The success of the Haywood family is the rule and not the exception. When parents are hardworking, they can often equip their children with tools that will make them successful. Jason Weaver has enjoyed decades of success, not because he “got it out the mud,” but because he stood on the shoulders of giants, the way his family intended.
Chicagoan, actor, and singer Jason Weaver is best known for his role as young Michael Jackson in the ABC television docuseries, “The Jacksons: An American Dream.” Additionally, Jason played the big brother on the television show “Smart Guy.” He played Teddy in the cult classic movie ATL. Currently, he has a recurring role in the Showtime’stelevision series, “The Chi,” which just started its fourth season.
Jason’s most iconic role was that of the singing voice of Simba in Disney’s1994 version of “The Lion King.” It’s been revealed that his mother turned down 2 million dollars upfront in exchange for residual payments and a smaller amount upfront. Decisions like that only come from people who have the fortitude, and Jason’s mother has plenty.
Marilyn Haywood, or “Kitty” as she is called, came to Chicago with her parents and siblings from Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1940s as part of The Great Migration. Bishop Jacob Haywood was a preacher and his wife Mary was a homemaker who raised the children. Additionally, Mary ran the music department at their church. Bishop Haywood founded First Progressive Church, located at 72nd & Wabash. Kitty and her siblings grew up singing in churches around the city. Their talents got the attention of Curtis Mayfield, who put them on his album. “Curtis was a real professional, and he taught us so much. They had their fun, but they never did any of that other stuff in front of us. They were music professionals,” said Kitty.
Kitty was joined by her sisters, the late Vivian Harrell and Mary Ann Stewart. The group would later add Vivian’s daughter, Cynthia Harrell. They sang background on several hits for Thomas Washington, among other Chicago greats. Still, it would be Mayfield who would give them their big break. He was the primary writer and producer for the 1976 soundtrack of the movie “Sparkle.” When it came time for the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to sing the smash hit “Something He Can Feel,” Kitty and the Haywood’s were chosen to sing background. “I was crushed when I found out that I missed that gig,” said Cynthia, who was in school during the recording session.
“Something He Can Feel” went on to top the Billboard R&B charts. That success would lead to Kitty and the Haywood’s signing a label deal with Mercury Records. The Ohio Players essentially wrote and produced their debut album, Love Shack. They changed labels in 1981 and released a second album, Excuse Me, I’ve Got a Life to Catch. While both albums had charting singles, little label support in marketing prevented the albums from doing what they dreamed of. “That was the way it was back then; the labels would make their money off your singles and not really support the artist,” said Mary Ann Stewart. Their time in the music business netted many connections that would lead to a new career for Kitty and the Haywood’s, a career in the jingle business.
Chicago was once the advertisement capital of the country. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, by 1980, advertising in Chicago was among the most prominent industries with over $6 billion in annual revenues. The primary reason for that success was the talented and available stock of professional musicians capable of creating and performing catchy jingles. Enter Kitty and the Haywoods.
Kitty and her family would sing or arrange jingles for some of America’s biggest companies: United Airlines, Nehi soft drink, Wrigley’s, Old Style, Ford, Chevy, Kellogg’s, and McDonald’s, just to name a few. Mary Ann’s son Marcus was once the voice of “Diggums” for Kellogg’s brand Honey Smacks. Cynthia’s voice is the second voice you hear on Gatorade’s timeless commercial, “I Wanna Be Like Mike.” Cynthia is also world-famous for singing “I am the Wind,” a song on the Konami video game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. She won the “Best Original Vocal Song- Pop” Award at the 2005 Game Audio Network Guild for her track on “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.” Mary Ann’s sons, Laney and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart have multiple Grammy awards and have produced hits for Beyonce, The Dream, Rihanna, Ne-Yo, TLC, and countless others. Cynthia’s brother, Thaddis “Kuk” Harrell, is a vocal coach for Roc Nation, also award-winning.
Shermann Thomas is a contributing writer for the Chicago Defender. Find him on social media @6figga_dilla.