Benny Barrett stops in for a haircut by Claude Russell
Kingsport is full of “colorful” characters, and barber Claude Russell tops the list.
At age 72 and after a half-century of cutting hair, Claude is still just as quick with the quips and jabs as he was when he opened his first barbershop in Litz Manor. He is one of those fellas that you don’t really talk to; you just listen. If you stay there long enough, you’ll learn his life story from being born in 1939 at “Holston Ordnance” to his second marriage to the famous “Jane Russell.”
“I was born in 1939 at Holston Ordnance,” Claude says. Then, seeing your quizzical expression, he adds “they took our land and built that plant.” After 41 years of marriage, Claude’s first wife, Mary Sue, passed away in 2001. He married his second wife for “name and money.” She had a social security check and, when she married Claude, she became “Jane Russell,” sharing the same name as the voluptuous 1950s movie star.
After Mary Sue died, Claude had his pick of women. “I had at least 16 women call me. That’s the truth. One of them had a motor home, a condo and oh man, a Mercedes Benz. But love is just the way it is... I married my high school sweetheart this time.” Jane often stops by at lunch time and “feeds” Claude his lunch.
Many years ago, Claude had a customer, Ron Bedford, who was talking about his upcoming trip to Ireland. Claude told Bedford that he too would really like to see Ireland. When Bedford returned from his trip, he presented Claude with a photo that depicted Bedford standing in Ireland, holding a sign that said, “Haircut by Claude Russell, Kingsport, Tenn. and the World.” That one photo started a tradition with Claude’s customers that has resulted in more than 1,000 photos of Claude Russell in “every nation in the world.”
During 50 years as a barber, Claude has seen the hair styles come and go. The hardest to cut is the crew cut because it requires precision. When long hair came into style, Claude found himself returning to beauty school to learn how to cut the style.
“I was sitting here playing checkers one day when a customer came in and asked me, ‘Claude what are you doing?’ 'Playing checkers,' I said. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you get out of that chair and go down to the beauty school and learn how to cut long hair?’ I said, 'Think I’ll just do that.” And he did. Claude went weekends for four years to learn how to cut the longer hair styles.
Claude has been in his current East Center Street location since 1972. The shop opens at 5 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. There are no appointments; you just walk right in and put your name on the list. He charges $8 for a cut, or you can get the “weekly special,” which is half-off a $16 cut. A silent haircut is free. For this treat, Claude will stop talking, but he laughs “that’s never gonna happen.” Gentlemen 90 or over are invited to bring in their father, and Claude will give both a free haircut.
If you want to know more about Claude, just drop in at his 2616 E. Center St. location. You don’t even need to ask questions; just sit and listen and you’ll learn more about Claude than you probably ever wanted to know.