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Remembering Warren Lewis – ‘The Fire Barber’

by Florence M. Howard —

North Memphis barber Warren Lewis’ unusual method of using flaming candle tapers to cut hair launched him into the national spotlight.

Lewis demonstrated his flame technique on late-night shows hosted by Jay Leno and David Letterman. He also demonstrated it on local news shows and was featured in local newspaper stories.

Lewis, known as the “Fire Barber” died Oct. 8. He was 90. He still was cutting hair until three weeks before his death.

Warren Lewis demonstrated his fire-burning prowess as Jay Leno watched in amazement. (Screen capture)

Lewis was born Nov. 12, 1932 in rural Louisville, Mississippi. He was one of 17 children in the family of Lemon and Jennie Mae Lewis.

He grew up during the Great Depression. He said of himself, “God prepared Warren Lewis for success by giving him a pair of gifted hands. Who would have thought this little country boy from the cotton fields of Mississippi would use the technique that his mother taught him to burn the quills from a plucked chicken – and become world-famous.”

He was 19 when he left home and came to Memphis, where he walked into a barber shop in North Memphis more than 70 years ago.

He began using fire to cut and shape hair after a trip to his favorite barber and beauty shop supply store, where he saw long thin, taper candles.

He recalled how his mother used a flame to burn embedded quills off chickens to prepare them for cooking.

Before putting his idea into action, he practiced on himself.

Known worldwide as the Fire Barber from his appearances on local, national, and international TV shows, Lewis often said “Burning feathers off a chicken took me all over the world!”

With his close friend, the late Isaac Hayes, he founded the Black Knights, an organization that protested police brutality, Jim Crow, and housing discrimination in Memphis.

Lewis also was known for his generous spirit and community activism. He was cutting hair until three weeks before his death.

Warren Lewis engages in a conversation in his shop. (Courtesy photo)

A musician who played drums, it was Warren’s privilege to know many local singers and performers, including The Bar-Kays, who found a warm welcome at Warren’s Original Hair Styles, then at 887 Chelsea, where they gathered after performances and jam sessions.

That location was destroyed but his sign still stands proudly on the vacant lot near his most recently shop at 621 Chelsea.

He said an effort to train other Memphis barbers in his burning hair technique was not successful.

“They didn’t catch on,” he lamented.

Even so, he was ready to teach anyone who wanted to become a fire barber.

British film makers/video producer Simon Emmett and Sam Ford both came to Memphis to film “The Fire Barber” (Youtube.com).

Because of their support and interest in his fire barber technique, as well as his international trips to Canada and Japan, barbers and would-be barbers around the world are busy perfecting their own fire barbering techniques.

Interviewed by British filmmaker Emmert in 2018, Warren Lewis said “If I did my life over again, I’d be another barber. The only thing I’d have is a lunch hour and a vacation.”

He continued on the video, “I’m from a large family from Mississippi. “And what we do when we kill chickens is we wrang their neck. And when you kill a chicken, we have hot water. We dip them in the water because once you pick the feathers, there be lots of fine feathers on them. That’s why you see me burning hair.”

Having honed his barbering skills in his hometown, Warren Lewis became a Memphis barber by simply walking into Doyle’s Barber Shop in North Memphis and asking for a job.

In 1954, he enrolled in Moler Barber College in Chicago. After he returned home, he gained experience at various barber shops in the area. He said that during his first week, he made $19.

In 1960, he opened Warren’s Barber and Beauty Shop at 1208 Thomas. Later, he opened his own 16-chair shop, Warren’s Original Hair Styles at 887 Thomas.

Lewis said that he bought the worst building and remodeled it for his shop. The business flourished and enabled him to buy another house and four cars.

Warren Lewis (second from right) was in good company as he celebrated his 85th birthday. (Courtesy photo)

In April 1985, then-Memphis City Councilman Myron Lowery spearheaded a successful effort to honor Warren by renaming his section of Thomas St. as “Warren Lewis Street.”

Lewis was the father of three children and the grandfather of five.

The wake service for Mr. Lewis will be Friday (Oct. 20) from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at R.S. Lewis & Sons Funeral home at 3651 Austin Peay Highway.

The Celebration of Life service will be held Saturday (Oct. 21) at 11 a.m. at Pentecostal Temple COGIC at 229 South Danny Thomas Blvd., with burial to follow in New Park Cemetery at 4536 Horn Lake Road.

 

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