The Daily Telegraph
Barber and businessman who invented the ‘Afro pick’ comb
WILLIE LEE MORROW, who has died aged 82, was an American barber and haircare entrepreneur who invented the “Afro pick” and the chemical behind the Jheri Curl; in 1969, he was hired by the US Department of Defense to teach military barbers how to cut Africanamerican hair.
One of eight children, Morrow was born on October 9 1939 in Eutaw, Alabama, to sharecropper parents, Hollie and Olean Morrow; his father bootlegged whiskey on the side.
Aged 13, he taught himself how to cut hair, as a route out of poverty, and in 1959, aged 18, moved to San Diego, California, to “try my ideas and vision in a city I had read was the Harlem of the West”. He got a job at a salon, and when its owner retired, bought him out for $5,000.
Until that point, the fashion for black American women had been to straighten their hair with chemicals, in imitation of white women, and for black American men to shave their heads. But in the late 1950s, jazz singers and dancers began to experiment with the “close-cropped” look: hair worn short, but in its natural, curly state, as an expression of racial pride.
By 1960 the fashion had spread to universities, where black civil rights activists wore their hair longer and longer – eventually becoming the Afro, then known as the “blowout” – a look popularised by musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and activists such as Huey Newton and Angela Davis.
The trouble was, as Morrow told Ebony magazine in 1970, “The Afro caught everybody off guard. Even black barbers and beauticians in America were caught lacking the knowledge as well as the desire to style a decent Afro.” Morrow, however, was willing to have a go, and he soon made a name for himself as the favoured barber of the Black Panthers, who had “the biggest and baddest Afros in the country”.
In 1962 his friend Robert Bell brought into his salon a traditional, wide-toothed wooden comb from Nigeria. Morrow realised it was exactly what Afro hair needed and devised a plastic version which could be mass-produced, and even a blow-dryer attachment. Soon he was selling 12,000 a week.
The comb – known as a “pick” – rapidly became a political accessory, to be left in the hair. “When you walked down the street it made a firm statement, much like saggy pants make a statement today,” Morrow recalled. “Black parents would say to their youngsters, ‘Don’t wear that comb; it sends a message’.”
By 1969, Morrow was so well-known for his expertise that he was contracted by the Department of Defense to go to US bases across the world, and even war zones, to teach barbers how to cut black hair. Aged 28, he became Delta Air Lines’ youngest Flying Colonel, logging a million miles.
A self-taught chemist, in the mid-1970s he came up with a “curl activator” concoction called Tomorrow Curl, later renamed California Curl, which resulted in glossy, loose ringlets. The formula was later popularised by Jheri Redding, another California hairdresser, and by the 1980s the “Jheri Curl”, sported by Michael Jackson on the cover of Thriller, had displaced the Afro as the cutting-edge hairstyle.
As Morrow built up what would become a multimillion-dollar haircare empire, he also threw his energy into media, from 1979 operating the first black radio station in San Diego, and in 1986 founding the San Diego Monitor
newspaper. He published practical manuals on hairdressing and cultural histories of black hair, such as 400 Years Without a Comb.
He is survived by his wife Gloria, whom he married in 1966, and by their two daughters; a son predeceased him.