Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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The Supremes
The Supremes

It was 29th April 1967 and the Hollywood Bowl was packed with the great and good of the American establishment. They’d come for a fund-raising concert for the United Negro College Fund and the UCLA School Of Music and the bill was made up of the Fifth Dimension, Johnny Rivers and the Supremes. Many of the audience knew that there were tensions in the ranks of the top-selling girl group of all time, but few expected to see a new member take the stage. The “new” member was Cindy Birdsong - who, it was hastily explained by the Motown PR people, was temporarily replacing Florence Ballard who as “ill”. Within months though Cindy was most definitely a permanent member of the group and Florence was clearly “out”.

Florence Glenda Ballard, of course, had been a founding member of the Supremes. Aged just 14, she was to befriend a male vocal group called the Primes which featured soon-to-be-Temptations Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks. Their manager, Milton Jenkins, was so impressed with young Florence that he encouraged her to form a sister group, the Primettes. Back then, the Primettes were a quartet – Florence, Betty McGlown, Mary Wilson and Diane Earle and the girls opened their recording account for a Chicago label called Lupine. Their debut, “Tears Of Sorrow” which featured Diane and Mary on alternating lead, was a flop but, undeterred, the girls auditioned for Motown. By now the Primettes were a trio - Barbara Martin, who had replaced McGlown, had just left, and, confusingly, Diane Earle had morphed into Diane Ross. It made no difference though, since Berry Gordy turned them down flat. Persistent to the end, the trio hung out at Motown and in January 1961, Gordy finally relented and signed them up, with the proviso that they changed their name! Legend has it that the Motown boss threw a selection of names into a hat and asked Florence Ballard to pick one out. Her selection, of course, was The Supremes!

After a more than hesitant start at Motown, huge hit singles became the Supremes’ order of the day and, for the first ladies of Detroit, the whole pace of Supreme life became frantic. Pressure within the group grew as, more and more, Florence and Mary were pushed into the background and Ms. Ross assumed more control. For a whole lot of reasons, it was Florence who found it hard to stay the course. She began drinking heavily, was often late for gigs and, according to the Motown line she became “generally unreliable”.

At the start of 1967, as her star was waning so Berry Gordy decided to act. His agents quickly contacted New Jersey-born vocalist Cynthia Ann Birdsong, who as Cindy Birdsong was then enjoying success as one of Patti Labelle’s Bluebelles. Gordy believed that the vivacious Birdsong bore a superficial resemblance to Florence Ballard and as he had big plans for Dina Ross anyway, he believed that not too many people would be bothered by who made up the rest of the trio. Cindy agreed to the gig and began learning her musical parts in preparation for her debut in April. That Hollywood Bowl concert proved a success and her professionalism and willingness to learn meant that in July of ’67 she was officially named as Ballard’s replacement.

For her part, Florence reacted with a flurry of anti-Motown lawsuits and signed an ultimately unsuccessful deal with ABC. Professional setbacks were matched by personal lows and her life soon spiralled into pill and alcohol fuelled depression. A planned comeback never materialized and on February 22, 1976 she suffered a massive heart attack and died shortly after admission to Mount Carmel Mercy Hospital in Detroit.

Birdsong however went from strength to strength with the renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes. Ironically though her voice wasn’t even featured on most of the Supremes’ singles as old tracks were re-cycled and newer one featured session singers. Ross, of course, left the group in 1970 and Birdsong herself was to leave in April 72 then rejoin at the end of ’73, staying till 1976. She then pursued a number of careers –even recoding sporadically and joining a number of Supremes reunions. She’s currently a Church minister in Los Angles and is negotiating a contract to have her memoirs published – bet Berry Gordy can hardly wait!
Words Bill Buckley

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