In 1965, lead singer Diana Ross coos the clever lyrics to Back In My Arms Again, the No.1 hit song by The Supremes, a song about gossiping females and a recovered boyfriend. Singing partner Mary Wilson wasn't in any position to give advice because had lost her love so true, while Florence was in the dark; she didn't know that her boyfriend was a Romeo. Looking back over the history of one of THE MOST INFLUENTIAL and THE MOST IMPORTANT girl-group in the history of entertainment & Pop Music, it seems there were a number of things Florence Ballard didn't know. At least not right away! But for now, the old 45 record spins and plays on the turntable, and it skips and repeats right at that lyric. Indeed! What else was it that Florence Ballard didn't know?
I think Florence's story has taken on the mythic proportions of high drama & pathos much like the life of Jazz singer Billie Holiday, but I'm not going to talk (much) about the rise to fame and some fortune in her pursuit of The American Dream (or The Impossible Dream) as she sang it with Ross and Wilson in the 1960s. I'm not going to beat the dead horse over the nasty Berry Gordy-Diana Ross Conspiracy to oust Ballard from the group that she founded and named, the tragedy that followed, nor the role Ballard herself played in her own demise. Instead, I want to focus on a happening that took place some five years before any hit records, before Back In My Arms Again, before The Supremes were household names. Once upon a time they were called The Primettes, and there was no lead singer. They were a struggling foursome that eventually whittled down a quintessential line-up of three. It was during this time, 1960, that Florence had an experience that most likely shaded everything that eventually happened to her as an unhappy member of a group that brought so much joy to the world. Florence Ballard (far right) was raped!
In 1975, Detroit Free Press journalist Peter Benjaminson, tipped off that Ballard was now living on welfare nine years after being a super Supreme, sought the former Motown star out and walked away with nearly eight hours of tape-recorded interviews. A bitter Flo shyly tried to sort out the remarkable highs and lows of her own tempstuous life and career, but supposedly never mentioned the rape in the tapes. However, it would be Benjaminson who'd reveal the rapist some forty years later. (Ballard certainly mentioned the time in question, but she had a slightly different recall than did Mary Wilson in her 1986 autobiography Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, and in Diana Ross's weak, almost revisionist memoir The Secrets of a Sparrow, she doesn't mention it at all). Back in 1960, Florence was just sixteen going on seventeen with a fresh, almost exotic beauty. She was doe-eyed & flirty, with feminine curves in all the right places, but while she was very sassy and sensual, she was still a virgin. Very active in group rehersals, and keeping club dates (yes, club dates as teenagers), Florence suddenly dropped out of sight and ceased all communication with the other girls. She would not return their phone calls and her mother insisted Florence was no longer interested in the group. Mary and Diane were dumbfounded as all of the melodrama that would surround Ballard in her later life was absent during this time. Weeks passed, and no Flo. Then, almost as suddenly, they received a phonecall from their singing partner. Flo requested a meeting with the girls. When she finally showed up, their initial relief turned to shock. The bright and exhuberant teenager they'd known just last month was gone and replaced by someone they didn't quite know.
"The minute I laid eyes on Flo all my gravest fears were confirmed. She was like another person. There was a faraway look in her eyes that was frightening...her skin was incredibly pale, and she had circles under eyes so large and dark that she seemed to be wearing a mask...and her labored steps made it seem as if she were in a trance...she avoided making eye contact with either of us, just staring straight ahead at nothing" wrote Wilson. Flo apparently told them she'd gone out to a party with her brother Billy and when they were somehow seperated, she accepted a ride home from another male that she knew. When she recognized that he was going in the wrong direction and didn't respond to her objections, she knew she was in trouble. As he pulled the car onto a dark, deserted street, he informed Flo that he was going to take what he wanted, and allegedly forced her into the back seat at knifepoint. "...I knew what people meant when they said fear has a smell. Flo's fear was almost tangible. I could see her suffering, and her eyes reflected a gumut of emotions - fright, embarrassment, distrust" continued Wilson. Florence was ashamed, traumatized and afterward suffered nightmares. She missed school, and some say she dropped out. She was also wounded by her rapist's cavalier attitude after the rape. He brushed off her protestations that she'd never had sex implying that he'd been watching her "with the way you walk around" and even wondered why she was so upset allowing himself to believe that she wanted it as much as he did. After he finished his business, he drove her straight home to the Ballard residence, and acted as if he had not just held a knife to her throat, tore her clothes and raped her, while she was left to grapple with the vicious betrayal of someone she knew and obviously trusted.
