PLANO, Texas (AP) — Comer Cottrell, a black hair-care entrepreneur who made millions with a cheap kit that brought the glossy celebrity Jheri curl into the homes of average African Americans, has died. He was 82.
Cottrell died Oct. 3 at his home in Plano, Texas, family spokeswoman Taryn Brown said.
Cottrell recalled there was a lack of hair-care products for black servicemen while he was managing an Air Force base exchange in Okinawa, Japan, in the 1950s.
With $600, Cottrell founded Pro-Line Corp. in downtown Los Angeles in 1970. Military bases were his first customers.
Sales ballooned after Pro-Line introduced the Curly Kit in 1980 and later the Kiddie Kit for youngsters. An at-home product, Curly Kit allowed people to reproduce the loose, shiny Jheri curl hairstyle invented by Jheri Redding and popularized by Michael Jackson, Rick James and other performers.
The Curly Kit sold for around $8 at barbershops, beauty parlors and drugstores while the salon price for a Jheri curl might run to $300.
Cottrell “democratized the Jheri curl,” said Lori L. Tharps, co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.
“You couldn’t find a black person in America in their 30s or 40s who didn’t have a Curly Kit or Kiddie Kit at some time in their childhood or adulthood,” and its popularity helped drive company sales up from $1 million to $10 million, Tharps told the Los Angeles Times.
The Jheri curl’s ubiquity in black communities was lampooned in pop culture. The 1988 comedy Coming to America featured a fictional product called Soul Glo, which gave users a shiny hairstyle and left a greasy stain on furniture.
With his brother, James, Cottrell turned Pro-Line into one of the most successful black-owned companies in the United States. The company moved to Dallas and had grown to include multinational sales before it was sold to Alberto Culver for $80 million in 2000.
An influential businessman, Cottrell backed black civil rights, education and political causes. He was the first African American member of the powerful Dallas Citizens Council and helped pave the way for the election of the city’s first black mayor, Ron Kirk, in 1995.
A Republican, he and George W. Bush were part-owners of the Texas Rangers. Cottrell was the first African American to own a stake in a Major League Baseball team, which he held from 1989 to 1998.
Cottrell also contributed more than $3 million to Paul Quinn College, a financially troubled, historically black school in Texas. “If it weren’t for him, there probably wouldn’t be a college,” college President Michael J. Sorrell said.