(KING OF HARLEM HAIRDRESSERS-CELEBRITY CLIENTELE)
In 1983, Glenn Caldwell, a music teacher from Maryland, was playing saxophone in a South Carolina bar and began talking with a singer whose dapper outfit and slick hair seemed from a bygone era.
The man complimented Mr. Caldwell’s playing and introduced himself as Rogers Simon and began telling stories about all the musicians he had known, including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Nat King Cole.
Mr. Simon had made such acquaintances as a result of his talents. But he gained notoriety not as a musician, but as a hair stylist who at one time was the king of Harlem hairdressers.
He served as a personal barber for the likes of Mr. Cole and Mr. Ellington. But he was best known for tending to the head of Sugar Ray Robinson, the legendary boxer known as much for his style as his fighting skills.
“He was considered the best hairstylist in Harlem in his day,” said Mr. Caldwell, a professor at McDaniel College near Baltimore. He remembered being transfixed by all the photographs and clippings that Mr. Simon pulled out of his car trunk that night in 1983 to back up his claims that he lived for decades among a who’s who of figures in Harlem and jazz.
That evening stuck with Mr. Caldwell, who wound up connecting with Mr. Simon and interviewing him just before the barber died in 2005. Today, Mr. Simon remains nearly forgotten, but Mr. Caldwell’s research has turned into a book he is writing on Mr. Simon, expanding a historical footnote into a fascinating portrait of a charismatic figure who used his barbering skills to cut a glamorous swath through Harlem in its heyday.
In 1953, Jet magazine credited Mr. Simon with inventing “the process,” a technique of straightening and setting kinky hair by flattening it and greasing it down.
Actually, Mr. Caldwell said during a visit to New York recently, Mr. Simon invented a version of “the process,” in which he would style an S-pattern into the hair, a signature style that became popularized as the “finger-wave.”
“Nobody did it better than Roger,” said the Rev. Robert Royal, 84, whom Mr. Caldwell visited at his apartment. Mr. Royal, a well-known Harlem minister and lifelong friend of Sugar Ray Robinson, knew Mr. Simon better as Roger without an S.
Mr. Simon worked at Mr. Robinson’s well-known Golden Gloves Barber Shop in Harlem and became a vital part of the celebrated entourage that surrounded the champion welterweight and middleweight throughout the 1940s and ’50s.
“Roger and Ray were very close — wherever Ray went, that’s where Roger went,” Mr. Royal said, adding that the hair stylist would touch up Mr. Robinson’s coiffure during boxing matches.
“In between rounds, Roger would be combing it, putting it right back in place,” he said. “No matter how many times Ray fought, Roger would be in his corner. As fast as Ray would display his pugilistic charms, if a hair was out of place, Roger would jump up there and put it back in place.”
Glenn Caldwell, left, walked with Ray Robinson Jr. along a stretch in Harlem where Mr. Robinson’s father once owned several storefront businesses, including the barbershop where Rogers Simon worked.
Mr. Simon came to New York from his home in South Carolina in the early 1940s and experimented with his hair-setting process at many different shops. In 1943, Mr. Simon became a barber at the Esquire salon on Seventh Avenue in Harlem and styled celebrities including Mr. Ellington who took Mr. Simon on trips with the band, including one to the Middle East in the early 1960s.
“Rogers was the king of this hairstyle, which enabled him to travel with the highest of highbrows,” Mr. Caldwell said.
During his recent visit to New York, Mr. Caldwell met with Ray Robinson Jr., the boxer’s son, on the Harlem block where the the elder Mr. Robinson once owned a string of storefront businesses, including the barbershop, Sugar Ray’s Quality Cleaners Edna Mae’s Lingerie Shop (named for Mr. Robinson’s wife) and the popular Sugar Ray’s nightclub.
Standing on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard between 123rd & 124th Streets, which last year was renamed “Sugar Ray Robinson Way,” Mr. Robinson said his father would get his hair touched up every day by Mr. Simon — either at the shop or at the Robinson family home in Riverdale, the Bronx.
Mr. Robinson said Mr. Simon used to babysit him, and he recalled traveling to Paris with his father when Mr. Simon was part of a paid entourage of 32 people. The barber was a fixture in the boxer’s custom flamingo-pink Cadillac, and even wrote an ode called “Here’s to Sugar Ray,” which he sang on television in the 1950s.
When the boxer moved to California in the late 1960s and 1970s, straightened hair had gone out of style. Still, the comedian Redd Foxx brought Mr. Simon to Los Angeles for a time to manage his barbershop.
After that, Mr. Simon traveled the country selling hair products. With several marriages in his past, he kept most of his possessions, photographs and mementos in his car, which eventually was towed and lost, Mr. Caldwell said. Mr. Simon died in 2005 with barely any mention.
“Here’s this guy that was at the center of a lot of history because of a hairstyle, and now he’s nearly forgotten,” Mr. Caldwell said. “I just want to help him leave his mark.”