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Jester Hairston
Born Jester Joseph Hairston
July 9, 1901(1901-07-09)
Belews Creek, North Carolina
Died January 18, 2000 (aged 98)
Los Angeles, California
Other name(s) Jasper J. Hairston
Jester J. Hairston
Occupation Composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor
Spouse(s) Isabelle Margaret Swanigan (? - 1986) (her death)

Jester Joseph Hairston (July 9, 1901 – January 18, 2000) was an American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor. He wrote the Christmas song "Mary's Boy Child".


Early life

Hairston was born in Belews Creek, a rural community on the border of Stokes and Forsyth 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 cum laude from Tufts University in 1928 and studied music at the Juilliard School. 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. And, in 1937 was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild.


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). He 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 twenty films, mostly in small parts, some of which were not credited to him. 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).

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). His last television appearance was in 1993 on an episode of Family Matters, a sitcom.

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 from natural causes in 2000. 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
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
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

External links



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