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Comer Cottrell, Creator Of The People's Jheri Curl, Dies At 82

Comer Cottrell, right, confers with adman Jerry Metcalf in 1977.
Los Angeles Times
Comer Cottrell, right, confers with adman Jerry Metcalf in 1977.

The 70s and 80s will be remembered by many as the era of disco and Dynasty. But for some of us, those years were marked by the rise of the Jheri Curl. Named for stylist Jheri Redding, the Jheri Curl (and its derivatives) was a two-step permanent process for ethnic hair that resulted in a headful of loose, shiny curls. Think Michael Jackson in his Thriller and Off The Wall days. Or Sam Jackson's character, Jules Winnfield, in Pulp Fiction.

Later, regular black folks --some statistics say as many as 1 in 4--were able to wear the same style, thanks to Comer Cottrell.

Cottrell founded the Pro-Line Corp, a hair care company aimed at the African-American market. And he died last Friday, in the Dallas suburb of Plano, of natural causes at age 82.

Born in Alabama, Cottrell came to Los Angeles after service in the Korean War. He and his brother James started Pro-Line with $600 and a broken typewriter. After developing a spray-on oil to make Afros sparkle, he eventually created the home version of the Jheri Curl, which he called the Curly Kit. The look had become popular because of the black stars that sported the curly style, like Besides the Jacksons--Sam and Michael, rappers Easy-E and Ice Cube wore Jheri Curls, as did R & B bad boy Rick James. Involving hours of labor and hundreds of dollars, the look was available to the fabulous and solvent, but out of reach to normal people.

The Curly Kit changed all that.

Cottrell's Curly Kit, at about $8 a box, brought the Jheri Curl to the masses. (And later it would be exported to countries in Africa and the Caribbean, and a version for children, the Kiddie Kit, would become a big seller.) The look, and the oily "activator" that made the curls spring to life, became a cultural touch point, parodied in black standup routines, and, famously, in the 1988 Eddie Murphy hit "Coming to America."

(It even was used as a weapon in the 1987 comedy, The Hollywood Shuffle. In in, a detective played by Robert Townsend interrogates reluctant homicide witness Jheri Curl, played by Keenan Ivory Wayans, and gets him to talk by slowly spilling out the precious activator until the horrified suspect cracks--and talks.)

Pro-Line Corp. had two plants in the Los Angeles area, but in 1980, Cottrell moved the company to Dallas, where he thought the climate was more favorable to business. When he sold Pro-Line Corp. in 2000 to cosmetics giant Alberto-Culver, the sale was reported to be between $75 and $80 million.

Cottrell was active in Dallas civic and business life, and became the first African-American to join the Dallas Citizens' Council, a powerful group comprised of CEO's from the 80 largest companies in Dallas.

"The whites might not have been used to men of color," he recalled in his autobiography, Comer Cottrell: A Story That Will Inspire Future Entrepreneurs, "but they sure as hell were used to men of power." And Cottrell's conservative politics and entrepreneurial zeal made him an insider in Dallas' elite business circles. The city was Cottrell's sweet spot: "My kind of town... where money not only talks, but swaggers and brags... where profits are not a cuss word."

He was giving money away at the same time he was making it. In 1990, he purchased the campus of Bishop College, a Dallas-based historically black college that lost accreditation in a funding scandal, then moved Paul Quinn College from Waco to the Bishop campus, in a successful effort to grow the student body. He sponsored the Miss Collegiate African American pageant in 1989. Also in 1989, Cottrell joined George W. Bush and a hand-picked group of investors to purchase the Texas Rangers. He told then-wife Isabell (for the record, he's had four wives) "I'm not investing in baseball. I'm investing in the president." (Turns out he did both: he became friends with George W. Bush, and when the group sold the Rangers, Cottrell made $3 million on his initial $500,000 investment.)

Comer Cottrell continued to be active in politics and in philanthropy for the remainder of his life. A memorial service for him is planned at Rev. T. D. Jakes' megachurch in Dallas, The Potter's House, on Monday.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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