For nearly a decade, Cindy Birdsong was a reigning member of the Supremes. She wasn’t as famous as Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, or even singer Florence Ballard, whom she replaced in 1967, but she was Motown royalty nonetheless. Take the stage with the Temptations Even at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.
But Birdsong’s life changed dramatically after he left the group in 1976. Her finances collapsed, she eventually sold the trinkets of her celebrity life and took an office job, and she mostly stayed out of the limelight, making only occasional appearances at Motown events.
Close friends and family said Birdsong’s situation remained largely hidden. She said she lived alone in her Los Angeles apartment with her longtime friend and Christian missionary Rochelle Lander.
Now, the depth of Birdsong’s financial and medical struggles has been made public, with her family going to court to seek legal guardianship. According to them, the 83-year-old singer had suffered several strokes and was completely incapacitated and had to be rescued from Lander, who began to wield undue influence over Birdsong’s care and finances. He isolated her from friends and family despite her deteriorating health.
“She was blinding us,” former Supreme brother Ronald Birdsong said. He asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge last month to appoint him as one of his sister’s two guardians.
Lander has long claimed that she was the only person willing to help Birdsong, an allegation denied by her family.
The controversy further escalated in 2021 when Los Angeles police evicted Birdsong from his apartment at the request of Birdsong’s family, citing worsening symptoms. She is currently in a skilled nursing home.
The removal was initiated by family representative Brad Harman, who was asked by Birdsong’s relatives to act as joint guardian. Herrmann, the manager of an entertainment business with celebrity clients such as Burt Reynolds and Pat Boone, has a power of attorney signed by Birdsong’s three living brothers and sister-in-law.
“The Cindy tragedy was an open secret within the Motown family,” Herman said in an interview.
Ms. Lander considered an interview but did not agree and stopped responding to inquiries. When Birdsong was taken away by the police, Lander defended his treatment of his friends, challenged his family’s right to intervene, and presented his power of attorney signed by Birdsong more than a decade ago, telling Birdsong to It said she was given the right to direct Song’s medical procedures. and financial decisions.
“She was completely mentally bankrupt. According to a video of the encounter in the hallway outside Ms. Birdsong’s apartment, Ms. Lander told police, ‘No one else would do it.’ “
Birdsong’s struggles as the eldest daughter of a Campbell’s Soup warehouse worker in Camden, N.J., climbs to stardom How many venues black performers have found refuge during segregation, who have become the network’s doo-wop girls. Birdsong often met The Supremes while she performed with Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells, and admired the up-and-coming group’s appeal until she was finally chosen to replace Ballard. rice field.
The change in singers, later recognized by some as the inspiration for the fictional musical and film Dreamgirls, came at a momentous moment for the Supremes. Their fame and influence skyrocketed after No. 1 hits like “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and “You Can’t Harry Love,” but Diana Ross and The name change to The Supremes reflected the changing dynamics of the group. Birdsong was a smooth soprano singer who resembled a ballad, and although the women had the same shoe and dress size, they were professional, calm, and well-practiced. With her calm demeanor and sophisticated skill, she was well suited for the daunting role of keeping one of Motown’s finest acts on track.
“Cindy had a strong voice and charisma,” Motown historian Gerald Posner said in an interview. “She’s the one who had to make her transformation look seamless, and she’s done it.”
Birdsong’s popularity skyrocketed as Supreme, for better or worse. In 1969, she was kidnapped from her apartment at knifepoint and escaped by jumping out of a moving car, an incident that still horrified her many years later, according to her friends and colleagues. family said. Ross left the following year to pursue a solo career, but her Birdsong remained until 1976, when she was asked to leave the group herself. Shortly after her departure, Ross said in an interview that she had agreed to a “bad closing deal” with Motown. A record that left her in her financial trouble.
A deeply depressed Birdsong, who is facing a divorce, said: interview In the 1990s, she was about to commit suicide with “medicine in one hand, TV changer in the other” until televangelist Jim Bakker, who had seen fame and glory, took the place. I met him preaching directly through television to a celebrity who was about to do so. life. That’s when she turned to her religion, she said.
“God showed me what my whole life was about,” Birdsong recalled. “I gave you all these things, and you are corrupted by them,” he said. And from the womb I was destined to serve him. “
Birdsong attempted a solo comeback in the 1980s, but the effort fell through. She came to share an apartment with Lander, who was also a performer and had appeared on several television shows in the 1970s and her 80s. The two women became more and more committed to their faith, and Birdsong said she chose to sing religious music over Motown and other pop songs. work bring up A Christian song dedicated to children and homeless people.
