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'Before Motown, There Was John Dolphin:' Family Of LA Music Legend Keeps Legacy Alive With New Play

Jennifer Madison, CBS Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES ( — Jamelle Dolphin learned at an early age his surname held weight.

"That was the first thing people would ask me when they heard my last name was Dolphin," he said.

"You related to John Dolphin?" is a question he's fielded on a regular basis.

More than 60 years ago, his grandfather, a music promoter earning a living as a used-car salesman, had just moved to L.A. from Detroit. But Dolphin was quick to establish himself, opening the first 24-hour record store in Los Angeles, off Central Avenue, in 1948.

"He was just a businessman with a love for music," Jamelle said.

To L.A. residents, however, John Dolphin was iconic — the founder of Dolphin's of Hollywood, a name that emerged in defiance during an era of racial segregation and during the infancy of rock 'n' roll.

Now, decades later, with the last of what would become six Dolphin's of Hollywood locations closing its doors in the 1990s, Jamelle is keeping his grandfather's legacy alive with a musical opening this weekend in, where else, Hollywood.

John Dolphin
John Dolphin (credit: Dolphin's Of Hollywood Entertainment)

"Recorded in Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story" gives long-overdue credit to the man Jamelle says influenced the likes of Sam Cooke, The Penguins and The Hollywood Flames.

He passed on a photo of his grandfather smiling in the shop alongside Billie Holiday, one of the many recording artists drawn to the storied business that opened its doors in with a name foretelling of its owner's resilience.

"They wouldn't allow a black person to operate a black business in Hollywood, so he opened the shop on Central and called it Dolphin's of Hollywood," Jamelle explained. "He said he was going to bring Hollywood to Central."

The ruling on Brown v. Board of Education wouldn't come for six years. But during that time, Dolphin built on his influence and established Recorded In Hollywood, his first record label, in 1950.

Record Shop(Inside)
Dolphin's Of Hollywood was bustling even while the entrepreneur's radio show, "Harlem Hit Parade," was on air. (credit: Dolphin's Of Hollywood Entertainment)

A radio show would follow. "Harlem Hit Parade," taking its name from the Billboard chart, broadcast on KRKD, with Dolphin using it as an outlet to promote the work of up-and-coming artists.

DJs like Huggy Boy, Hunter Hancock and Charles Trammel would spin through the night, drawing crowds of young black, white and Latino Americans, and unwanted attention from the LAPD.

"It became a real interracial scene," Jamelle said. "It caused a lot of controversy. LAPD started to shut down the scene, the record store. ... It was way before its time."

Dolphin eventually prevailed, leading a march in protest of a police blockade of his business in 1954.

His influence grew, and Dolphin's of Hollywood became a local chain and a destination for wide-eyed singers.

John & Ruth Dolphin
John and wife Ruth Dolphin, who took over the business upon his death in 1958. (credit: Dolphin's Of Hollywood Entertainment)

"Everybody wanted to be a singer back then. John Dolphin was the outlet for them," Jamelle said.

That influence became his undoing, when a misguided singer, Percy Ivy, shot and killed Dolphin in 1958.

The two had recorded music together but the songs were never released. And after a disagreement over money and ownership of the recordings, Ivy came armed to Dolphin's office in Hollywood, where his once-shunned business had eventually expanded. He was fatally shot in the chest and died at his desk.

Dolphin's wife, now a single mother to five children — one of them Jamelle's father — took over her husband's empire. But eventually Dolphin's of Hollywood closed its doors, the first location in South L.A. being the last to shutter in 1989.

JohnDolphin and LionelHampton
John Dolphin and jazz bandleader and actor Lionel Hampton (credit: Dolphin's Of Hollywood Entertainment)

"I wish it was still around. We could've kept the name going," Jamelle said.

And that's exactly what he's doing.

NAACP award winner Denise Dowse is directing the play at the Lillian Theater, with former "RENT" actor Stu James leading the cast.

Jamelle, credited with developing the story, has been working alongside writer Matt Donnelly, known for his work on "Brothers & Sisters" and "Mixology," to bring it to life.

Andy Cooper penned more than a dozen original songs to which the musical is set, with music director Stephan Terry amping up the nostalgia with hits like Cooke's "You Send Me," The Penguins' "Earth Angel," and "Wheel of Fortune" by the Hollywood Flames, all songs Jamelle says first broke on the Dolphins of Hollywood radio show, also featuring.

"Before Motown existed, there was the John Dolphin story," reads a promo. Jamelle stands firm in the sentiment.

"I think it was a brilliant thing he did," he said of his grandfather. "And his legacy should go on."

"Dolphin's of Hollywood" opens Saturday with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through May 17.

For more information, visit the Recorded In Hollywood website.

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