“YOU GOT TO BE ORIGINAL, MAN!”
Black Men and Their Hats, a Quick Romp Through 120 Years of History
By Bill Adler
By now everyone’s sick and tired of hearing about “Pharrell’s Grammy hat.”
Of course, by “everybody,” I’m not talking about the 70-odd million humans who have watched “Happy” — in which homeboy intermittently sports the selfsame hat — since it was posted on Twitter last November.
Me, I’m delighted about the whole little tempest in a teapot because it gives yours truly an excuse to write about a subject of no small and enduring interest: black men and their chapeaux. And still in time for Black History Month.
I might not have given half a fuck about Pharrell and his hat except that Pharrell himself credited the British designer Vivienne Westwood as the creator of the article in question, which led a number of folks to the, uh, meme that was most likely Pharrell’s actual inspiration: the 1982 music video for the World Famous Supreme Team’s “Buffalo Gals.”
Both the record and the video were masterminded by Malcolm McLaren (seen above), the music biz impresario who had managed the Sex Pistols half-a-decade earlier. Like many British popsters (and like Mr. Pharrell Williams today), McLaren was as deep into fashion as he was into music. Indeed, Vivienne Westwood was his girlfriend at the time. How close were they? Well, not only is McLaren wearing the Westwood-designed hat in the video, but they’d collaborated on the fashion show at which the hat was introduced– “Buffalo Girls (Nostalgia for Mud).”
My guess is that young Mr. Williams knew all about the World Famous Supreme Team well before he’d heard of Vivienne Westwood.
No matter that Westwood was inspired to design the hat following her research into the fresh stylings of Peruvian women. (See photo above.) When Pharrell wears the thing – he was nine years old when the video was tearing up MTV — it is a soulful salute to the roots of hip-hop. (And by the way, it’s not like he had to rob a museum to acquire one of his own. Westwood sells her Mountain Hats to this very day.)
Anyway, Pharrell’s flair made me think of one of my recent flea market finds. It was just a couple of weeks ago, at a flea market a block and a half from my apartment in Manhattan, that I picked up a copy of the November 1949 issue of Our World magazine. I’d never seen one before. A big splashy photo magazine, built to the specifications of Life magazine, it was a precursor to Ebony, founded by a black entrepreneur named John P. Davis. The cover of the November ’49 issue is fairly eye-scorching.
I was, of course, beguiled by the sight of Ms. “Bunny” Evans and her special negligee, but — nerd that I am – what really killed me was the red-and-yellow-striped promo in the upper-right hand corner for a story about the great tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet.
Even more amazing was a feature deep inside the mag that got no shout-out on the cover: “How to Make a Pork Pie Hat: Jazz sophisticate Lester Young shows how he fashions slick style popular with ‘hepcats.’”
Anybody who knows anything about Young – one of a handful of the key architects of modern jazz – also knows about his pork pie hats. When Young died in 1959, fellow jazzman Charles Mingus composed a tribute to him entitled “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”
Indeed, Young’s pork pie was already so iconic by 1944 that director Djon Mili starts his short movie “Jammin’ the Blues” with a close-focus shot of the hat from directly above Young’s head. As the music — a slow blues — begins, all you see is cigarette smoke curling past two concentric black-on-black oblong circles. The credits roll for half a minute or so, superimposed over those circles, then the camera makes a graceful 90-degree arc…and there we are face-to-face with Lester Young playing his saxophone, and we understand that those oblongs comprised the man’s hat.
You could buy the pork pie in a store in those days, but, as the Our World story reveals, that’s not the way Young rolled. Devoted to the notion that “you got to be original, man,” he started by buying something very much like an old-fashioned ten-gallon cowboy hat…and then he “busted it down” by hand according to his own design.
Young confided to Our World that “he buys unrolled hat in Negro districts only, says: ‘You can’t get the right type in a ‘gray’ neighborhood.’” You can learn more about Mr. Davis and Our World by clicking here: http://www.johnpdaviscollection.org/about6.html
Fast forward to the Eighties and early Nineties, when I had the honor and pleasure of working with a group of musicians who, like Lester Young, had a thing for black hats: Run-DMC. Their choice of headgear – like the rest of their clothing – was heavily influenced by the personal style of Jam Master Jay, shown below in a Ricky Powell photo from 1988.
By 1985’s King of Rock, Run and D were fully on board.
Always the most fashion-forward of the crew, Jay would eventually co-found Walker Wear, an early hip-hop fashion brand, with the designer April Walker.
