“What he cared about was music,” said Michael Dolphin about his father John Dolphin, founder and owner of Dolphin’s of Hollywood.
The life and legacy of John Dolphin and Dolphin’s of Hollywood is remembered on stage.
The story behind the musical stage play “Recorded in Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story” is one of Los Angeles’ most treasured. It’s about the legacy of a Black man who pioneered African American business, success and most of all—music. Before Motown, John Dolphin had a vision and executed it within a segregated Los Angeles.
Michael Dolphin is the son of the late John Dolphin and has many fond memories of his father. A proclaimed native of Los Angeles, Michael attended college out-of state and served in the military for a period of time. He’s worked in workforce and economic development for the past 40 years but has always had a connection to the music industry.
“I’ve been connected to the music industry throughout my entire life in one form or another,” said Michael. “Either as a working musician, promoter, producer, manager—as a number of things but the last several years have primarily focused on public service and the renaissance and rebirth of Central Ave.”
Michael was young but remembers his father and the famous Dolphin’s of Hollywood. Over the years, the family has come to learn about Dolphin’s influence and contributions to the music industry through artists and the public. Michael shared some of his father’s back story.
Dolphin came to Los Angeles from Detroit, Michigan, in the mid-40s, to create a music empire. A local L.A. musician, Gerald Wilson, was a friend and encouraged Dolphin to make the journey. Dolphin wanted to create a destination for people to make and enjoy music.
“Remember, Los Angeles was segregated,” said Michael. “It was officially segregated until 1956, when he set out to open Dolphins of Hollywood in Hollywood. He was told that he couldn’t get a business in Hollywood, they wouldn’t rent to him.”
Nonetheless, Dolphin’s of Hollywood Record Shop would open on Vernon and Central Ave in Los Angeles not far from the original L.A. Sentinel office. Established in 1948, the record store would create record labels; feature a recording studio and a radio station, which was a first for a record store. Dolphin had become one of the first Black independent record label owners and R&B producers in Los Angeles.
One of Dolphin’s new labels was Lucky, which released only nine singles (including efforts by the Hollywood Flames and Joe Houston). He also formed Money and then Cash. Radio deejay, Huggy Boy, had input as to what was recorded and released. Dolphin’s biggest seller from this period was “Jivin’ Around” (Parts 1 & 2) by the Ernie Freeman Combo (Cash 1017, # 5 R&B in early 1956), which Freeman would soon re-record for Imperial.
“All of that was designed to create a destination,” said Michael. “I remember when I was a child… I used to sit in the front window with the deejays—with Huggy Boy, Hunter Hancock and others.
“I was so young; I didn’t know who Billie Holliday was when she came in the store. Louis Armstrong and at that point, even James Brown and Sam Cooke [would come] in and all the other musicians that used to come into Dolphins of Hollywood because it was the place to be.”
Dolphin, also known as ‘Lovin’ John’, had become one of the most well-respected Black businessmen in L.A. Dolphins of Hollywood was very popular and always drew a crowd according to Michael. He recounts a couple of times when the police showed up to shut the record store down due to the nature of the crowd.
“There were too may white kids in the store,” said Michael. “[Dolphins of Hollywood] played popular music and a lot of Black music that wasn’t being heard in other places, which attracted white kids and kids from other neighborhoods because they couldn’t hear this music on the other stations.”
Dolphins of Hollywood went on to open up more stores including a then Santa Barbara (Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd) and Crenshaw location, a Compton location and a location at Manchester and Broadway. The record store continued in business until the mid-80s. Unfortunately, Dolphin had long since passed away due to homicide.
“My dad was murdered in 1958 by a songwriter,” said Michael. “There were only two people in the room when it happened, my dad and the songwriter. There was a dispute over money, we only heard one side of the story but nevertheless it happened.
“The music business has always been a hustle—always, always—always been a hustle. And harder for us, in Black music, than for others. “On an ironic note, during Dolphin’s unfortunate meeting with that songwriter, a clandestine meeting never got to happen.
“Sitting in the lobby, waiting to talk to my dad were three white guys from the other side of town, who were going to form a surf band,” said Michael. They were there to talk to my dad that day.” They never got a chance to meet Dolphin but would go on to become the Beach Boys.
The triumph and success outweighed the grief and pain. Proof of that is Dolphin’s story, which has been asked for throughout the years by friends, admirers and the general public.
Michael’s nephew, Dolphin’s grandson, Jamelle Dolphin would fill in that gap by writing the book “Recorded In Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story” in 2011.
“It became his passion project,” said Michael. “For a few years, he talked with everybody who knew anything about John Dolphin.” It wouldn’t be long until stage plays and movies were ideas entertained by Michael and his siblings.
“We set up some meetings, some other friends and people we knew, Jamelle started setting up some meetings and over the course of a couple of years, now the play is on stage,” said Michael.
In this scene: Stu James and ensemble
Photo by Ed Krieger
The premiere of the musical stage play, “Recorded in Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story,” opened Saturday, April 11 at the Lillian Theatre with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through May 31.
“It’s been incredible,” said Michael. “I’m so grateful to my nephew, he did what we couldn’t do.” A portrayal of Leon Washington, founder of the Sentinel, also makes an appearance in the play. Michael spoke on their relationship.
“They were businessmen,” said Michael. They understood each other, they were only two blocks from each other from where the store was and where the original Sentinel office [was located]. They communicated, they had their own friendship.
“Leon Washington was a very practical man and in many ways, he became my dad’s advisor.”
Four-time NAACP Best Director recipient, Denise Dowse, directs with a cast that includes: Stu James (RENT, Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple); Jade Johnson (recent graduate of USC’s School of Dramatic Arts); Eric B. Anthony (The Lion King, Hairspray, and Mary Poppins); Godfrey Moye (The Color Purple); Nic Olsen (Avenue Q at Repertory East Playhouse); Rahsaan Patterson (recording artist, “Bleuphoria”) and Nic Hodges (Children of Eden, Once On This Island at AMDA).
The Dolphin legacy is rich with making entertainment history with music legends. Dolphin’s contributions to music spans from Jazz to Rock’n’Roll, the many great artists whose careers he helped, such as Jesse Belvin, Charles Mingus, Pee Wee Crayton, Major Lance and many more. Michael shared what notable musician, Buddy Collette said to him about his father and his contributions to African American artists and music.
“He said, ‘If nothing else, the important thing that your father did for us is he made sure that we got heard’.”
The Lillian Theatre is located at 1076 Lillian Way in Hollywood, CA 90038 (1½ blocks west of Vine). For more information or to purchase tickets visit https://www.plays411.net or call (323) 960-4443 – $30 for General Admission.