Jester Joseph Hairston (July 9, 1901 – January 18, 2000) was an American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, andactor. 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".
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 ofPittsburgh, 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.
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 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).
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 showThat'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. 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 theJester 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. 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.