I think it’s fair to say that when most people think of Jester Hairston today they usually think of his role as Rolly Forbes, the funny, sharp tongued old man on the NBC sitcom Amen with Sherman Hensley, back during the late 80’s to early 90’s.
But Hairston, who passed away in 2000 at the remarkable age of 99, led a much more interesting and complex life. Not only was he an actor, starting his film career back in 1936 with hundreds of movies and TV performances, including Amos and Andy, In the Heat of the Night and dozens of musical shorts made during the 40’s and 50’s, Hairston was perhaps more well known as a composer (with some over 300 gospel songs to his credit), conductor, arranger and singer.
Born during the height of Jim Crow segregation in North Carolina in 1901, he graduated from high school in Pennsylvania in 1919, and from Tufts University with additional graduate work at Juilliard and the University of the Pacific.
He directed the Federal Theatre Project, and was assistant conductor of the legendary Hall Johnson Choir for fifteen years, and trained choirs for radio, Broadway musicals and movies. He also conducted film background music, toured the world for the State Department during the 1960’s, and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992.
And now a documentary is currently in the works about Hairston to be called Amen – The Life and Work of Jester Hairston, which is being developed by The African Diaspora Sacred Music and Musician Program of California State University Dominguez Hills.
The film is being directed by Dr. Hansonia Caldwell, professor emeritus of Music and Africana Studies at California State University, and documentary filmmaker and editor Lillian Benson.
As the filmmakers themselves say about their film, Hairston’s story “is one that is filled with triumphant highs and disparaging lows. But his journey has led him to far away lands, transcending stereotypes and blazing the trail for others who dare to follow.”
The work has been in production for the past two years and there’s a website where you can learn more about Hariston and the film project, as well as donate money. Check it out HERE.
Here’s a video of Jester Hairston conducting what is, perhaps, his best known composition: