On a autumn evening in 2011 I had arrived home from work and was about to settle in when Stevie Wonder rang me and asked if I’d like to go with him to Hal Jackson’s 95th birthday celebration. Of course I wanted to go! As a young teen I had been in the Hal Jackson’s Miss Black Teenage America Pageant, a very inspiring and educational experience that touched my life in a significant way. Not to mention, it was Stevie Wonder that performed at the after party that night of my pageant in 1972. I could have never imagine that we would one day meet and become friends. This was definitely a full circle experience. Mr. Jackson is an iconic figure in black firsts , a visionary who broke down many barriers in several industries throughout his life as a business man and political activist. We were seated at Mr. Jackson’s table. There were many celebrities there to honor Mr. Jackson that night, but I was most impressed with his wife, Debi B. Over the years I had heard the soothing and warm voice of Debi B, co-hosting on Hal Jackson’s Sunday Classics on WBLS, but I was unaware that Debi was Mr. Jackson’s wife. What impressed me that night was Debi’s spirit. Debi was kind and warm to me in a way that was genuine, not because I was with Stevie. She was effervescent, mingling and yet attentive to her husband of nearly 25 years. Debi and I became Facebook friends and kept touch intermittently. One day I just decided to ask Debi if I could interview her and I was delighted when she agreed. Many things have changed since the night we met, including the passing of Mr. Jackson. But love never ends and I’m a sucker for a love story and I wanted to know about this unique couple.
I really was intrigued as to why a beautiful 36 year old woman would marry a man twice her age as Debi did in 1987. After being pursued and lovingly courted by Mr. Jackson for 6 years, she finally said yes she would marry him. Debi shared that she had known Mr. Jackson since she was a pre-teen as he had been a close family friend. Many years later while volunteering for Mr. Jackson’s Talented Teens contest she saw him again and shortly thereafter went on a date with him. She mentioned “Hal was a very private person” so a date with Mr. Jackson included many others, which on the surface doesn’t really look like a date. That first date included 5 others, a couple of whom were Debi’s family members.
Debi shared that six weeks into courting Mr. Jackson proposed, but she was not ready to settle down after just coming through a divorce. So she put him off by saying, ask me again in a year. And that was her refrain for 6 years. In the meantime, Mr. Jackson was living on the west coast. Debi said he’d fly her to Los Angeles from New York on a regular, but once she’d arrive, he’d say don’t un-pack. And the next thing she’d know, they are off to Paris, or London or Maui or some exotic place for a short get away. There were gifts of gorgeous flowers and jewelry and romantic greeting cards that Debi knew Hal had picked himself to share his sentiments for her. But most of all was his loving ways, the sweetness, caring and persistence of Hal that finally won her over. “Be independent” Hal would tell Debi, make a name for yourself, so she says he encouraged, pushed and supported her to be independent of him. When I asked what Debi missed most about Hal, she became chocked up as she said, in their lives not a day went by that he didn’t tell her he loved her. I am imagining it was more than him saying it, but also the many ways in which he showed his love. And it was two way street. Debi mentioned how much she loved skiing but in Hal’s last three years of life, he found it increasingly difficult to tolerate the cold. So she gave up her ski trips as to not expose him to this discomfort. And I am sure there were many other sacrifices on both sides as is usually the case in any loving relationship.
For some odd reason when I met Debi I was surprised that her hair was natural. I had never seen a picture of her, of this person behind that comfy and engaging radio voice. So of course I had to ask her about her hair. Debi has long Sister Locks and I asked if her hair was natural before having Sister Locks. She shared that she had been wearing braids and twists before deciding to do Sister Locks. Before that she had been wearing a perm, but because of the sensitivity of her scalp to the chemical relaxers, she would wake up with her hair plastered to her head caused by the oozing fluids from her scalp. Yikes! So she went natural and says she absolutely LOVES her Sister Locks, that she’s been sporting for seven years now. Debi is also a photographer and was the first female to have a solo exhibit at the State Office Building in Harlem. She’s an avid gardener and when she lived in the city with Hal, she cultivated a roof top garden that included 21 rose bushes. So part of her collection includes flowers and butterflies and Debi has a new show upcoming this spring in NYC.
Debi and her daughter Tonya – Sister Locks and beauty run in the family
Along with Clay Berry Debi continues to host The Sundays Classics, the show that Mr. Jackson created on the radio station he founded. In addition, Debi is the produced for Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens International at Scholarship Competition. Since Hal’s passing Debi has given up her penthouse apartment on the Upper East Side for a more grounded abode, a house in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey that she says claimed her, the moment she saw it. She is enjoying her new status as home owner but life continues to bring challenges. A few months ago two of Debi’s closest friends passed away within weeks of one another. What she missed most she says, is the companionship. But like the trooper she is, Debi continues to have a positive outlook on life and impact on those around her. She is full of vim and vigor as she navigates which roads to take to canonize her late husband’s legacy. Having known a very special love and successful marriage of 25 years that was both beautiful and fulfilling, Debi is on the road of embracing a new life, in her new home and she smiles brightly as she look forward to the future.