This week the New York Times ran a comprehensive and sometimes harrowing story on the plight of former Supreme Cindy Birdsong. Birdsong’s family has applied for a conservatorship order for her following a string of medical issues, putting them in conflict with her longtime friend and carer Rochelle Lander. It’s a bit Britney, clearly.
The Times enforces rigorous editorial and fact-checking policies. And that’s why I was a tad surprised by this discussion of Birdsong’s tenure in the group, which she had joined in 1967, replacing original member Florence Ballard:
The following year , Ross departed for a solo career, but Birdsong stayed on before being asked to leave the group herself in 1976. Not long after her departure, the singer said in interviews that she had agreed to a “bad closing deal” with Motown Records that left her financially bereft.
Any Supremes fan knows this isn’t quite true. Birdsong first left the Supremes in 1972 to give birth to her first child (she had married in 1970, that’s a shot from her wedding at the top of this story). She returned in 1973 after Jean Terrell and Lynda Laurence departed from the group. And while she left in 1976, that wasn’t entirely driven by Motown executives.
Don’t just take my word for it. Foundational Supreme Mary Wilson described Cindy’s initial departure in her 2019 book Supreme Glamour (co-authored with Mark Bego, who was interviewed for the Times article):
As we were preparing the Floy Joy album for release, Cindy came to me with news that was both good and bad. The good news was that she was pregnant, and the bad news was that she wanted to leave the Supremes. Oh no, not again! Either I had to find another Supreme, or end the group. I was very unhappy to see Cindy go, but there was no drama there.
I love this chirpy gossip item about Birdsong’s pregnancy from the Philadelphia Daily News on 5 April 1972. “Look for Camden chirp Cindy Birdsong to quit The Supremes. The local thrush, married to insurance broken Charles Helett (sic), is expecting a visit from the stork.”
Contemporary news accounts also make it clear that no-one was assuming Birdsong was just on a temporary break. On 27 April 1972, the Georgia Macon News answered a reader query about who was replacing Birdsong, noting “No one at Motown knew whether Cindy will stay out for good, remains to be seen how she likes motherhood.”
When Terrell and Laurence both left the Supremes in 1973, “the first person I though about was Cindy Birdsong,” Wilson wrote. “She had given birth to her son, and she was back in shape. Much to my relief, she was ready to rejoin the group.” Scherrie Payne also joined the Supremes at that point.
What about Cindy’s departure? In Supreme Glamour, Wilson doesn’t say much:
Cindy, Scherrie, and I had completed all the tracks for our album High Energy (1976), and it was being prepared as our next release, when suddenly, Cindy said she was leaving us again. Although Cindy was on every track of the new album, I now had to look for a replacement for her again.
But Wilson goes into rather more detail in her 1990 autobiography Supreme Faith. By 1975, Birdsong was unhappy, in part because her own marriage was failing and in part because she frequently clashed with Wilson’s husband, Pedro Ferrer, who was also managing the group. Wilson writes:
Pedro and I met with Cindy and Charles [Birdsong’s husband] and pleaded with her to apply herself. She had started taking voice lessons and then dropped out. Now that we were officially signed and recording again, Motown took a keener interest in our internal affairs. I heard that Motown was secretly looking to replace Cindy. I hated them for that, but I was angry at Cindy for giving them an excuse. Scherrie and I felt that Cindy could make herself great again and told her so often, but nothing worked.
That pattern continued, but in Wilson’s account, the final request for Birdsong to leave came from Pedro, not Motown:
In late January 1976 Scherrie, Cindy, and I played at a small club in Toronto, to wonderful reviews. This turned out to be Cindy’s last show with us, and soon after we got home her departure was announced. Animosity between her and Pedro had worsened since South Africa, and he asked her to leave.
It’s a messy and ugly story, much like the current dispute.
While we’re picking through details, the article also mentions a failed attempt in 2012 by producer Steve Weaver to persuade Birdsong to record new tracks in the 1980s. Weaver successfully worked with former Supremes Jean Terrell, Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence at various points, but Birdsong wasn’t keen because she had become an evangelical Christian and didn’t want to record any secular tracks.
In that context, it’s worth noting that Birdsong did actually produce a single solo track, ‘Dancing Room’, released in 1987. It’s very of the era and could really use a better chorus, but it demonstrates that her pipes were still in fine shape a decade after she left the Supremes.
Another aspect the article doesn’t touch on was the failed Return To Love tour in 2000, which saw Diana Ross tour as “the Supremes” with former members Payne and Laurence, even though she never actually recorded with them.
The original plan for that tour was to reunite Ross with Wilson and Birdsong, but disputes over how much they would be paid meant that never happened. Unfortunately, fans were less keen to see that line-up, and the tour was ditched halfway through its run.
No-one ever said it was easy being a Supreme.