When I look at the search terms that connect to the blog, I often see questions I wish people would ask on the blog. By the time I see the search term on my “stats” page, the person who used it has probably left the site—and may have left disappointed because the information wasn’t available. I just hope such visitors find other information useful or interesting.
Of course, I have no way of knowing who used any search term, so it is frustrating when I see something I could have answered. Yesterday one of the search terms was “why did Jackie Wilson relax his hair?” I am guessing that whoever posed the question was young because use of the term “relax” to describe a hair treatment is fairly recent. In JW’s heyday, straightening Black hair was called processing the hair, and it was just a matter of current style and good grooming.
Black men in that era commonly processed their hair with Red Devil Lye. Another brand would work, but Red Devil was the most commonly used. Jackie’s first wife, Freda, told his biographer that Jackie (or “Jack,” as she referred to him) did his own hair when he was a teenager. In all likelihood, a professional did the work once Jackie became a star. It was a tricky task, and scalp burns occurred frequently.
Freda also claimed that you could wrap your fist on Jackie’s pompadour once it was styled and sprayed, but Freda lied about lots of things, so I don’t know that we should believe her on this point. You can see significant movement of the hair in several video clips.
When the “Black is beautiful” sentiment took hold in the late 1960s, the “Afro” hairstyle became popular. It soon became politically incorrect for Black men to process their hair, and Jackie Wilson, like virtually all popular entertainers, let his hair go “natural” by the early 1970s.
Personally, I loved his pompadour, although he looked good in any hairstyle. I have often wondered how he felt about making the change. On the one hand, natural hair would have been easier to care for, but on the other hand, his pompadour was a signature look. No other artist in his time, white or Black, had one so high, sleek, and perfectly proportioned.