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Entertainment Attorney James L. Tolbert Dies at 86

James L. Tolbert - H 2013
Tony Tolbert

He represented Redd Foxx, Lou Rawls, Della Reese and others and co-founded the NAACP’s Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch to advocate for more positive roles and broader representation for African-American actors.

James L. Tolbert, who represented Redd Foxx, Lou Rawls and others as one of the first African-American entertainment attorneys in Hollywood, has died, his son reported Friday. He was 86.

Tolbert died April 22 at UCLA-Santa Monica Medical Center after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years, his son Tony said.

Tolbert also was a co-founder and president from 1962-64 of the NAACP’s Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch during its campaign to pressure Hollywood craft unions to “hire one Negro on every movie and television show” set in Los Angeles, as a 1963 article in Crisis magazine put it. He was honored with the NAACP’s Special Tribute Award at the organization’s Image Awards ceremony in 2000.

Tolbert established the law firm of Tolbert & Wooden (later Tolbert, Wooden & Malone) in 1960 and ran it for nearly 40 years. His other clients included Della Reese, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and the Tuskegee Airmen, among the heroes of World War II.

He served as president of the San Fernando Valley Arts Council from 1988-90. 

James “Jimmy” Tolbert was born Oct. 26, 1926, into a prominent New Orleans jazz family. Two of his uncles were legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young and drummer Lee Young Sr., later a senior executive for Motown Records.

He was sent with an older sister and brother to Los Angeles at age 10 to be musically trained by his grandfather Willis Young, a leading jazz educator. He grew up on Central Avenue next door to the black musicians’ union (Local 767) amid L.A.’s burgeoning jazz scene. 

Tolbert attended Jordan and Jefferson High Schools in Los Angeles. After dropping out of high school, he served in the U.S. Army from 1945-47. Upon returning from the service, he earned his GED diploma, attended East Los Angeles College and then graduated from Cal State Los Angeles with a degree in journalism. He played football at both colleges and worked as a concert promoter and juvenile probation officer. He first enrolled at Loyola Law School and then graduated from Van Norman Law School.

Tolbert also briefly served as publisher and co-owner of The California Eagle, one of oldest and longest-running African-American newspapers in the West, after its owner and editor, civil rights attorney Loren Miller, was appointed as a judge. Later, he served on the Southern California Regional Transit District board and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

In addition to Tony, survivors include his wife of 57 years, Marie; daughters Anita and Alicia; and sisters Martha and Esther.