Jester Hairston

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Jester Hairston
Jester hairston 1951.jpg
Hairston as Henry Van Porter on The Amos 'n' Andy Show, 1951
Jester Joseph Hairston

(1901-07-09)July 9, 1901
DiedJanuary 18, 2000(2000-01-18) (aged 98)
Other namesJasper J. Hairston
Jester J. Hairston
OccupationComposer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, actor
Years active1936–1999
Isabelle Margaret Swanigan
(m. 1939; died 1986)

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 Black spirituals and choral music.[1][2] His notable compositions include "Amen", a gospel-tinged theme from the film Lilies of the Field and a 1964 hit for The Impressions, and the Christmas song "Mary's Boy Child".

Early life[edit]

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.[1] At an early age he and his family moved to Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh,[1] where he graduated from high school in 1921.[2] 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.[3][4] 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.[4][5]

Hairston initially majored in landscape architecture at Massachusetts Agricultural College in the 1920s.[3][6] 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,[7][3] from which he graduated in 1929.[1][6][8] He was one of the first black students admitted to Tufts.[9][a] Later he studied music at the Juilliard School.[7][12]

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.[6][13]


Hairston 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."[14][1] 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 30-year collaboration, during which time Jester arranged and collected music for the movies. In 1939, Hairston married Margaret Swanigan.[3][2][15] He also wrote and arranged spirituals for Hollywood films as well as for high school and college choirs around the country.[8][14]

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[16] Most of Hairston's film work was in the field of composing, arranging, and choral conducting.[8][14] 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, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, Lady Sings the Blues, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and Being John Malkovich.[16] 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.[1][17] 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.[8]

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.[2][6][18] 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.[2][19][20]

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.[16][6] 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.[6][21] 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.[6][3]

In his later years, Hairston served as a cultural ambassador for American music, traveling to numerous countries with choral groups that he had assembled.[8] In 1985 he took the Jester Hairston Chorale, a multi-racial group, to sing in the People's Republic of China,[22] 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.[23] For his contribution to the television industry, Hairston has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6201 Hollywood Boulevard.[24] He is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.


Year Title Role Notes
1936 The Green Pastures Member of Hall Johnson Choir Uncredited
1941 Sundown Native Boy Uncredited
1941 Sullivan's Travels Charlie - Church Projectionist Uncredited
1942 The Vanishing Virginian Mover Uncredited
1942 In This Our Life Black Man in Jail Uncredited
1942 Tales of Manhattan Shantytown Man (Robeson sequence), Uncredited
1942 Across the Pacific Passerby Uncredited
1951 Yes Sir, Mr. Bones Jester Hairston
1952 We're Not Married! Leader of Christmas Carolers Uncredited
1953 So This Is Love Preacher Uncredited
1954 Gypsy Colt Carl
1954 Tanganyika Singer Uncredited
1955 Tarzan's Hidden Jungle Witch Doctor Uncredited
1955 Pete Kelly's Blues Mourner, Pre-Credit Sequence Uncredited
1956 Tension at Table Rock Black Janitor Uncredited
1956 Full of Life Train Porter Uncredited
1957 Band of Angels Plantation Slave Uncredited
1958 St. Louis Blues Choir Member Uncredited
1960 Raymie Ransom
1960 The Alamo Jethro
1961 Summer and Smoke Thomas Uncredited
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
1972 Lady Sings the Blues The Butler
1976 The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings Furry Taylor, Has-been player selling souvenirs
1976 The Last Tycoon Waiter in Stahr's Office Uncredited
1988 I'm Gonna Git You Sucka Pop Adam
1999 Being John Malkovich Adam Hairston Uncredited, (final film role)
Year Title Role Notes
1951-53 The Amos 'n' Andy Show Various 10 episodes
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. ^ Hairston had to postpone his college work many times due to financial problems. Each time he would temporarily withdraw and work full time to earn his tuition money for the next year of education. When he first applied to Tufts, he was rejected. After meeting an African-American man who had formerly studied at Tufts, he was advised how to write a letter to gain acceptance.[10] Hairston was able to obtain a full scholarship for his time at Tufts after his first semester as a student there.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Woo, Elaine (January 21, 2000). "Actor Overcame Race Stereotypes". Los Angeles Times.
  2. ^ a b c d e Watkins, Mel (January 30, 2000). "Jester Hairston, 98, Choral Expert and Actor". The New York Times.
  3. ^ a b c d e Bass Cope, Penelope (February 27, 1984). "From shipboard waiter to Hollywood". Morning News. p. 29. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  4. ^ a b "Southern California File". Los Angeles Times. July 2, 1994. p. 179. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  5. ^ Fullen 1992, pp. 15–17.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Rense, Rip (December 4, 1988). "Lord, What a Career". Chicago Tribune. p. 134. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  7. ^ a b Traylor, Susan (March 20, 1977). "No Business Like Show Business for Hairston". Longview News-Journal. p. 64. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  8. ^ a b c d e Williford, Stanley O. (October 26, 1981). "Choir Director Jester Hairston "Spirituals Adviser to the World"". Los Angeles Times. p. 68. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  9. ^ fullen 1992, p. 18.
  10. ^ Wiencek 2000, pp. 220–222.
  11. ^ Sauer, Anne; Branco, Jessica; Bennett, John; Crowley, Zachary (2000). "Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History". Retrieved September 25, 2017.
  12. ^ McConahey, Meg (March 20, 1987). "Sounds of slavery in Sonoma". Press Democrat. p. 32. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  13. ^ "Noted Musician to Visit Longview". Longview News-Journal. March 13, 1977. p. 51. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  14. ^ a b c Williford, Stanley O. (October 26, 1981). "Hairston:A Spirituals Adviser". Los Angeles Times. p. 75. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  15. ^ "Engaged Couple". Oakland Tribune. May 14, 1939. p. 50. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  16. ^ a b c Deeb, Gary (June 23, 1987). "Veteran black actor has seen changes on and off screen". Courier-Post. p. 28. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  17. ^ Lowery, Lucie (November 4, 1966). "Director Fresh From Tour of Africa". Pasadena Independent. p. 37. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  18. ^ Hairston, Will (January 28, 2000). "He Had a Dream. Amen". Los Angeles Times. p. 117. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  19. ^ "Revue to Feature Jester Hairston". Marshall Texas Messenger. November 11, 1979. p. 28. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  20. ^ "Alumnus Jester Hairston Dies at 98: Actor-Composer Helped Preserve Negro Spirituals". University of Massachusetts Chronicle. January 28, 2000.
  21. ^ Fearn-Burns 2005, p. 584.
  22. ^ "Jester Hairston to perform two concerts at Victor Valley College". San Bernardino County Sun. November 27, 1986. p. 36. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  23. ^ Michaels, Taylor (April 16, 2000). "TV Mailbag". Palm Beach Post. p. 264. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access
  24. ^ "91-year-old Jester Hairston earns 'star'". The Daily Times. February 20, 1992. p. 3. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via open access

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