One of the first African-American entertainment attorneys in Los Angeles, his career and political accomplishments from the early 1960s to the late 1990s impacted the city in several meaningful ways. He was a co-founder and president of the NAACP Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch during its campaign to pressure all-white Hollywood craft unions to “hire one Negro on every movie and television show” set in Los Angeles. (Crisis magazine, 1963). He also took over as publisher and co-owner of the California Eagle, the oldest and longest running African-American newspaper in the West, after its owner and editor, civil rights attorney Loren Miller, was appointed a Municipal Court judge. Later, Tolbert served on the Southern California Regional Transit District board and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.
James “Jimmy” Tolbert was born October 26, 1926, into a prominent New Orleans jazz family. His uncles included legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young, and drummer Lee Young Sr., who was 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 Ave. next door to the black musicians’ union (Local 767), in the midst of 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 US Army from 1945 to 1947. Upon returning from service, he obtained his GED, attended East L.A. College, and then graduated from California State University, Los Angeles with a degree in journalism. He played football at both colleges, and worked as a concert promoter and juvenile probation officer. He enrolled in law school at Loyola and graduated from (now defunct) Van Norman Law School.
He became one of the first African American entertainment attorneys in Los Angeles, with a client list that included Redd Foxx, Lou Rawls, Della Reese, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, and the Tuskegee Airmen. He established the law firm of Tolbert & Wooden (later Tolbert, Wooden & Malone) in 1960 and ran it for nearly 40 years.
As co-founder and president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood NAACP (1962-64), he advocated for more positive roles for African American actors and broader representation in television, film, and print media. He was honored with the NAACP’s “Special Tribute Award” at the organization’s Image Awards ceremony in 2000.
He was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the Boards of Southern California Rapid Transit District and L.A. County Transportation Commission from 1990-93.
He served as president of the San Fernando Valley Arts Council from 1988-90.
Tolbert passed away on April 22, 2013, at UCLA-Santa Monica Hospital, after suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Marie, children Anita, Tony, and Alicia (all of Los Angeles), and sisters Martha Taylor (New Orleans) and Esther Ford (Sacramento).