June 26, 2009 at 1:00 am

Motown Legend

'Unsung: Florence Ballard' probes the life and death of Supremes singer

The Supremes in 1966: Florence Ballard, left, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson. (Detroit News file photo)

When Jennifer Hudson clutched her Oscar for "Dreamgirls" and dedicated it to "Florence Ballard, who never got a chance," the tears flowed in more than one household in Detroit.

Ballard, a founding member of the Supremes, died in 1976 of a coronary thrombosis at the age of 32, after several years of struggle as the single mother of three.

"It moved me to tears," Ballard's sister Maxine Ballard Jenkins said of Hudson's words. "She showed her compassion for my sister."

But Jenkins rejects what Hudson said about Ballard's death, that it was caused by "alcoholism and poverty."

"This is false," Jenkins says. "My sister was a victim of domestic violence."

The reason behind Florence Ballard's death is just one aspect of her life depicted Sunday on TV One's "Unsung: Florence Ballard," the final program in a documentary series that delves into the back story behind fallen music legends.

The documentary uses the usual ominous piano chords when depicting some of the darker events in Ballard's life, which inspired the musical "Dreamgirls."

Some of those interviewed include fellow Supreme Mary Wilson; Jenkins, who wrote a book about her sister, "The True Story of Florence 'Blondie' Ballard"; Ballard biographer Peter Benjaminson ("The Lost Supreme"); original Motown Records public relations rep Al Abrams; cousin Ray Gibson; sister-in-law Lois Ballard Johnson; and founding Temptation Otis Williams.

The long-running legend that Ballard had a better voice than Diana Ross but was pushed aside because Ross was favored by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. is revived by some and dismissed by others. Benjaminson's assertion that Ballard's voice was "like Aretha Franklin's" is a familiar exaggeration. Ballard had a lovely voice, more gospel-inflected than Ross' underestimated, flirty soprano, but she's not in Franklin's stratosphere. Viewers can judge for themselves; Ballard is heard singing the Supremes' first local hit "Buttered Popcorn."

Best of all, we hear from Ballard directly. Silent for more than 30 years in her final resting place at Detroit Memorial Park in Warren, Ballard's feisty voice is heard on the show via audio tapes.

"We started doing cabarets," Ballard says of the pre-Supremes Primettes' early days in Detroit. "We were out of sight! They were throwing money at us. And don't think we didn't pick it up!"

The singer tells how she was bounced from the Supremes in 1967. After being called fat once too often, she took the stage in Las Vegas "after a few drinks" and stuck her stomach out on purpose, enraging Gordy.

Ballard was frank about her later problems. "I began to drink, and I would walk at night. It was like I was in a daze. OK, the money's gone, the car's gone, and now they're going to take my house."

Sister Jenkins is shown walking through Brewster Douglass Housing Projects, pointing out where each Supreme once lived, and then later pointing to Florence's house on Shaftesbury (after she lost her house on Buena Vista).

Wilson, Jenkins and Ballard's cousin Gibson all talk about one of Ballard's persistent traumas, the rape she suffered at the hands of a friend while still in her teens that helped lead to her later troubles.

"This destroyed Florence," Wilson says.

"Dreamgirls" ends happily, but Ballard's life did not. Her 1968 marriage to Motown chauffeur Tommy Chapman was tumultuous (Jenkins charges domestic abuse in her upcoming book "Wounded Souls: Dark Secrets Between Two Sisters"), although it led to the birth of her three beloved daughters.

Jenkins is angry that her sister's death has been rumored over the years to have been a suicide; she calls it murder.

"She would never have left her daughters behind," Jenkins insists. "The last show she did, the benefit at Ford Auditorium, she got a standing ovation. She wanted to live."

Jenkins will be at Ballard's gravesite on her birthday, June 30. What would her sister think about being talked about so long after her death?

"I think she would be smiling. I know she is smiling."

'Unsung: Florence Ballard'

8 p.m. Sunday

TV One (Comcast Detroit Channel 34, Comcast suburban Channel 173, AT&T Detroit Channel 157)

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