Jester Hairston Dies at 98: Actor-Composer Helped Preserve Negro
Jester Hairston, who gave up studies at
Massachusetts Agriculture College in the 1920s before going on
to a career than spanned movies, television, radio, composing,
arranging and choral conducting, died Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.
He was 98.
Best known in recent years for playing Rollie Forbes on the NBC
sitcom "Amen" in the 1980s, Hairston's earlier acting roles including
long-running parts on the radio and television versions of "Amos
'n' Andy" as well as bit parts in Tarzan films.
Although many of his early acting jobs portrayed less than flattering
images of blacks, Hairston never apologized for playing racial
stereotypes. "We had a hard time then fighting for dignity," he
said years later. "We had no power. We had to take it, and because
we took it the young people today have opportunities."
Opportunities also expanded for Hairston during his acting career.
His films credits included "The Alamo," "To Kill a Mockingbird,"
"In the Heat of the Night," "Lady Sings the Blues," "The Last
Tycoon" and "Lilies of the Valley," for which he composed the
That song, which he dubbed for Sidney Poitier in the movie, reflected
Hairston's lifelong dedication to preserving old Negro spirituals.
He was a sought-after choral director who organized Hollywood's
first integrated choir and composed more than 300 spirituals.
Even in his 90s, Hairston continued to conduct choirs, crisscrossing
the world as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
The grandson of a slave, he was born in Belews Creek, N.C., but
grew up in the Homestead section of Pittsburgh, where generations
of his family worked in the steel mills. Through a scholarship
from his Baptist church, he enrolled at Mass Aggie in 1920 to
study Landscape Architecture.
At MAC, he briefly quarterbacked the freshman football team and
also sang in the glee club as well as several area choirs. He
dropped out for several years when his money ran out, returning
to school after a woman impressed by his singing offered to finance
his education in music. He enrolled at Tufts University and graduated
Making his way to New York, he met Hall Johnson, a popular conductor
of Negro spirituals who hired Hairston as his assistant. It was
Johnson who taught Hairston to respect the Negro spiritual. Shedding
his Boston accent, Hairston dedicated himself to preserving the
music of the slaves and memorializing the conditions that gave
birth to it.
Later in his life, when working with students at college workshops,
Hairston would tell them, "You can't sing legato when the master's
beatin' you across your back."
When Warner Brothers bought the Johnson show "Green Pastures"
in 1935, the conductor and Hairston began their film careers.
Hairston's big break came in 1936, when Russian-born composer
and conductor Dmitri Tiomkin asked him to conduct the choir in
the film "Lost Horizon," which won an Oscar for best score. That
began a 20-year collaboration with Tiomkin, who inspired him to
form the first integrated choir used in films, including "Red
River," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and "Land of the Pharaohs."
Although he never completed his studies at MAC, Hairston maintained
strong ties with the University. In 1972, he was awarded an honorary
doctorate. Twenty years later at age 91, he returned to campus
again to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Department
of Music and Dance.