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 black spirituals and choral music. 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.”
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 black spirituals and choral music. 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."
Jester Joseph Hairston
July 9, 1901
|Died||January 18, 2000 (aged 98)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Other names||Jasper J. Hairston|
Jester J. Hairston
|Occupation(s)||Composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, actor|
Isabelle Margaret Swanigan
(m. 1939; died 1986)
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 very young when his father was killed in a job-related accident. Hairston was raised by his grandmother while his mother worked. Hairston heard his grandmother and her friends talking and singing about plantation life and became determined to preserve this history through music.
Hairston initially majored in landscape architecture at Massachusetts Agricultural College in the 1920s. He became involved in various church choirs and choral groups, and accompanist Anna Laura Kidder saw his potential and became his benefactor. Kidder offered Hairston 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.[a] Later he studied music at the Juilliard School.
Hairston pledged the Chi chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity in 1925. He worked as a choir conductor in the early stages of his career. His work with choirs on Broadway eventually led to singing and acting parts in plays, films, radio programs and television shows.
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." The choir performed in many Broadway shows, including The Green Pastures. In 1936, the choir was asked to visit Hollywood to sing for the film The Green Pastures. Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin heard Hairston and invited him to what would become a 30-year collaboration in which Hairston arranged and collected music for films. In 1939, Hairston married Margaret Swanigan. He 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. He also acted in more than 20 films, mostly in small roles, some uncredited. The film roles included some of the early Tarzan films as well as 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. Hairston starred in John Wayne's The Alamo (1960), in which he portrayed "Jethro," a slave owned by Jim Bowie.
In 1961, the U.S. State Department appointed 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 led 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.
During his nationwide travels, Hairston checked local phone books for other Hairstons and reunited many people on his family tree, both black and white. He composed more than 300 spirituals. He was the recipient of many honorary doctorates, including a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts in 1972 and a doctorate in music from Tufts in 1977.
Hairston appeared on the television situation comedy The Amos 'n' Andy Show as society sophisticate Henry Van Porter and portrayed the character of Leroy on both the radio and television Amos 'n' Andy programs. 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 multiracial group, to sing in China at a time when foreign visitors would rarely appear there.
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 Boulevard. He is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.
|1936||The Green Pastures||Member of Hall Johnson Choir||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|
|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|
|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)|
|1951-53||The Amos 'n' Andy Show||Various||10 episodes|
|1955||You Are There||Thornton||1 episode|
|The 20th Century Fox Hour||Jacob||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|
- ^ 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. Hairston was able to obtain a full scholarship for his time at Tufts after his first semester as a student there.
- ^ a b c d e f Woo, Elaine (January 21, 2000). "Actor Overcame Race Stereotypes". Los Angeles Times.
- ^ a b c d e Watkins, Mel (January 30, 2000). "Jester Hairston, 98, Choral Expert and Actor". The New York Times.
- ^ 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 Newspapers.com.
- ^ a b "Southern California File". Los Angeles Times. July 2, 1994. p. 179. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ Fullen 1992, pp. 15–17.
- ^ 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 Newspapers.com.
- ^ a b Traylor, Susan (March 20, 1977). "No Business Like Show Business for Hairston". Longview News-Journal. p. 64. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ 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 Newspapers.com.
- ^ fullen 1992, p. 18. sfn error: no target: CITEREFfullen1992 (help)
- ^ Wiencek 2000, pp. 220–222.
- ^ Sauer, Anne; Branco, Jessica; Bennett, John; Crowley, Zachary (2000). "Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History". Retrieved September 25, 2017.
- ^ McConahey, Meg (March 20, 1987). "Sounds of slavery in Sonoma". Press Democrat. p. 32. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ "Noted Musician to Visit Longview". Longview News-Journal. March 13, 1977. p. 51. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ a b c Williford, Stanley O. (October 26, 1981). "Hairston:A Spirituals Adviser". Los Angeles Times. p. 75. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ "Engaged Couple". Oakland Tribune. May 14, 1939. p. 50. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ 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 Newspapers.com.
- ^ Lowery, Lucie (November 4, 1966). "Director Fresh From Tour of Africa". Pasadena Independent. p. 37. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ Hairston, Will (January 28, 2000). "He Had a Dream. Amen". Los Angeles Times. p. 117. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ "Revue to Feature Jester Hairston". Marshall Texas Messenger. November 11, 1979. p. 28. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ "Alumnus Jester Hairston Dies at 98: Actor-Composer Helped Preserve Negro Spirituals". University of Massachusetts Chronicle. January 28, 2000.
- ^ Fearn-Burns 2005, p. 584.
- ^ "Jester Hairston to perform two concerts at Victor Valley College". San Bernardino County Sun. November 27, 1986. p. 36. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ Michaels, Taylor (April 16, 2000). "TV Mailbag". Palm Beach Post. p. 264. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- ^ "91-year-old Jester Hairston earns 'star'". The Daily Times. February 20, 1992. p. 3. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via Newspapers.com.
- Fearn-Burns, Kathleen, ed. (2005). Historical Dictionary of African-American Television (Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts). The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-5335-3.
- Fullen, M. K. (1992). Pathblazers: Eight People who Made a Difference. Open Hand Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9408-8036-8.
- Wiencek, Henry (2000). The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-3122-5393-6.
- Jester Hairston at IMDb
- Jester Hairston at the Internet Broadway Database
- African American Registry biography
- Sanborn, Pete. "Jester Hairston". ChoralNet.org. Archived from the original on 2002-06-16. Retrieved 2019-09-23.
- Jester Hairston at Find a Grave