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Peter Benjaminson: The Lost Supreme

For his biography of Florence Ballard, former Detroit Free Press reporter Peter Benjaminson went back to the lengthy transcripts of the interviews he conducted with her himself, before her death in 1976 at age 32. Ballard—who was memorably ousted from The Supremes for challenging Diana Ross, for having a less radio-friendly voice, or for being an alcoholic, depending on who's relating the story—is back in the spotlight after 2006's movie musical Dreamgirls, making Benjaminson's The Lost Supreme: The Life Of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard somewhat timely. But he turns his first-rate primary source into a second-rate defense of Ballard, with his voice coming in louder than hers.

Though Ballard, Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson began on equal footing in The Primettes (later The Supremes), the group's first number-one hit, "Where Did Our Love Go," pushed lead vocalist Ross into the foreground, if she wasn't already pushing herself. Ballard tried to channel her frustration, pleading with Motown founder Berry Gordy for more leads and adding saucy onstage banter, but wound up booted from the group she had named. Unable to establish herself as a solo artist, she sank into poverty, unsuccessfully suing Motown and Gordy several times for back royalties.

Benjaminson's reporting, which furnishes the bulk of the book, provides details Ballard couldn't or wouldn't discuss, from the Motown legalese which trapped its artists in rigorous, low-paying contracts to the identity of the man who raped Ballard after a high-school party. (This diligence lets him refrain from quoting the more salacious details from Mary Wilson's Dreamgirl, which explicitly blames Gordy's sexual relationship with Ross for Ballard's ouster.) But his case would already be strong enough without the way he rushes to Ballard's defense at every opportunity, dismissing her alleged bad behavior while she was still in The Supremes, and glossing over some of her post-Motown highlights to close in on the humiliations of losing her car and house. This straw-fangirl approach lets him avoid questioning his subject's more puzzling anecdotes, like her description of attending an AA meeting and being shocked by how much everyone else was drinking. Emblematic of his petty tone is the way he refers to Ross as "Diane"—the name her friends and family used, although her birth certificate read "Diana"—throughout most of the book. While The Lost Supreme doesn't condemn Ross entirely, it also quotes Ballard as saying she forgave her former rival. Unfortunately, Benjaminson undermines both his subject and her absolution.

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