Jay sported his wool Stetson Godfather hats in the winter and lighter Kangols in the warm weather. The Godfather hats, as you might have guessed, started to enjoy a vogue in the street in the wake of the 1972 movie of the same name. (That’s Marlon Brando, in the title role, on the left.)
Jay began wearing them as a junior highschooler in emulation of Marvin Thompson, his older brother.
In an illuminating recent conversation, Marvin informed your reporter that everyone who wore the Godfather customized it (just as Lester Young had customized his pork pie). According to Marvin, Jay broke down the brim in front, but left the rear of the brim turned up…then swiveled the hat around and wore it backwards! When I asked Marvin why Jay did it that way, Marv said, “Why? I don’t know. That was him. Everybody breaks it down depending on his own style.”
The loquacious Mr. Thompson then expanded the filmography concerning the black man’s taste in hats. “The Godfather” is all well and good, he said, but, “If you rent ‘J.D.’s Revenge’” – a 1976 blaxploitation gem starring Glenn Turman – “…you got the whole story right there.”
And by the way, as far as Marvin’s concerned, “It all goes back to Edward G. Robinson in ‘Little Caesar.’ I’m a big Edward G. Robinson fan.” (See photo below.)
In short, what we’re talking about is gangster style, although when Jay started to wear his Godfather, he saw it as a marker of the emerging b-boy style. In either case, you couldn’t wear a hat so magnificent and be a punk. As Jay himself recalls in Tougher Than Leather: The Rise of Run-DMC, “I used to have to fight for my velour in the seventh grade, when guys would try me for my hat.”
Indeed, the black community has apparently always put a heavy value put on a beautiful hat. Think of Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee,” a great record and a big big hit in 1959.
The lyrics tell the story of Stagger Lee and Billy, “two men who gambled late” in a barroom. Billy won all of Stag’s money in a game of dice – “and his brand new Stetson hat.” But Stag thought that Billy had cheated him. So he went home, grabbed his forty-four, and shot Billy dead.
It turns out that the song sprang from a real-life incident. In a saloon in St. Louis on Christmas night in 1895, Lee Shelton, a black pimp better known as Stack Lee, and another man named Billy Lyons were drinking. They started beefing for some reason and Lyons stole Stag’s Stetson. “Subsequently,” says Wikipedia, “Shelton shot Lyons and recovered his hat.”
African-American musicians and their fellow travelers have found this story riveting for nearly 120 years. The first song devoted to it was noted in 1897. Although it didn’t make its way onto wax until 1923, “Stagger Lee “ was formally published in 1911. Over the decades it was recorded by Ma Rainey (with a young Louis Armstrong on cornet), Mississippi John Hurt, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Woody Guthrie. In the wake of Lloyd Price’s version, Ike & Tina Turner, cut it, as did James Brown, Wilson Pickett, the Grateful Dead, Prince Buster and the Trojans, and, in 2004, the Black Keys.
If you crave even more detail, I recommend Stagolee Shot Billy, a book published by Cecil Brown in 2004. Dig some of the flavor: Speaking of the sartorial style of the St. Louis macks of the 1890s, Brown writes, “Their choice of hat undoubtedly made their membership in a particular subculture as readily apparent as a Raiders cap on a Los Angeles gang member today.
“They had to be Stetsons and no other brand. The Stetson was the archetypal western hat; in the 1890s its inventor had christened it ‘Boss of the Plains.’ In that era it was a mark of the highest status for blacks….The hat in ‘Stagolee’ is a symbol of masculinity. The legend portrays Billy Lyons as wearing a derby…and Lee Shelton as wearing a wide-brimmed Stetson. Clearly, in this context the Stetson symbolizes greater masculinity….To hurt a man symbolically, one could do no worse that cut his Stetson.”
This is the same Cecil Brown, by the way, who wrote The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger in 1969, another book you may enjoy. In his foreword to its reissue in 2008, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that Life and Loves was “a cult classic for my friends and me at Yale, a required text on our veritable ‘Quest for Blackness’ reading list….Only Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door, also published in 1969, could successfully compete with Cecil Brown’s novel for our attention. We read both as ‘How to be Black’ manuals masquerading as fictions.”
Read these books. How you break ‘em down depends on your own style.
For the uninformed, “Ill Badler” is the former director of publicity for Def Jam Recordings and Rush Artist Management, where he promoted the careers of hip-hop legends Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, 3rd Bass, Slick Rick, and many others.