By: Tony Collins
As it is true for most professions, the passing of time comes with the introduction of new methods and techniques. It is just as nice to find a doctor who will perform house calls, as it is to find a barber who still uses a straight razor to give a shave. Master barber, Oscar Johnson has been cutting hair, professionally, for 50 years. He considers the use of the straight razor not as an old-fashioned technique whose use is almost extinct among barbers, but a lost art form whose decline has negatively affected the barber profession. Throughout his many years as a barber, Johnson has seen how things have changed. Gone are the barbershops of the past where respect for the trade and the barber were implied upon crossing the threshold, where good conversation would keep a customer in the shop far longer than the length of his haircut and where maximum service, not minimum, was the rule. What keeps Oscar Johnson grounded and a mainstay in his community is the classic atmosphere that his shop provides to its customers-everything from the jazz, blues and gospel music frequently played and the conversation to Johnson’s use of the lost art of a straight razor cut and a shave. The following is an interview of Johnson, conducted by fellow barber and protégé Tony Collins.
Tony: When did you start cutting hair?
Oscar: Oh, I started cutting hair in 1961, in the barbershop.
1961? What was the name of that barbershop?
Jazz Mark IV
So the shop has always been named Jazz Mark IV?
Yeah, Jazz Mark IV.
So how did you learn about the razor, because that’s the lost art.
Oh, well I learned about the razor from my father. I was about five or six-years-old and I used to see him strapping that razor and I learned how to cut hair on his head, you know? And I always did want to use that razor so I started practicing myself. Of course I got cut a couple of times [laughing], but I finally learned and I been doing it ever since. That’s a lost art, anyway.
So where are you from originally?”
Where am I from? Mississippi; Hollandale, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta.
So when did you come up to Chicago?
I came to Chicago in 1951
Were you cutting hair?
I cut hair; and all throughout the army I cut hair. I went into the army when I was about 19 or 20-years-old. I started cutting hair in the army on the boat. We were going across the ocean from Seattle, Wash., and they asked if anybody knew how to cut hair. I told them I knew how, so I cut hair on the boat until I got to Yokohama, in Japan. Then I used to go back in the washroom and cut the boys hair, you know, in the barracks.
How was the experience on Roosevelt Road and how long were you cutting there?
Roosevelt Road is a legacy where we left from there in about 1970. We left from Jew-town down there on Morgan Street. We had a barbershop down there by the polish stand. Of course, Jew-town was smokin’ then; it was jumpin’ then. Everything was down there. It had fish markets all over the street, drug stores, liquor stores, pool rooms; it had everything. We had a barbershop down there. We left there in about 1975, going on, and we came to Roosevelt Road. From there we were there on Roosevelt Road for about 35 years, I guess.
So when they came in and renovated and made Roosevelt a busy street, and they changed the zoning, that’s when they came in and bought us out and I moved over here.
How about some of the characters that would come to the shop?
Well you know if I had a movie to really show it’d be something [laughs]. There was nothing that went on over there that, you know, you could really think about because everything went on. Prostitutes, stick-up people, drug addicts…
It was really a ghetto-life there, and that shop was right on the middle of it. We were saved by the grace of God.
I was getting to that; by me working here I see a lot of people come through for, not just regular advice that you get from a barber, but spiritual advice. Would you care to touch on that?
Yeah, well, you know over there, what kept us, was [myself] and the spiritual tone that I had. They always called me ‘preacher’ and they respected me, you know. Riley was the fast one; he was the pimp. And, you know, he would always respect me and whenever I told him it was wrong he would settle down. When the people came in, they didn’t respect Riley but they respected me because I had this religious, spiritual tone about me and I always played spiritual music, you know, and we would always have preachers come in and they would argue over the Bible. We would have religious discussions in there. Most of the time I got the best of them, you know. I would make them mad. Some would leave out mad. That went on, you know. In those days that’s all they did was sit down and talk about the Bible and they would argue over the Bible. But I learned from that experience that it’s not good to sit up and argue, you know. It’s alright for a discussion, but it’s not good to get into a heated argument because it’s just no good. If a person doesn’t believe the way you believe, leave them alone. If you can’t brainstorm together and get some information that’s able to help you, leave them alone.
So what would you say about the shop that you’re in now? How long have you been here on Western?
Oh, we’ve been here about 5 years.
Yeah, and over here there’s a different atmosphere. When we first moved here, some of the same things that were in the neighborhood, drifted over here because my shop was broken into 2 times and I think that that stems from the neighborhood. See, when we moved, we had guys that would tell guys that we were out of the city. They wouldn’t tell them where we were because people were jealous. Some barbers over here, I think they had something to do with the breaking in; they tried to run us away from here, but I stayed here, you know. Finally, they let us alone, you know. You had many guys who were afraid that I would take their customers. Some of them were cutting hair and they didn’t have a license. Some of them are still doing it. So, that’s just the way it is, you know.
What would you say about the atmosphere you have now in the shop as far as the characters you have now, because Cox has been with you?
I think the atmosphere I have now is beautiful, is good. It blends in, you know? It blends in with what’s going on today. Actually, this shop can associate with all types of clientele except the clientele [that deals] with drugs. You know, I don’t like to associate with drug lords too much. We have people who come in who maybe use drugs but they don’t present themselves in here as a drug addict. They always come in with a certain amount of respect, you know. And the conversations that we have are just happy-go-lucky. So I think, according to the days and time, I think we’re doing good.
Any last remarks?
I would say that barbering is a lost art when you come to a straight razor. And I’m one of the guys who really started out, even in the late ‘30’s to where I look at my father, and the razor is the key to really shaving and giving a line. So actually, nowadays, they’ve gotten away from [using] that razor. When I went to barber college, the guy used to show us how to shave. There are fourteen stokes to shaving. And these fourteen strokes, if you use them, a guy would not bump. Well, of course, now we don’t really go through that stage of the fourteen strokes. But, I do know the fourteen strokes that are against the grain, with the grain and so forth. I could go through a whole layout of how you should do it. Barbering now is just a lost art when it comes to [using the] razor. You can cut hair and use your outliner and so forth, but that razor, can’t nothing beat it. And it is the best thing.