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DETROIT - Like Effie, the "Dreamgirls" character drawn from her life, Florence Ballard had a triumphant return to the stage after her fall from grace from The Supremes.
Singing at Ford Auditorium in Detroit on June 25, 1975, Ballard shook off years of drinking and other troubles and put on a dynamic performance that drew wide acclaim and revived interest in her career.
"She was a wonderful singer," said Martha Reeves, Ballard's former Motown labelmate.
But unlike Effie, Florence Ballard's road to a comeback didn't go much further than that night. In 1976, Ballard, one of the original Supremes, died of a heart attack at age 32, almost 10 years after she was kicked out of the legendary girl group.
While Diana Ross remains an international icon and Mary Wilson continues to perform nationwide, Ballard is known, if at all, as a tragic figure. But with the release of the movie "Dreamgirls," and Jennifer Hudson's Oscar-nominated performance in the role based on Ballard, Ballard's family is hoping it will provide a new opportunity to let the world know about the real Florence.
"I thought that Jennifer Hudson did a great job," Maxine Ballard, Florence's sister, said in an interview at her suburban Detroit home.
But she summarized the Effie character, which originated in the Broadway version of "Dreamgirls" in the early '80s, as "a very mild Florence Ballard because there would have been some slaps and some bops or whatever and somebody would have been picking themselves up off the floor.
"I'm just telling you how the real Florence Ballard was."
Maxine Ballard has penned a yet-to-be-released book titled The True Story of Florence (Blondie) Ballard (the nickname references the hair color she inherited from an Irish ancestor). Florence was the ninth of 15 children to Jesse and Lurlee Ballard. Her father, who worked for General Motors, played steel guitar, sang the blues and loved to tell stories to his kids. Florence, Maxine and most of the rest of the younger siblings grew up singing in the choir at a local Spiritualist church, Ballard said.
"She always had drive and passion about everything," Ballard said of her sister. "My father named her 'The Flying Red Horse' because she couldn't sit still."
Florence was approached one day sitting on the steps of her home in a Detroit housing project by Milton Jenkins, the manager of a pre-Temptations outfit called the Primes. He was looking for an accompanying act, and he asked her to lead the Primettes.
Rounded out by Ross, Wilson and Barbara Martin, who quickly left the group, the Primettes became The Supremes, and made their debut on the Motown label in 1961. Ballard initially sang lead on at least some songs, but after sweet-sounding, glamorous Ross was given the lead spot, the group recorded five consecutive No. 1 singles from 1964-65, including classics like "Baby Love," "Where Did Our Love Go" and "Come See About Me."
Disagreements among the three friends, however, had become common, Ballard said. In 1967, with Florence Ballard struggling with her weight and alcohol, she was replaced with Cindy Birdsong.
"The word 'kicked out' sounds a little brutal," said Reeves, of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. "I saw them get to the point where they disagreed. I think it was mainly at the point when they put Diana Ross' name out front."
Ballard's ensuing years saw her give birth to twins Nicole and Michelle in 1968 and daughter Lisa in 1972. Her attempts to pursue a solo career fell flat, and she confronted problems with drinking, her marriage and the emotional trauma left over from being raped as a teenager by an acquaintance.
"Some friends that she thought were friends just weren't friends," Ballard said. "She bought instruments for bands, she bought fur coats for girlfriends of hers. When she got down and out and felt like she needed these people around her, they weren't there."
Ballard said her sister, who fell into poverty, became consumed by her anger.
"When she lived with me she tore up about 10 telephones of mine, throwing them against the wall," Ballard said. "She would drink, she would smash things against the wall or whatever out of anger that she felt. She felt betrayed by Motown and [label founder] Berry Gordy and she felt betrayed by [Ross and Wilson] because she felt like they should have stood up for her.
"But she realized, I think, years later, that they couldn't do anything. What could they do?"
Ross left The Supremes to pursue solo superstardom in 1970, and the group disbanded a few years later. After Ballard's death, some fans blamed her former bandmates for abandoning their friend, and Ross bore the brunt of the blame.
But Maxine Ballard said Ross quietly sent checks to help Florence's children, Wilson remained supportive over the years and both showed up in Detroit for Florence's funeral despite open animosity from some surviving family members. Wilson, whose book Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme was published in 1986, even agreed to sit down for an interview for the forthcoming book, she said.
"In the end, she still loved them like sisters and this is the message that she wanted me to deliver," Ballard said. "And this is something that I don't think [people] know."