A judge in Los Angeles is set to consider on Tuesday whether to establish a conservatorship for an 83-year-old former member of the Supremes, whose family has argued that her physical and mental frailties have made her vulnerable to undue influence for years.
The singer, Cindy Birdsong, spent nearly a decade with the group after replacing one of its original members, Florence Ballard, in 1967, performing hits such as “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “I Hear a Symphony” as one-third of Motown’s marquee act.
But after Birdsong left the Supremes in 1976, her finances fell apart — a situation she later attributed to a “bad closing deal” with Motown Records — and later on, several strokes left her unable to care for herself or manage her affairs, her family has said.
Birdsong’s siblings have asked that the singer’s brother, Ronald Birdsong, serve as co-conservator alongside an entertainment business manager, Brad Herman. It was Herman, called in by a friend of Birdsong’s, who spearheaded the singer’s removal two years ago from an apartment where she lived with a longtime friend.
The family has said the friend, Rochelle Lander, isolated them from Birdsong and withheld information about her ailing health. They have argued that a conservatorship is needed to ensure that her care and finances are being properly managed. Birdsong, who is not known to have retained significant music royalty rights, is currently in a California nursing facility where she is on a feeding tube, according to court papers.
“Since I live outside of California, and since my sister has been unable to tend to her affairs herself,” Ronald Birdsong said in the conservatorship application, “I depend on Mr. Herman to keep me updated on Cindy’s well-being as well as helping to keep all of her affairs in order.”
Last month, the judge assigned to the case, Lee R. Bogdanoff, referred it to the Office of the Public Guardian, indicating that he will consider whether a third-party conservator should step in to manage Birdsong’s affairs. His rationale for the decision was not made public, but he based it on the findings of a confidential report by a court investigator.
Herman and Terri Birdsong, a sister of Cindy Birdsong’s, said they were working with a newly hired lawyer to fill in some of the information that was lacking in their initial conservatorship application, and that they expected the singer’s court-appointed lawyer to ask for a delay in the case while they did so.
The court-appointed lawyer, John Alan Cohan, did not respond to requests for comment.
It is unclear whether Lander, a former performer with whom Cindy Birdsong started a Christian ministry, is planning to challenge the family’s bid for a conservatorship. She has defended her care of the singer in the past, saying that she had been steadfastly dedicated to helping her over many years, and she has displayed a power of attorney that she said Birdsong signed more than a decade ago.
The tensions between Birdsong’s siblings and Lander mounted a few years ago, during a visit to the singer’s Los Angeles apartment, where the family said it was stunned by how her condition had deteriorated, according to interviews with her three living siblings and a sister-in-law. The family ultimately reached out to the police, who enforced Birdsong’s removal from the apartment in 2021.
In a video taken by Herman that night, Lander argued against the removal, citing her power of attorney papers.
“She needs to have due process before you come in forcefully and think you’re going to take over her life,” Lander said in the video, as several police officers stood in the hallway of the apartment building.
Lander has not agreed to an interview and did not respond to requests for comment about the court proceedings.
Herman, who holds a power of attorney signed by the three siblings and sister-in-law, said the family wants the legal proceeding to help clarify how the singer’s money has been managed in recent years.
“From the time I became power of attorney, I’ve been trying to get documents that tell me what rights, what royalties, what residuals are coming to Cindy,” Herman said in a recent interview. “Whatever monies have come in, where did they go?”
Though it was well known that Birdsong had stopped performing and largely slipped from public view, the extent of her deterioration prompted an outpouring of concern several weeks ago, around when the family filed its conservatorship application.
“Prayers for a lady who has meant so much to my life,” one fan wrote on a Facebook page dedicated to Birdsong.
Some friends and associates of Birdsong, like Jim Saphin, who befriended the singer in the ’60s and ran a British fan club for Diana Ross and the Supremes, said they had been dismayed to hear of the singer’s condition.
Steve Weaver, a record producer who lives in England and has worked with former Supremes, said he had spoken with close friends of Birdsong’s who had visited her in recent weeks and reported that she had not been able to speak.
“But playing Supremes records really boosts her up,” Weaver said he had been told.
Charlo Crossley-Fortier, a singer and actress who became friends with Birdsong after meeting her at church, and John Whyman, a friend since the ’70s who at one point invited the singer to live with him amid financial struggles, said they had become concerned over the years that Lander had been isolating Birdsong from other friends and family and had actively resisted her pursuit of any role in pop music.
Weaver recalled that about a decade ago, he was set to record a track with Birdsong when Lander intervened and declared that Birdsong was “not recording any secular music now.” Birdsong, who often recalled how Christianity had lifted her out of serious depression after leaving the Supremes, once said in a television interview with “The 700 Club” that she didn’t “have a desire to sing rock ’n’ roll anymore,” preferring to sing religious music instead.
Though Birdsong’s life took a sharp turn after leaving the Supremes, Crossley-Fortier said, “Cindy will forever be part of music history.”