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Jester Hairston

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Biography

Jester Joseph Hairston (July 9, 1901 – January 18, 2000) was an American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor. 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 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. In 1937 was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Career

Hairston wrote the song “Mary’s Boy Child” in 1956, possibly the only popular Christmas song written by an African-American. 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.

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