Long before musicians toked up in Laurel Canyon or hair-metal bands prowled the Sunset Strip, L.A.'s African-American community fostered a vibrant music scene, concentrated in jazz clubs along Central Avenue in the 1930s and 1940s. It set the stage for the success of a man by the name of John Dolphin (1902-1958), an African-American businessman, record label owner and music producer whose store, Dolphin's of Hollywood, became a nexus for R&B music and the early days of rock & roll.

But what exactly is Dolphin's legacy, and why hasn't it been recognized before now? A new musical opening this week called Recorded in Hollywood, co-written by Dolphin's grandson, seeks to answer those questions.

John Dolphin, aka Lovin' John, was born in Alabama and raised in Oklahoma; he landed in Los Angeles by way of Detroit. In 1948, he opened  Dolphin’s of Hollywood in South Los Angeles, on Vernon near Central Avenue. Dolphin put “Hollywood” in the name of his store because laws would not allow a black individual to operate a business in Hollywood at the time. As Dolphin reasoned, if he couldn't bring his people to Hollywood, then he would bring Hollywood to them.

A crowd inside Dolphin's of Hollywood, 1962; Credit: Courtesy Dolphin Family Estate

A crowd inside Dolphin's of Hollywood, 1962; Credit: Courtesy Dolphin Family Estate

The store was open 24 hours a day, and often had DJs broadcasting behind a glass storefront window on KRKD, a local radio station. Artists including Billie Holiday, Little Richard, James Brown, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin would come and conduct on-air interviews, attracting even bigger crowds inside.

Dolphin was known for highlighting the accomplishments of African-American artists who were casualties of “crossover music,” when white musicians would rerecord songs originally created by African-American musicians, leaving the original artists little or no recognition to the original recording artists. At the time, KRKD was a predominantly white radio station, but by buying airtime on it and other white stations, and broadcasting from his store, Dolphin popularized the black music format, bringing much-deserved attention to the original artists. His efforts helped introduce African-American music to all audiences, years before Motown.

Dolphin started operating his own independent record labels in 1950. He sold his first label, Recorded in Hollywood, to Decca in 1954, then launched Lucky Records, which was followed by two more labels, Money and Cash. Throughout, Dolphin urged all his artists to retain their own publishing rights. But that wasn't enough to prevent a disgruntled artist, Percy Ivy, from marching into Dolphin's office in 1958 and shooting him to death.

Dolphin had done Ivy a favor by recording the singer's music, which never made any money. Ivy believed otherwise, and killed Dolphin for money that wasn't there. 

Press coverage of Dolphin's murder, 1958; Credit: Photo courtesy Dolphin Family Estate

Press coverage of Dolphin's murder, 1958; Credit: Photo courtesy Dolphin Family Estate

After Dolphin's murder, his wife, Ruth, took over management of the store, which closed in 1989. But over the following decades, Dolphin's cultural contributions all but vanished from the public eye. Thanks in part to the efforts of Dolphin's grandson, Jamelle Dolphin, that's finally changing.

Jamelle Dolphin, who grew up in Santa Monica, works as a marketing director and real estate broker, and continues to run and operate Dolphin's of Hollywood LLC, a record company, with his brother and sister. In 2011, he published a book about his grandfather, Recorded in Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story. He set out to write it in 2008 but quickly learned how much work would be involved.

“It was a very important project for me and deeply extensive,” Jamelle tells L.A. Weekly. “So much of the information about John Dolphin and Dolphin's of Hollywood was scattered. It seemed as though there was never more then a paragraph or two in any one place. Although much of the information I found was documented, I also spent many hours interviewing family, friends and old acquaintances. It took about two years to complete the research and interviews. The original manuscript was double in size and had to be cut down for the book. Much was left out, and I am still gathering information and continuing to learn more about my grandfather every day.”

John and Ruth Dolphin, 1958; Credit: Photo courtesy Dolphin Family Estate

John and Ruth Dolphin, 1958; Credit: Photo courtesy Dolphin Family Estate

According to Jamelle, his grandfather paid for everything in cash, never borrowed money and was never in debt. Although Dolphin was a savvy businessman, Jamelle also describes his grandfather as a consummate family man, one whose life was cut short by senseless tragedy.

“There was so much more he was going to do and could have done for the community and society as a whole,” Jamelle says. “He was only 10 years into his business before his death — basically, he was just getting started. What hurts is that the way he died made it easy for the media to paint him as some street hustler who had it coming, when [in] actuality it was quite the contrary.”

Jamelle Dolphin also feels it's upsetting that his grandfather hasn't been recognized for his accomplishments, especially in Los Angeles. “He was such an important figure. But he was hated for challenging an overtly racist power structure that did not want this integrated scene, and they did their best to downplay him in the media and wherever they could. His murder was barely covered by the press. But he is not forgotten, and his impact is still felt today. He forged important changes in the status quo and helped society to grow.”

Thanks to Jamelle's book, John Dolphin's story has inspired a biographical theater production called Recorded in Hollywood: The Musical, opening this week at the Lillian Theatre. It features a live band onstage and an 18-member ensemble, performing 16 original songs as well as covers of hits that Dolphin helped champion, including “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke, “Earth Angel” by The Penguins and “The Wheel of Fortune” by The Hollywood Four Flames. His radio show and the store were among the first places where white audiences heard them.

Dolphin's grandson hopes the new production will reignite interest in John Dolphin's artistic contributions, not just to African-American or L.A. music but to culture as a whole. “Soon we will have his name on a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, where it belongs.”

Recorded in Hollywood: The Musical opens on Saturday, April 11, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through May 17. (Previews are Thursday-Friday, April 9-10, at 8 p.m.) It's at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. Preview tickets are $15. General admission tickets are $30. For tickets, call (323) 960-4443 or visit RecordedInHollywood.com.

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