He also composed that contemporary classic, “Amen,” that we all remember from “Lilies of the Field.” (He also dubbed Sidney Poitier’s singing voice in the movie.) I suspect most people have never heard of Jester Hairston. But attention must be paid!
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jester Hairston:
Hairston was born in Belews Creek, a rural community in North Carolina. His grandparents had been slaves. At an early age, he and his family moved to Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, where he graduated from high school in 1921. Hairston was very young when his father was killed in a job-related accident. Hairston was raised by his grandmother while his mother worked. Hairston heard his grandmother and her friends talking and singing about plantation life and became determined to preserve this history through music.
About his famous Christmas song:
The song had its genesis when Hairston was sharing a room with a friend. The friend asked him to write a song for a birthday party. Hairston wrote the song with a calypso rhythm because the people at the party would be mainly West Indians. The song’s original title was “He Pone and Chocolate Tea,” pone being a type of corn bread. It was never recorded in this form.
Some time later Walter Schumann, at the time conducting Schumann’s Hollywood Choir, asked Hairston to write a new Christmas song for his choir. Hairston remembered the calypso rhythm from his old song and wrote new lyrics for it.
Harry Belafonte heard the song being performed by the choir and sought permission to record it. It was recorded in 1956 and released as a single that year. Belafonte released it again the following year in 1957 on his album An Evening with Belafonte, using a different, longer take. This longer version was also released in the UK as a single (with a B-side of “Eden Was Just Like This”), where it became the first UK number one to have a playing time of over four minutes. It reached No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart in November 1957, and has since sold over 1.19 million copies there.
The rest is history. But wait, there’s more:
Hairston performed as a character actor (often uncredited) in television and films, including “The Alamo,” “Carmen Jones: “Tarzan,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “So This is Love,” “Tanganyika” (an African movie), “Gypsy Colt,” “Tarzan’s Secret Jungle,” St. Louis Blues and “In the Heat of the Night,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” “The Bingo Long Traveling All, Stars and Motor Kings,” “Tender Killing Care,” and “Being John Malkovich” . Hairston also portrayed Henry Van Porter and Leroy Smith in the controversial radio and television show “Amos ‘n Andy.” By 1951, he had also performed as Johnny in the Beulah Show and at Humphrey Bogart’s new radio show, Bold Venture, as a Cuban singer. The US government sent him and an integrated choir on a good will tour to Asia in the 1950s.
Most importantly, Hairston was a prolific composer. He is most famous for “Amen,” a spiritual so “authentic” many did not realize Hairston had composed it. The song was made famous through the film “Lilies of the Field;” Hairston performed the song, dubbing for lead actor, Sidney Poitier. In addition to composing film scores, Hairston composed or arranged more than 300 choral spirituals, including popular compositions such as “Elijah” and “Mary’s Little Boy Child.” Hairston, an expert in the history of African-American folk music and Negro spirituals, became one of the foremost interpreters, arrangers, and composers of this music, once stating ”I decided that I wanted to make my mark in folk songs because my grandparents were slaves […] I wanted to keep that music alive.”
… Throughout his lifetime, Hairston broke down many racial barriers in the United States. He was, for instance, the first African-American to be invited to conduct in the Mormon Tabernacle choir. Occasionally criticized for taking film and television roles that stereotyped African-Americans, Hairston said, “We had a hard time fighting for dignity. We had no power. We had to take it, and because we took it, the young people today have opportunities.”
Late in his life, Hairston was active in organizing national reunions of the Hairston family, which traces its lineage to the Antebellum American South and sponsored reunions for both black and white descendents. The family, and Jester Hairston in particular, was the subject of Henry Wiencek’s 1999 book ”The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White.” Wiencek wrote of Hairston, ”He never let go of his anger over slavery, but he also forgave. Still, he insisted that you should never forget your history.”
In recognition of his contributions to film and television, Hairston received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6201 Hollywood Blvd. Hairston died in Los Angles on January 18, 2000 and is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in California.
I imagine a lot of folks know his music but many don’t know the man behind it. Now you do. What a gift. Thank you, Jester Hairston!
Below is my favorite version of his classic carol, from the”Christmas at Carnegie Hall” PBS special (the CD for this is in rotation in our house during the holidays.)