When anyone talks about The Supremes the names Diana Ross and Mary Wilson always crop up. Yet, the group was a trio and so often, the third link remained anonymous or mentioned as a passing reference. However, fans hold all the ladies in high esteem and none more so than Cindy Birdsong who celebrated her 80th birthday recently. Happy Birthday Cindy! While she is out of the public eye now, due to illness, the internet was swamped with tributes and birthday wishes which must have warmed her very heart and soul. And, I felt I couldn't let the occasion pass without writing about this quietly spoken lady, who saw no wrong in colleagues nor, to my knowledge, ever disrespected anyone; she was simply happy to go about her business, whether as a Bluebelle, Supreme or soloist. Besides, she's one helluva lovely lady on every level and to be in her company was a total delight, whether it was our formal interviews, eating a take-out meal in my London apartment or partying in a nightclub.
So, using many of her quotes, let's talk Cindy Birdsong, who was born on 15 December 1943 in Mount Holly, New Jersey, to Lloyd and Annie Birdsong. She was the eldest in a family of three girls and five boys. At the age of two, her family moved to Camden, New Jersey, where she was educated. As a teenager, Cindy worked as a salesgirl in Philadelphia, where she took singing lessons, and later returned to Camden to work as a dentist's receptionist. She graduated from school to later join The Bluebelles.
Morphed from two rival groups, The Del-Capris and The Ordettes, The Bluebelles were born, with founding members Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Cindy Birdsong who was instantly recognisable for her high soprano voice. As an aside here, Sundray Tucker, sister of Lynda Laurence, was a member of The Ordettes, giving her a tenuous connection to The Supremes because, if you follow the family tree for the Motown trio, Lynda joined them for the release of the "Floy Joy" album in 1972, while Scherrie Payne invited Sundray to join the Former Ladies Of The Supremes.
As the popularity of The Bluebelles - later known as Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles - as a recording and touring unit escalated, they regularly headlined at the Apollo theatre. During 1963, when The Supremes opened for them, Cindy Birdsong met Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard for the first time. It was the latter she became close friends with; however, little did she realise she would one day be her friend's replacement in one of the world's most successful female trios. In a 2009 interview with Greg Hernandez for The LA Daily News, Cindy recalled their first meeting. "We were hot and they were hot. We were so competitive…all this catty stuff with girl groups – and my girls didn't want to have anything to do with them. But I was fascinated by them." So much so, she couldn't resist knocking on their dressing room door. "Florence answered the door and she was like 'come on in'. Mary and Diana were like 'what's she doing in here?'" The frostiness soon melted, although Cindy recalled The Supremes were flashy with wigs, gowns and makeup, while The Bluebelles preferred simple designed dresses "and we were only allowed to wear lipstick at the time." She was in awe of their sophisticated stage attire, and remembered a shocked Diana saying "You've never had a wig or anything? You want to try one on?" It took little persuasion as Cindy experimented with makeup and earrings. "I was like a kid in a candy store. I went back across the hall and they (The Bluebelles) were like, 'look at Cindy! She's been to enemy camp." She shrugged off their comments because the experience had thrilled her. "That day, I felt I came back a Supreme."
The two groups continued to travel together and separately throughout 1965-66, but often the initial friendliness was replaced by rivalry. One such instance, remembered by Patti LaBelle, concerned the two groups shopping for clothes in the same store. After The Bluebelles had purchased their goods, unbeknown to them, The Supremes bought the same outfits to wear on stage that evening. Memories of Diana Ross doing the same to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas at the Brooklyn Fox in 1964 came to my mind.
Florence Ballard and Cindy Birdsong
For reasons that have been in the public domain for several years now, so I won't reiterate them here, Florence Ballard was not a contented member of The Supremes. While she struggled to fulfil her group commitments, often leading to her missing performances, Andantes' member Marlene Barrow replaced her. "It was fun while it lasted…I'm glad I had the opportunity to say I was a Supreme for a little while onstage…I was able to fit the gowns and of course I knew the songs very well. I just had to learn the routines" she wrote in Motown: From The Background. Her debut performance was at Gross Pointe Country Club in Detroit, at a private show. "I didn't have any dreams of it going any further because I knew I was just filling in while they were negotiating with Cindy."
