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Jester Hairston

Jester Hairston

American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor
Jester Hairston
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor
Was Musician Composer Actor Songwriter Conductor Television actor Film actor
From United States of America
Type Film, TV, Stage & Radio Music
Gender male
Birth 9 July 1901, Belews Creek, Forsyth County, North Carolina, USA
Death 18 January 2000, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, USA (aged 98 years)
Star sign Cancer
Juilliard School
Tufts University
The details


Jester Joseph Hairston (July 9, 1901 – January 18, 2000) was an American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor. He was regarded as a leading expert on Negro spirituals and choral music. His notable compositions include "Amen," a gospel-tinged theme from the film Lilies of the Field and a 1963 hit for The Impressions, and the Christmas song "Mary's Boy Child".

Early life

Hairston was born in Belews Creek, a rural community on the border of Stokes, Forsyth, Rockingham and Guilford counties in North Carolina. His grandparents had been slaves. At an early age he and his family moved to Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, where he graduated from high school in 1921. Hairston was still a small child when his father died in a job-related accident; he was raised by his grandmother while his mother went to work. While growing up, Hairston heard his grandmother and her friends talking and singing about life on the plantations of the southern US. He listened with immense interest and made a promise to himself that he would preserve this history through music.

Hairston initially majored in landscape architecture at Massachusetts Agricultural College in the 1920s. While studying landscape architecture, Hairston became involved in various church choirs and choral groups. The accompanist of one, Anna Laura Kidder, saw his potential in music and became his benefactor. Mrs. Kidder offered him financial assistance to study music at Tufts University, from which he graduated in 1929. He was one of the first black students admitted to Tufts. Later he studied music at the Juilliard School.

Hairston pledged Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Chi chapter in 1925. He worked as a choir conductor in the early stages of his career. His work with choirs on Broadway eventually led to his singing and acting in plays, films, radio programs, and television shows.


He sang with the Hall Johnson Choir in Harlem for a time but was nearly fired from the all black choir because he had difficulty with the rural dialects that were used in some of the songs. He had to shed his Boston accent and relearn the country speech of his parents and grandparents. Johnson had told him, "We're singing ain't and cain't and you're singing shahn't and cahn't and they don't mix in a spiritual." The Hall Johnson Choir performed in many Broadway shows including The Green Pastures. In 1936, they were asked to go to Hollywood to sing for the film The Green Pastures. At that time, a Russian composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, heard Jester and invited him to collaborate with him. This led to a thirty-year collaboration during which time Jester arranged and collected music for the movies. In 1939, Hairston married Margaret Swanigan. He also wrote and arranged spirituals for Hollywood films as well as for high school and college choirs around the country.

Hairston wrote the song "Mary's Boy Child" in 1956. He also arranged the song "Amen", which he dubbed for the Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field, and arranged traditional Negro spirituals Most of Hairston's film work was in the field of composing, arranging, and choral conducting. Hairston also acted in over 20 films, mostly in small roles, some of which were uncredited. Among the films he appeared in were bit parts in some of the early Tarzan movies, St. Louis Blues, The Alamo, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, Lady Sings the Blues, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and Being John Malkovich. Hairston starred in John Wayne's The Alamo (1960).

In 1961, the US State Department appointed Jester Hairston as Goodwill Ambassador. He traveled all over the world teaching and performing the folk music of the slaves. In the 1960s he held choral festivals with public high school choirs, introducing them to Negro Spiritual music, and sometimes leading several hundred students in community performances. His banter about the history of the songs along with his engaging personality and sense of humor endeared him to many students.

No matter where Hairston performed in the US, he checked the phone book for other Hairstons and was responsible for reuniting people on his family tree, both black and white. He composed more than 300 spirituals. All of his research and work has been documented for history. He was the recipient of many honorary doctorates, including a doctorate from The University of Massachusetts in 1972, and another in music from Tufts in 1977.

Hairston appeared on TV's The Amos 'n' Andy Show. He had the role of Leroy on the radio program and as Henry Van Porter on the television program. He also played the role of Wildcat on the show That's My Mama. In his senior years he appeared on the show Amen as Rolly Forbes. His last television appearance was in 1993 on an episode of Family Matters. Hairston also played the role of "King Moses" on radio for the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall show Bold Venture.

In his later years, Hairston served as a cultural ambassador for American music, traveling to numerous countries with choral groups that he had assembled. In 1985 he took the Jester Hairston Chorale, a multi-racial group, to sing in the People's Republic of China, at a time when foreign visitors were still quite rare in that country.


Hairston died in Los Angeles of natural causes in 2000 at age 98. For his contribution to the television industry, Hairston has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6201 Hollywood Blvd. He is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.

Sources cited

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 19 May 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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