In one incident in 2012, record producer Steve Weaver recalled in a telephone interview that he was preparing to record a duet featuring Birdsong and former Supreme member Sherry Payne. He said the project was supposed to provide Birdsong with additional funding, but Lander stepped into the studio and declared Birdsong “not currently recording any secular music”. .
“Cindy went along with it,” said Payne, who said she witnessed Lander intervene. “She was zealous in her own ministry.”
Funding remained a problem, despite efforts by Motown alumni to help. Payne said he gave money to Diana Ross and Birdsong. So did former Supremes manager Eric Iversen. Motown founder Berry Gordy, who hired her Birdsong as Supreme, also provided her with financial assistance over the years, according to a statement from her office.
For many of those involved, Birdsong’s plight was the same as Ballard’s, who had been fired from the Supremes and was ultimately on welfare. She died at age 32 of cardiac arrest.
For years, Birdsong’s siblings had no problem letting Lander take the lead in caring for her sister. But Lander has become increasingly secretive about Birdsong’s health since Cindy suffered her second major stroke about seven years ago, according to her sister-in-law Melody Birdsong. At one point, she refused to tell her family which medical facility she was at. she is being cared for.
“I didn’t even know where Cindy was,” Melody Birdsong said.
Birdsong’s only child, David Hewlett, and his brother, Ronald, said for years they had difficulty visiting Cindy or contacting her via Lander. Hewlett said years ago he worked with Payne and the police to see if he could break into the apartment.
New Jersey resident Ronald Birdsong said he once took a week-long trip to California and repeatedly tried to visit his sister but failed.
Original Supremes member Mary Wilson, who died in 2021, has discussed her frustration with not being able to reach Birdsong, says her close friend Marc Bego, who co-authored a book about the group.
The family said they had initiated a guardianship process to ensure Birdsong’s life and finances would not again fall under Lander’s control.
The court has scheduled a hearing in August.
Ronald Birdsong said his family hoped the conservatorship process would provide a more complete account of his sister’s income and assets, but neither seemed material. Herman, who took over her bank account that same year, said Birdsong received less than “six figures” in total payments from one company in 2021, but Birdsong retained a large amount of royalties. was not known to have been
The Birdsong family rejected Mr. Lander’s claims that they were never there to provide assistance or financial assistance. Ronald Birdsong said he opened a joint bank account in his and his sister’s names. Birdsong’s ex-husband, Charles Hewlett, said Birdsong sent the check. Both said Lander had refused assistance.
Herman said he became involved in the Birdsong affair seven years ago when a mutual friend of many years called him to worry about Birdsong’s safety. Family members say he helped with Cindy’s new care arrangements.
“I don’t know where we would have been without Brad,” Melody Birdsong said.
Family members said their concerns grew when several relatives were allowed into their apartment several years ago and were shocked to find Cindy in a feeding tube. That day they decided to try to find her a new living environment.
Cindy’s sister, Terry Birdsong, said: “The last time I went to see my sister, I was so shocked because the last time I saw her, she wasn’t like this.” She said, “I could feed her and cook her food for her. Then when I show up, is she putting in her feeding tube?”
Lander defended Birdsong’s care during a police intervention in 2021. She complained that Birdsong did not receive the necessary funding raised for her by a performing arts organization in 2013. She explained that she was the one who arranged for her friend’s move into a nursing home at one point, she explained, and the city’s Adult Protective Services had visited the apartment, but they decided to move her out. She pointed out that she did not choose (Authorities declined to comment on the findings.)
Ms Lander told officers it would be unwise to take Ms Birdsong to the hospital in the midst of a pandemic, saying both had “religious opposition” to the coronavirus vaccine. It pointed out.
“The family knew about this. According to the police response video, Ms Lander said before paramedics entered and carried Ms Birdsong on a stretcher.
Clayton Golihar, pastor and director of Hope for Homeless Youth, said Lander and Birdsong have been involved with his program for years and questions Lander’s care and love for Birdsong. He said he had never seen anything like it.
“I got nothing but 100 percent positive things about Rochelle and how sensitive she was to Cindy,” Golihar said.
In a guardianship application, Birdsong’s condition was summarized by the nursing home, stating that she was unable to get out of bed or communicate and was on a feeding tube.
Last year, when Birdsong was lying in bed, Herman brought in someone from his Motown days, hoping he could help cheer her up. Eddie Holland is a member of Holland Dozier Holland, the songwriting team behind the Supremes’ hits. In an interview, Holland recalled starting to sing songs like “Baby Love” and “I Hear a Symphony” and seeing signs of recognition.
“For some reason she started laughing,” says Holland. “It was like she grabbed my hand and grabbed her finger.”
Susan Beechey contributed to the research. Lauren Herstik contributed to the report.