Jester Joseph Hairston was an American composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor. He wrote 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. 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. 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, The Alamo, 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 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 on the show That’s My Mama. In his senior years he appeared in the show Amen as Rolly Forbes. His last television appearance was in 1993 on an episode of Family Matters, a sitcom.