John Dolphin (courtesy photo)
John Dolphin (courtesy photo)

Before Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy there was John Dolphin. At a time when it was against the law for African Americans to set up shop in Hollywood, Dolphin opened an immensely popular record store in South Los Angeles, on Vernon and Central Avenue that not only eased tensions in the area but was the springboard for the careers of many legendary artists

His business, Dolphin’s Of Hollywood was arguably one of the first 24-hour record stores, which also featured a live radio broadcast. From Elvis Presley to Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin to Sam Cooke, if you wanted to be an artist or get your record heard by the masses, the place to go was Dolphin’s Of Hollywood.

Despite being an integral part of music history during the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, Dolphin’s personal and professional achievements aren’t widely known. In efforts to celebrate his legacy and educate a younger generation, the music producer’s grandson, Jamelle Dolphin has co-wrote and produced the musical “Recorded In Hollywood”. After a successful run in 2015, the play, which chronicles Dolphin’s rise to fame before his untimely death in 1958, is currently showing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

In an exclusive interview with the L.A. Sentinel, Dolphin and his producing partner Lou Spisto share the process of bringing the story to fruition. Actors Stu James, who portrays John Dolphin and Frank Lawson, who plays L.A. Sentinel founding publisher, Leon Washington, share how they’ve been impacted by being a part of the retelling of Dolphin’s illustrious legacy.

LAS: How did the concept for the story come about and what was the process of creating the stage play?

Jamelle Dolphin: The book took about two years of research interviews with family, friends and musicians, who knew John Dolphin and knew of the store. I spoke with a lot of musicians, as well as his actual lawyer at the time, Walter Gordon, he passed about two months after we spoke. In 2011, I self-published “Recorded in Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story”. Then I connected with co-writer Matt Donnelly and we were initially putting together a film treatment to make it into a feature film because we thought it was a great story with so much great information. However, pitching a film to a studio about someone relatively unknown to many people can be difficult so we decided to do the musical and build from there. It was actually a perfect idea to tell the story of the evolution of music from the big band jazz era to early R&B to doo wop and early Rock n’ Roll. You get a taste of all these genres through “Recorded In Hollywood”. I love the fact that the story is being told and the audience is being educated about something that’s been left out of the books. It’s good that John Dolphin’s legacy is finally getting the recognition that it deserves.

L-to-R) “Recorded In Hollywood” producer Lou Spisto with writer/producer Jamelle Dolphin (Photo by Zon D’Amour)
L-to-R) “Recorded In Hollywood” producer Lou Spisto with writer/producer Jamelle Dolphin (Photo by Zon D’Amour)

Lou Spisto: I met Jamelle through mutual friends a year ago. I wasn’t here for the last production but I saw a video online and I did a lot of research on Mr. Dolphin and I fell in love with the fact that it’s a true story. We have something that happened here in L.A. in the 40s and 50s, and it’s still a timely story to tell regarding what was going on in south central with the police.

LAS: There are elements of police intimidation in the play that are still very relevant today. It seems as if one of the themes is that music unites cultures; what do you hope the audience takes away from the production?

LS: It can educate people about a time and a place that in some ways is all too familiar. We want the audience to see what the people of this time went through and unfortunately some people are still going through today.

JD: I think it’s great that people are seeing the connection between what’s going on today and what went on back then. I think we’ve definitely progressed because people aren’t turning a blind eye to these injustices because it gets more media coverage.

It’s depicted in the play that John Dolphin actually held a peaceful protest and those things helped. That’s probably what will resonate with the audience that progress was being made and you can peacefully march and get those issues resolved.

LS: John Dolphin’s story is about a person’s growth. He came to town to make a buck, be famous and be apart of Hollywood and he realized what was ultimately more important was having the respect of the community and taking a stand, that’s a story that’s timeless.

(rih_4nc) (L-to-R) Stu James as Leon Washington and Frank Lawson as John Dolphin. (Photo by Ed Krieger)
(rih_4nc) (L-to-R) Stu James as Leon Washington and Frank Lawson as John Dolphin. (Photo by Ed Krieger)

LAS: Are there parallels between your life and John Dolphin’s career that really resonated with you?

Stu James: My college degree is in banking and finance. I used to be an investment banker selling stocks and bonds but it just wasn’t my passion. I’ve always been told to do what you love and the money follows so I’ve been acting full time since the mid ‘90s. In terms of parallels between John Dolphin and I: he was a renaissance man. He didn’t like boundaries or limits, he was a big dreamer and he was someone who put action behind his dreams. He was a hustler but in a good way, he kept going until he manifested his dreams and I can relate to that.

LAS: What do you think are some of the most important take aways from “Recorded In Hollywood”?

SJ: I want people to walk away knowing who John Dolphin is because I didn’t know about him before I started working on this project. I didn’t know how influential he was in the lives of artists like Sam Cooke or Sarah Vaughan, John Dolphin moved their careers forward. I want audiences to walk away knowing that this was a man that not only made a major contribution to the music industry but to peoples lives and to the community. There was redemption in his world as well. When he knew better, he did better. He organized a community march against police discrimination on Central Ave. that was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement. John Dolphin was part of integrating L.A. in the 40s and 50s because everyone came to his record shop whether they were black, white, Latin, Filipino or Korean because music is a universal language.

LAS: What’s the importance of including Leon Washington as the sort of narrator of the play?

Frank Lawson: Leon and John were great friends and they influenced each others lives. In the show, Washington provides a lot of the timeline. Just like Dolphin, Washington was a trailblazer. By founding the LA Sentinel, it was an opportunity to give black people a voice in their community where he could inform, educate and entertain them. It’s wonderful to look out into the audience at people who were there in the 40s and 50s that got to experience John Dolphin. You can hear their excitement as they’re remembering the opportunities they had to chill in the record shop or participate in the March.

SJ: John wasn’t really able to tap into the community aspect until he met Leon, the Sentinel was instrumental in helping to make John Dolphin more prevalent in the community.

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