Pack crowd. She also didn't take in guff from Diana Ross and Barry Gordy. People loved her for that, too. However, when you mess with the boss (that would be Gordy, I guess) and his favored - ahem - employee, it's only a matter of time.

The irony is that many Supreme fans didn't even know that Gordy had dismissed Ballard from the group that she founded. Gordy replaced her with Cindy Birdsong, who looked enough like Ballard concertgoers and folks watching in TV land were often none the wiser. For nearly 30 years, the people who learned about the Supreme story from the Broadway musical and film Dreamgirls have been confusing Ballard with Effie White, the fictional character (played on the stage by Jennifer Holliday and on film by Jennifer Hudson) that is loosely based on Ballard.

Holliday won a Tony Award for best lead actress in a musical for her performance as White. Hudson won a best supporting actress Oscar (in another example of the fake Ballard being demoted in favor of the faux Ross) for her film depiction of White. Reading this book leaves me pining for a Supremes' biopic because Ribowsky illustrates that truth is clearly stranger, more interesting, more compelling and (in the case of Ballard) more tragic than fiction.

First of all, Ribowsky shows that the Supremes were a cultural force in the 1960s. It's easy to forget that the Supremes were Motown's most popular act. After all, the Supremes disbanded more than 30 years ago. The Temptations and the Four Tops are still performing, which has kept them in the public eye. Both Ross and the Supremes had success after breaking up. However, Ross did not achieve the critical and commercial success that Michael Jackson had as a solo act. The Temptations were in the Billboard Top 10 as recently as 1991 - 14 years after the Supreme broke up and 15 years after Ballard died.

Still, the Supremes were BIG. Only one group - The Beatles - had more number one songs than the Supremes during the 1960s. However, the group got off to a slow start. Ballard, Ross, Wilson and a fourth member Betty McGlown were formed as the Primettes in 1959. Five years later, McGlown was gone, Ballard changed the group's name to the Supremes and the trio was still waiting for their breakout song. They were mocked in house as the no-hit Supremes. When that hit song - "Where Did Our Love Go" - came in 1964, the group became the prime vehicle in Gordy's strategy to make music that could be classified as "post racial."

Much is made of how critics accused Gordy of making music that was not as authentically black. And as Ribowsky shows, Gordy had an ear for making music that would appeal to black and white listeners. However, the sellout diss is unfair for a couple of reasons: First of all, Motown made good music. Secondly, Gordy - as manipulative as he could be - wasn't totally soulless. He despised racial segregation, and when Motown had enough power to demand that concert venues be integrated, Gordy wasted little time in doing so. Gordy, through Motown, also exposed the lie that stated that black acts couldn't cross over without totally degrading the product or acting like clowns.

Gordy quickly realized that the Supremes with Ross as the focal point could become a major crossover act, and he threw the weight of the company into making that a reality. It is clear that much of Ross and Gordy's desire to transform the Supremes (and Diana in particular) into icons was guided by desire of a more carnal variety. 

Gordy became fixated on advancing Ross's career, and he was successful beyond his wildest dreams. However this single-minded pursuit had long term and detrimental implications for Motown as Gordy increasingly ignored other parts of the operation. Anyone who questioned Gordy's grand scheme for Diana became a problem that had to be dealt with or eliminated. The list of female Motown acts whose careers withered while Ross' flowered is long and includes Mary Wells, Martha Reeves, Brenda Holloway and Kim Weston. However, Ribowsky makes a convincing case that Gordy's Ross fixation resulted in a corrosive atmosphere in which bitterness over lack of resources caused many talented people to leave Motown, including valuable entities like Michael Jackson and even Ross herself.

However, Ballard was the chief thorn in the side of Gordy and Ross and "Blondie" paid the heaviest price. It is clear that Ribowsky, like so many Supreme fans, has a genuine affection for Ballard. Still, Ribowsky does not gloss over Ballard's flaws such as her drinking and the fact that she had more than a little diva in her. Still, Ballard had a tremendously difficult life, and her self-destructive behavior can be linked to tragedies that took place in her childhood. For example, Ballard's young brother was killed in a car accident when he slipped away from his sisters and ran into oncoming traffic. The teenaged Ballard became a rape victim under similar circumstances. She attended a dance with an older brother. Ballard and her brother got separated and Flo accepted a ride from a neighborhood boy who drove to a secluded area and raped the girl at knifepoint.

Despite all of these tragedies, Ballard summoned the will to rise from the projects and become a member of the rock era's most popular female group. Her rise and fall makes her one of the era's most compelling figures, and Ribowsky's book gives Ballard the starring role that her fans believe she deserved but was unfairly denied.

By Howard Dukes

 

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