The Emotions were not the only sister group to come out of Chicago. It was all in the family for Kitty and the Haywoods, as well (although they actually consisted of three sisters and a niece). Before Kitty and the Haywoods’ self-titled debut album, Kitty had a long recording history as a background vocalist for such acts as Curtis Mayfield and Terry Callier. She was also a member of The New Rotary Connection (along with Shirley Wahls) after Minnie Riperton departed from Rotary Connection.
1974, Kitty and the Haywoods recorded a single as Kitty Haywood & the Haywood Singers called “Big Black Cloud”. It was produced and arranged by Charles Stepney (who was the creative force behind Rotary Connection). Kitty had also previously released a solo record on the Weis label.
In 1976, the sisters sang back up for Aretha Franklin on the “Sparkle” soundtrack, which was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield. Before that, they recorded quite a few jingles in town.
The album Kitty and the Haywoods (1977) was produced by Mercury Records label mates The Ohio Players, and it sounds like a gumbo of the Ohio Players and Labelle at their silver-lame-wearing best.
What I appreciate most about Kitty and the Haywoods is that they were quite literally part of the backbone of the Chicago Recording scene. Too many background vocalists faded away into the shadows, remaining anonymous. But these ladies were able to shine. Jive on!
Not unlike many movies that are labeled as “Blaxploitation”, the soundtrack to Sparkle (1976) is often regarded more highly than the film itself. A Curtis Mayfield-produced gem sung by Aretha Franklin, the soundtrack to the movie is glorious… but laden with its share of controversy. What’s controversial?
First, the film is a pre-Dreamgirls rags-to-riches story of three girls with dreams of stardom. Each of the main actresses (Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, and Dwan Smith) could all sing well enough to not be dubbed out of the movie; but apparently Warner Bros. thought not well enough to sell REAL LIFE records. Sort of ironic. Notably, in the movie, the somewhat unpolished vocals work well (after all, the singers were supposed to be kids coming up from the streets).
Back to the rags-to-riches story. So there’s the three girls. Enter stage left the young well-meaning Svengali producer character (played by Phillip Michael Thomas) whose dreams ride heavily on their success. Ultimately, a slippery force named Satin cracks the glossy veneer of Sister (the sophisticated lead vocalist played by McKee), and it seems all their dreams are derailed. Sparkle (Irene Cara) is forced to take over the Lead Vocalist’s role, rising from the ashes. A Star is Born, and Phillip Michael Thomas (as Stix) is willing to gamble everything to see their dreams come true.
What I like most about this movie is the locomotive power of their dreams, and the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through the tale.
Who doesn’t love a righteous dream, bigger than the span of your arms?
NOTE: Curtis Mayfield (who composed the music for the movie) came up in the Cabrini Green housing projects here in Chicago and had a rags-to-riches story of his own to tell, although the projects were a far different place in those days.