World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Jester Hairston

Article Id: WHEBN0003514919
Reproduction Date:

Title: Jester Hairston  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Lilies of the Field (1963 film), Orange Blossom Special (album), List of Tufts University people, Hairston, Amos 'n' Andy
Collection: 1901 Births, 2000 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Musicians, African-American Male Actors, African-American Songwriters, American Composers, American Male Composers, American Male Film Actors, American Male Radio Actors, American Male Television Actors, Burials at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Juilliard School Alumni, Male Actors from North Carolina, Male Actors from Pennsylvania, People from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, People from Forsyth County, North Carolina, People from Homestead, Pennsylvania, Tufts University Alumni
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Jester Hairston

Jester Hairston
Jester Hairston as Henry Van Porter on Amos 'n' Andy show, 1951.
Born Jester Joseph Hairston
(1901-07-09)July 9, 1901
Belews Creek, North Carolina
Died January 18, 2000(2000-01-18) (aged 98)
Los Angeles, California
Other names Jasper J. Hairston
Jester J. Hairston
Occupation Composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, actor
Years active 1936–1999
Spouse(s) Isabelle Margaret Swanigan (1912-1986; her death)

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.[1][2] 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 1
  • Career 2
  • Death 3
  • Selected filmography 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

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 of Pittsburgh, where he graduated from high school in 1919. Hairston, who gave up studies at Massachusetts Agriculture College in the 1920s, went on to graduate from Tufts University in 1928 and studied music at the Juilliard School. Hairston pledged Kappa Alpha Psi (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.


Helped by benefactor Anna Laura Kidder who saw his potential, Hairston graduated from Tufts University, near Boston, Mass. in 1929. He was one of the first black students admitted to Tufts.

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 reportedly 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."[3]) The Hall Johnson Choir performed in many Broadway shows including Green Pastures. In 1936, they were asked to go to Hollywood to sing for the film,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. 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 wrote the song "Amen", which he dubbed for the Sidney Poitier film Lilies of the Field (1963), 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 (1958), The Alamo (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988) and Being John Malkovich (1999).

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. No matter where Jester performed in the US, he checked the phone book for 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 four honorary doctorates, including an honorary doctorate from The University of Massachusetts in 1972, and another in music from Tufts in 1977.[4][5]

Hairston appeared on The Amos 'n' Andy Show. He had been in the radio program that was the basis for the TV show. He also played the role of Wildcat (1974–1975) on the show That's My Mama. In his senior years he appeared in the show Amen as Rolly Forbes (1986–1991).[6] His last television appearance was in 1993 on an episode of Family Matters, a sitcom. 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. Born in 1901, Hairston's life spanned each year of the 20th century. 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.

Selected filmography

Year Film Role Notes
1936 The Green Pastures Member of Hall Johnson Choir Uncredited
1941 Sullivan's Travels Church Projectionist Uncredited
1952 We're Not Married! Leader of Christmas Carolers Uncredited
1954 Gypsy Colt Carl
1955 Tarzan's Hidden Jungle Witch Doctor Uncredited
1960 Raymie Ransom
1960 The Alamo Jethro
1962 To Kill a Mockingbird Spence Robinson, Tom's father Uncredited
1967 In the Heat of the Night Butler
1968 Finian's Rainbow Passion Pilgrim Gospeleer Uncredited
1976 The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings Furry Taylor, Has-been player selling souvenirs
Year Title Role Notes
1951 The Rare Coin Henry 1 episode
1955 You Are There Thornton 1 episode
1956 Gunsmoke Wellington 1 episode
The 20th Century Fox Hour Jacob 1 episode
1959 Rawhide Zachariah 1 episode
1961 Thriller Papa Benjamin 1 episode
1962 Have Gun--Will Travel Old Man 1 episode
1969 The Outcasts Daniel 1 episode
The Virginian John Douglas 1 episode
1974–1975 That's My Mama Wildcat 22 episodes
1975 Harry O Jefferson Johnson 1 episode
1986–1991 Amen Rolly Forbes 110 episodes
1993 Family Matters William 1 episode


  1. ^ Elaine Woo, "Jester Hairston Dies; Actor Overcame Race Stereotypes. Arts: Embodying blacks' Hollywood struggles, he played in 'Amos 'n' Andy.' But he was also an influential choral director and promoter of spirituals." Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2000.
  2. ^ Mel Watkins, "Jester Hairston, 98, Choral Expert and Actor", The New York Times, January 30, 2000.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Fearn-Burns, Kathleen, ed. (2005). Historical Dictionary of African-American Television (Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts). The Scarecrow Press. p. 584.  
  • Pathblazers: Eight People Who Made a Difference by M.K. Fullen, Open Hand Publishing, 1992 (juvenile biography).
  • The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White by Henry Wieneck, St. Martin's Press. NY, 1999. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  • "Alumnus Jester Hairston Dies at 98: Actor-Composer Helped Preserve Negro Spirituals", University of Massachusetts Campus Chronicle, January 28, 2000.
  • Jester Hairston, Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History, Tufts University Digital Library.

External links

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.