James “Jimmy” Tolbert, one of the first African-American entertainment attorneys in Hollywood, died April 22 in Santa Monica after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 86. Tolbert’s clients at his firm Tolbert & Wooden (later Tolbert, Wooden & Malone) included Redd Foxx, Lou Rawls, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and the Tuskegree Airmen.
Tolbert was co-founder and president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood NAACP during its campaign to pressure all-white Hollywood craft unions to “hire one Negro on every movie and television show” set in Los Angeles. Throughout his career, he advocated for more positive roles for African American actors and broader representation in television, film and print media. He received the NAACP’s Special Tribute awards at the Image Awards in 2000.
He took over as publisher and co-owner of the California Eagle, the oldest and longest running African-American newspaper in the West. He was also appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the Boards of Southern California Rapid Transit District and L.A. County Transportation Commission, and served as president of the San Fernando Valley Arts Council from 1988-90.
Born in New Orleans, Tolbert’s uncles included tenor saxophonist Lester Young and drummer Lee Young Sr., a senior executive for Motown Records. He moved to Los Angeles at the age of 10 to be educated by his uncle, a jazz educator, and served in the U.S. Army. He graduated CSULA and then obtain his law degree.
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He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Marie, two daughters, a son and two sisters.