Florence became aware of Cindy's presence which exacerbated her suffering, as she explained to author Peter Benjaminson in The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard. "(In May 1967) We got to the Copacabana, and Cindy was there. They had been grooming her for a whole year, and I didn't even have any knowledge of it. They had a whole tape of the show we were doing, the nightclub act, so she was learning the tunes and everything with the tape." Cindy's presence at the venue piled more pressure upon the fragile Florence who was plagued with thoughts of 'am I in or am I out'? Her feelings of insecurity were heightened when the limousine hired to collect the group from their hotel, excluded her; Cindy travelled with Diana Ross and Mary Wilson. Florence travelled to the Copacabana in another vehicle driven by Tommy Chapman. She believed Cindy was there to study her performance. "We went on and worked the Coconut Grove, and then we went to Las Vegas (the Flamingo Hotel). …I lay down in the dressing room in Las Vegas, and I looked up at the ceiling, and said 'God, what's happening?' I was scared, unhappy; it was a whole bunch of mixed-up feelings." On 1 July 1967, a day after her 24th birthday, Florence performed as a Supreme for the last time and Cindy officially replaced her.
Mary Wilson wrote in My Life As A Supreme that several meetings had taken place to decide who would eventually replace Florence, the trio's founding member. "It was actually Diana who came up with Cindy. She looks just like Florence. Berry Gordy liked Cindy too so the next thing we knew she was with us." In his autobiography, To Be Loved Berry Gordy noted "Cindy was good. She had a great voice, a sweet disposition. She learned the routines quickly and, most of all, she was reliable."
In a 1987 interview in London, Cindy told me that Florence's dismissal from the group severely impaired her excitement at joining Motown's mega group, recalling the times of their close friendship when Cindy was a member of Patti LaBelle's Bluebelles. "Florence was very open and warm. We had this thing that people always said we looked alike. At one point I actually went to a theatre where they were playing to see for myself. And, yes, we did look the same." When the phone call came through for her to travel to Detroit, Cindy was unaware of the reason. Her curiosity rose when she was met at the airport by Motown executives and quickly driven to Berry Gordy's house where the group was having a meeting with him. "I had no idea what was going on in the other room. I was still a member of Patti's group and didn't even tell her I was going to Detroit because I planned to return. The door of the room swung open and Florence came out in tears. Her mother came out with her. She was so upset, so shaken, she didn't even see me. It was then I realised I was to replace her. I felt so bad, but later Florence understood why I did it."
A group name change to Diana Ross and The Supremes coincided with Cindy's arrival. "Our first engagement was at the Hollywood Bowl before eighteen thousand people and it was scary. There was a ramp there and we had to walk down it. The audience was so far away that nobody knew it wasn't Florence standing on stage. Everyone who met Cindy thought she looked a lot like Florence, and even Cindy couldn't even tell on a picture if it was her or Florence. So that was alright for awhile." To prepare for this performance, Cindy had worked all night in Mary's hotel room to learn the whole show. She wore one of Florence's gowns and her shoes, both being the same size.
Diana Ross and The Supremes
Although the trio had visited Britain before, it was their season as the prestigious supper club, Talk Of The Town in London's West End, that won them British acclaim. With Cindy, they opened a two-week run at the venue from 22 January, 1968. The highlights were culled for "Live At London's Talk Of The Town" album. It was the first time Cindy performed with the trio overseas.
Long story – short. Diana Ross officially left the group in 1970: Cindy two years later. She had married businessman David Hewlett, but it ended in divorce, she said, breaking her heart. Blaming her career because it had put too much stress on the marriage, she explained. "When you have to leave your mate for ten months of the year, with a day off here and there, well, it was asking for trouble. It was hard to keep a good relationship going. I had my son David then, and had to leave him at home as well so his father and our housekeeper raised my son. Eventually, we got divorced when my son was two years old….. You can't leave a handsome man behind to fend for himself." Her replacement was Lynda Laurence. Cindy returned, replacing a pregnant Lynda, to start her second career with The Supremes. "I think the newness of motherhood had worn off and the walls were starting to close in on me. So when Mary asked me to rejoin, I knew inside of me that I wanted to… so I did."
During early 1976, Cindy hung up her Supreme gown for good, and she said at the time, "Now I'm leaving the group to progress in my career, and this is what makes it totally different than in 1972, when I left to relax, have my baby and live in Las Vegas. Now, in 1976, I'm looking forward to a solo career and I have the ambition and drive that I know will sustain me. I also have the experience with The Supremes that I hope I can profit from. I learned so much from those good years – and they were good years."
Cindy – the soloist
In London to promote her High Hat released single "Dancing Room", this was the first time I'd been in her company for years. We hugged, kissed and gossiped before the interview got under way! I liked the single a lot but, with a smile, she said it caused her a few headaches in the recording studio. "It's all more hi-tech and computerised now. And the studio itself was huge (when compared to the claustrophobic Hitsville) and I felt I lost the personal side in such a big place….I felt like a speck of sand in the desert! It was strange being by myself too, it's not the same as singing in a small booth with the others. But I overcame the vastness of it all – eventually."
