The Lost Supreme

SOON TO BE A MOTION PICTURE starring Terry Dexter as The Lost Supreme and Jon Heder as Author Peter Benjaminson. Based on extensive interviews with Florence Ballard. Published by Chicago Review Press Lawrence Hill Books. NOW IN PAPERBACK!
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Q&A with Author

 

Questions and answers with "The Lost Supreme" author Peter Benjaminson.


QUESTION: Why should anyone still care about Florence Ballard today?

 

ANSWER: One reason is that Flo Ballard was the founding member of the most successful female singing group in history, and sang with it during its best years. The group she founded did so well that the image of Flo and her two friends cooing into a microphone has become almost as much a symbol of American culture as Coca-Cola.

 

And, as African-American women who appealed to millions of white record buyers while segregation in the music business was still strong, Flo and the Supremes also were the first major crossover group in history. On top of all this, Flo's move from a humble position in American society to its very peak, followed by her dramatic fall into homelessness and poverty, is a startling example of what life has in store, usually in a less dramatic form, for many of us.

 

Q: Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown sound, comes off rather poorly in "The Lost Supreme." Was his shabby treatment of Ballard more the rule than the exception at Motown? It appears he could have treated people better financially.

 

A: Berry Gordy liked money, as is indicated by the title -- "Money (That's What I Want)" -- of one of the earliest songs he wrote. On the other hand, he himself was treated shabbily in financial terms by the various record companies he worked for as a freelance songwriter and record producer.

 

Although Motown was unusual in being a black-owned record company, its contracts with its artists were similar to the contracts offered by white companies, with one exception: Artists who worked for companies other than Motown usually were free to hire their own agents and attorneys. This eventually led to better treatment for the artists involved.

 

Artists who signed with Motown were represented by Motown's agents and Motown's lawyers, creating the possibility that their financial interests would often take second place to Motown's. Nevertheless, no other company would have kept recording the Supremes for years as they produced flop after flop, and none would have provided the level of training and artist development Motown offered.

 

Q: Was Flo a better singer than Diana Ross? Was she simply undone by being unable to deal with Ross' eventual lover, Gordy?

 

A: Flo was a better singer than Diana Ross. Critics kept pointing this out, as did Flo, somewhat impolitely, on occasion.

 

But, like Aretha Franklin, Flo sang in a gospel-inflected style. Gordy believed that because Flo's singing style was more African-American than Diana's, even letting Flo sing her fair share of leads would mean fewer record sales to whites, who were the largest group of American record buyers. So he became her enemy.

 

Her attempts to fight back were not well thought out, but you've got to remember that Flo's Motown career had started and ended by the time she was 24. Many people's careers or work lives haven't even begun at that age.

 

Q: Could Flo Ballard have succeeded as a single act or with another group, post-Supremes?

 

A: Maybe yes, maybe no. She might well have succeeded as a single act or as a singer with another group if Motown hadn't insisted that she give up the right to call herself a former Supreme, and if Flo hadn't buckled under to Motown pressure and agreed not to. 

 

And even after she made that mistake, she could have complied with the agreement, and possibly still have succeeded, by recruiting background singers who looked, sang and dressed somewhat like Diana Ross and Mary Wilson. To hit the very top, though, Flo might also have needed the songwriting talents of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who wrote most of the Supremes' hits and who were working elsewhere. It's a great loss to popular music that Flo was never able to make a successful comeback once she was expelled from the Supremes.

 

Q: Ballard received abysmal legal representation after she left the Supremes and her subsequent legal battle with Motown. What happened?

 

A: Her first lawyer had no experience as an entertainment lawyer. He and his friends even alleged that he had a brain tumor during the period he was representing Flo. All and all, he wasn't the man for the job. Flo was well represented by Patmon, Young and Kirk, the lawyers she eventually turned to, but by the time they got her case, she had signed damaging and restrictive agreements with Motown that couldn't be overturned. Just before Flo died, however, Patmon, Young had achieved an appeals-court decision on her case that might have led her to a large payoff -- had she lived.

 

Q: Why was Gordy so successful in thwarting any insurrection with Motown? With so many with grievances, you'd think he'd be vulnerable.

 

A: He was vulnerable, and there was an insurrection. It just took the form of many of his best artists, songwriters and producers leaving the company that had made them famous.

 

Q: You taped Flo's interviews, didn't you? What did you do with the tapes?

 

A: I saved them and converted them into CDs. (A seven-minute excerpt from the tapes can be heard at http://www.thelostsupreme.com/. The book can also be purchased on that site.)

 

JOHN SMYNTEK