Jester Joseph Hairston (July 9, 1901 – January 18, 2000) was an American composersongwriterarranger, choral conductor and actor. He was regarded as a leading expert on 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.”


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.[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."

Jester Hairston
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
Occupation(s)Composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, actor
Years active1936–1999
Isabelle Margaret Swanigan
(m. 1939; died 1986)

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.[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 very young when his father was killed in a job-related accident. Hairston was raised by his grandmother while his mother worked.[3][4] Hairston heard his grandmother and her friends talking and singing about plantation life and became determined to preserve this history through music.[4][5]

Hairston initially majored in landscape architecture at Massachusetts Agricultural College in the 1920s.[3][6] 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,[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 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.[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 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.[3][2][15] He 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] 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.[16] Hairston starred in John Wayne's The Alamo (1960), in which he portrayed "Jethro," a slave owned by Jim Bowie. In 1962’s ‘’To Kill a Mockingbird’’ Hairston portrayed the uncredited role of the father of accused rapist Tom Robinson. In 1967’s ‘’In the Heat of the Night’’, Hairston portrayed the butler of a wealthy racist being investigated for murder. In both films, Hairston shot scenes along side men who won an Academy Award for Best Actor in those respective films for portraying white Southerners navigating their jobs through a racially divided culture.

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.[1][17] 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.[8]

During his nationwide travels, Hairston checked local phone books for other Hairstons and reunited many people on his family tree, both black and white.[2][6][18] 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.[2][19][20]

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.[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 multiracial group, to sing in China[22] at a time when foreign visitors would rarely appear there.


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  
  4. ^ a b "Southern California File". Los Angeles Times. July 2, 1994. p. 179. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  
  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  
  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  
  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  
  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  
  13. ^ "Noted Musician to Visit Longview". Longview News-Journal. March 13, 1977. p. 51. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  
  14. ^ a b c Williford, Stanley O. (October 26, 1981). "Hairston:A Spirituals Adviser". Los Angeles Times. p. 75. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  
  15. ^ "Engaged Couple". Oakland Tribune. May 14, 1939. p. 50. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  
  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  
  17. ^ Lowery, Lucie (November 4, 1966). "Director Fresh From Tour of Africa". Pasadena Independent. p. 37. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  
  18. ^ Hairston, Will (January 28, 2000). "He Had a Dream. Amen". Los Angeles Times. p. 117. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  
  19. ^ "Revue to Feature Jester Hairston". Marshall Texas Messenger. November 11, 1979. p. 28. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  
  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  
  23. ^ Michaels, Taylor (April 16, 2000). "TV Mailbag". Palm Beach Post. p. 264. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  
  24. ^ "91-year-old Jester Hairston earns 'star'". The Daily Times. February 20, 1992. p. 3. Retrieved September 20, 2017 – via  

Sources cited

External links

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