While in London, Cindy performed at The Hippodrome (which had morphed from The Talk Of The Town). In fact, during her act, she said she'd performed on the stage before with two other ladies, and indicated the exact spot where she had stood., reminiscing about the trio's 1968 act there. Dressed in sparkling red, with her hair shoulder length, Cindy worked the stage with the confidence of a seasoned performer although beforehand she was racked with nerves in her dressing room. Before she closed her act that included "Check It Out", "Ready For You" and a Supremes' medley, she astounded her audience by announcing Diana Ross was in the audience. In hindsight, perhaps an unwise introduction, as heads were turned to check out Diana's table. Afterwards, I met up with them both in the dressing room, but, regrettably, had no camera with me, something I've always regretted. Cindy's love and admiration has never wavered, as she explained "My memories are coated with love (and hard work). (Diana) had the ability to put whatever annoyed or upset her offstage, behind her. When she was onstage, one of her relatives could be locked up, and she still wouldn't worry about it until the show had finished. That is a bad example, but it gives you an idea of how professional she is. She's a person who will give one hundred per cent and never makes excuses for not appearing no matter how she's feeling. When we went on stage and those lights went up, there was nothing negative about our show."
She also recalled the arguments that went hand-in-hand with three women constantly working closely together. "There were times when there were clashes of personality which is bound to happen with three women, although earlier in the group there weren't so many fights. With the name change (of the group) our way of recording changed, and we knew we would separate, and that's when the confusion and bad feelings came in."
Regrettably on many levels, Cindy's solo career was short-lived. The proposed album was dropped, leaving her to return to a regular job as a health care worker. Then, once again, The Supremes beckoned but the reunion with Diana Ross and Mary Wilson was embarrassing to say the least. The event was Motown's 25th Anniversary gala, recorded before a live studio audience at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, California, on 25 March 1983, for an NBC broadcast on 16 May. Together for the first time since 1970 and during "Someday We'll Be Together", there was an exchange between Diana and Mary, later edited from the television special. Cindy wasn't a part of this as she told Greg Hernandez. "It came out so bad and there were hard feelings….it wasn't that we didn't love each other, we always did." Having not performed for several years, Cindy faced her own demons. She had gained weight and had problems purchasing a gown because she had no money. It's thought Diana Ross helped out as she often visited her at her house for the weekend.
Seventeen years passed before another Supremes' reunion was broached. Diana intended to re-invent the trio with an American tour and to this end invited Mary Wilson and Cindy to join her. After initial negotiations, it soon became apparent no deal could be cemented. "It was over money basically," Cindy later explained. "I was really close with Diana and said I'd like to do it…I was excited." By all accounts, Mary had been offered $4 million, Cindy $1 million, yet, after several discussions which included no further money was available, Mary agreed. It was too late. "Diana had a certain time period and she got annoyed because the money haggling was stopping the tour," Cindy told Greg Hernandez. When Cindy received the phone call telling her, they had been replaced by Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence, she was devastated. "I was excited about it….I could have said 'yes' from the beginning and I couldn't believe Mary said 'no'." What happened next was widely publicised, with the tour cancelled after several dates, despite Diana bank rolling it. It remains one of her failures. "It was very hurtful to her," added Cindy.
The Former Ladies of the Supremes
Eight years after The Supremes officially disbanded in 1977, Scherrie Payne signed a recording deal with SuperStar International Records, with the intention of reforming the trio. Mary Wilson declined the offer, but Cindy agreed and coaxed another former Supreme, Jean Terrell, to join them. They called themselves The Former Ladies of the Supremes (FLOS) as Mary was involved in lengthy lawsuits with Motown over the rights to the name. However, before the FLOS became established, Cindy left the membership, whereupon Lynda Laurence replaced her, just as she did in 1972. With the current line-up of Scherrie Payne, Susaye Greene and Joyce Vincent, the trio are authentically keeping the legend alive...give."
Apart from the occasional sighting, Ms Birdsong remains somewhat of an enigma, yet her legions of fans continue to keep her name alive in the public arena. There has been many a rumour surrounding an autobiography, which I believe is written but is unlikely to be published now. However, who knows what might happen in the future. It goes without saying, that we wish Cindy a peaceful and comfortable life as she reaches such a milestone birthday. She's in our hearts and prayers.
I hope you've liked these few, but heartfelt, words which, I have to say, brought memories flooding back, but, more importantly, celebrate the birthday of a Supreme who means so much to us.
All that's left now is to wish you all a wonderful Christmas time, and a soulful 2020 when we'll be celebrating tours by Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, The Former Ladies of the Supremes, and "Detroit A Go Go", among others. Thank you for being you, and to David Nathan, a huge hug for allowing me this platform to support one of the most significant record companies of our time.
We'll welcome in the new year together - and I can't wait!
(All photos, courtesy Sharon Davis)