Reggie Harding was an attractive, seven-foot tall, high-yella hometown hero who attended Detroit's Eastern High School, which has been referred to as an "interscholastic sports juggernaut". Between 1959-1962, the Eastern Indians won four consecutive Detroit City League men's basketball titles with Harding graduating in 1961. It is not known how Ballard met Harding but it's not so unlikely that the paths of the city's popular black teenagers wouldn't cross at some time. It has since been recorded that Florence Ballard went to the police, identified her attacker, testified against him in court and watched him go to jail, but it is not notated in any of Harding's bios that he spent time in jail during this period. Reggie Harding was known for being a roughneck & carrying a pistol in his gym bag. Regardless, he was recruited by the Detroit Pistons in the fourth round of the 1962 NBA draft. He became the first player in NBA history to be drafted without having played in college (although that distinction is disputed by some sports historians). For a few seasons he was the team's starting center, and on a good night Harding would score maybe 12 points, and grab about a dozen rebounds, but was considered grossly overmatched when up against peers like Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain. Harding found it hard to maintain, and by the late sixties, around age 26, Reggie Harding's career was basically over. He had serious personal problems, drug and alchohol problems and since Ballard had gone on to world-wide fame, perhaps guilt problems. He returned to the streets from which he came, if he ever left, and started a new career as a criminal. In September, 1972, at the age of 30, Reggie Harding was the victim of a drive-by shooting on the streets of Detroit.
Florence survived the rape. She smiled and laughed again. She learned to love and returned to the group. But she never forgot. How could she? She may have blocked the incident out just enough in order to survive, but she never forgot. Mary Wilson has said that ever since that incident, she watched Florence's "basic personality undergo a metamorphosis, from being reticent and shy with a sassy front to being skeptical, cynical and afraid of everyone and everything". This makes sense! Add to the fact that in 1960, her teenaged companions did not have either the skill or resources available to help their friend with her personal tragedy. There were no family therapists for black girls in Detroit's ghettos. The best Ballard's family could think to do was try to love all the hurt away. It helped, but make no mistake, she was never the same. Soon, she started to act more like her old self, but she developed a core belief, that no one, not even group mates, mentors, or husbands could be trusted. It was a belief that actualized itself and haunted her for the rest of her life. Ballard renamed the group The Supremes and went on to become an integral member of the threesome that I often refer to as The
unHoly Trinity. Equipped with a beautiful set of strong vocal pipes (and a sometimes caustic/sometimes bouyant wit) it was Ballard's voice that almost singlehandedly counterpointed Ross's demure bell-like delivery - whenever it wasn't mixed waay into the background. She had her own devoted fans and her gifts to the group were substantial indeed - whenever they were used. During the same period that Reggie Harding was scoring points in the NBA, Florence experienced a not-so-quiet discontent regarding the direction the group was headed. In 1967, two important things occured that would change the group forever; The Supremes received another name change to Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Florence, no longer faithful, was forever expelled. The last Supremes single that she sang on was The Happening! After a failed (some say blacklisted) solo career, a failed marriage, alcoholism and mounting legal troubles with Gordy and Motown Records, Florence Ballard found herself a lonely mother of three girls struggling to survive. Going from rags to riches and back to rags again, she'd top the headlines again in just a few short years as a recipient of AFD (Aid To Families With Dependents) receiving just $135.00 twice a month.
We know the rest of the story!
After more than thirty years (and to very mixed reviews) Peter Benjaminson released a thin-volumed book called The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard in 2008. Some of the original tapes are on Youtube and have received thousands of hits. That book followed Florence's sister Maxine Ballard-Jenkins's 2007 book The True Story Of Florence Ballard, which was released to even less favorable reviews. Maxine used the theme of her sister's rape throughout the book and said she thought Flo was raped both literally and figuratively throughout her life "figuratively, many times until she became exhausted from the rigorous abuse her mind and body was forced to endure".