Written by Peter McGough
02 December 2015


1933-2015: Remembering Leroy Colbert

Bodybuilding Pioneer Who Broke the Race Barrier Passes


Leroy Colbert, who died last November 20, aged 82, will go down in the annals of bodybuilding history for two major achievements. One: He was the first bodybuilder reputed to have 20” contest-ready-arms. Two: He was on the November 1953 cover of Joe Weider’s MUSCLE POWER magazine; an up front prominence that wasn’t bequeathed on black athletes at the time, when civil rights legislation was still 12 years away and segregation was enforced in many parts of the country. More on that breakthrough cover later.

Leroy Colbert was born on May 9, 1933, and as the possessor of a genetically gifted physique, he by 18 had taken up bodybuilding. Aged 19 he won the 1952 Mr. New York City and a year later the Mr. Eastern America. By that time he had been hired by Joe Weider as warehouse manager at the Master Blaster’s company HQ, which was then located in Union City, New Jersey (the operation was moved to Woodland Hills, California in 1972). Joe and Leroy struck up an immediate and deep friendship that was to last until Joe's passing in March 2013. The strength of their bond was illustrated by Joe putting Leroy on that breakthrough cover, and a few years ago Leroy regaled me with the story of how he came to be appear front and center on Joe’s main publication.


As Leroy told it, “In the summer of 1953 I was going about my duties in the warehouse when Joe came in and almost matter-of-factly said, ‘Leroy I’m going to put you on the next cover of MUSCLE POWER.’ I thought it was crazy when considering the way things were then with black athletes just not being visible on newsstands. I told him it simply wasn't practical to put me on the cover – the issue won’t sell well. But Joe was adamant and his final word was, “You deserve to be on the cover it's only fair.”

 One has to realize that back in those days segregation was in full force and in the bodybuilding world in many ways that same philosophy of blacks not being treated equally was the norm. The main federation in those days was the American Athletic Union (AAU) that was run by Bob Hoffman, who was also was the publisher of Strength and Health, which under his guidance favored weightlifting over bodybuilding. At that time the AAU had never had a black Mr. America, and with outstanding competitors like Melvin Wells, George Paine, Art Harris, Harold Poole and Sergio Oliva competing for the title in the ‘50s and ‘60s without success, its difficult not to think some sort of bias was at play. In fact the AAU did not crown a black Mr. America until Chris Dickerson was awarded the title in 1970.

Even though Joe began organizing the cover photo shoot, Leroy still felt that the project might not go through as the sales and circulation guys were telling Joe the cover would be a disaster. Basically Joe knew that, but wanted to make a statement. As predicted the issue did not sell well. Many retailers in the south wouldn’t even put it on the shelves and countless copies were returned to the printers.

 That cover and Leroy himself were ahead of their time, not just politically but physically. The 20 year old while possessing those 20” guns also had a complete physique elsewhere. Check out the shots accompanying this article, which shows a sweeping V-Taper, wide lats, and really good legs, which were not such a premium in those days.


With that cover, despite its no-no status in many areas, Leroy seemed set for a fantastic bodybuilding career. Unfortunately fate had other plans in store and a serious 1955 motorcycle accident in Laconia, New Hampshire, in which he nearly lost his right foot, put a halt to Colbert’s competitive pursuits. Although his flexing days were over, he judged many contests including the first Mr. Olympia competition in 1965. Under the guidance of Joe Weider he opened a health food shop in New Jersey and eventually relocated to Sherman Oaks in California in 1990 where he ran the store for many years.

Leroy Colbert’s passing is another reminder that a Golden Era of bodybuilding is receding into the mist as many of it stalwarts continue to shuttle off this mortal coli. He will be remembered as a gregarious, amusing, and immensely likeable man and as a funster with a memory bank full of great stories. And he will be remembered for those 20” arms, and that in tandem with Joe Weider he tilted at the oppressive political windmills that were part and parcel of the ‘50s. Rest in peace Leroy, you flexed the good fight.