Before Berry Gordy's Motown, There Was John Dolphin's Recorded In Hollywood The black entrepreneur who opened a record store called Dolphin's Of Hollywood — in South Central Los Angeles — is the subject of a new musical about his business success and untimely death.
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Before Berry Gordy's Motown, There Was John Dolphin's Recorded In Hollywood

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Before Berry Gordy's Motown, There Was John Dolphin's Recorded In Hollywood

Before Berry Gordy's Motown, There Was John Dolphin's Recorded In Hollywood

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Before there was Berry Gordy and Motown, there was John Dolphin and his record label, Recorded in Hollywood. He also owned a popular record stored in South Central Los Angeles and broadcast radio shows from inside it. That show helped introduce the likes of Sam Cooke to the city's white audiences. His story is now playing to sold-out theater audiences in Los Angeles and Iris Mann reports on "Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical."

IRIS MANN, BYLINE: Jeanette Baker got to know John Dolphin when she was an aspiring teenage singer in the 1950s.

JEANETTE BAKER: I can see him now walking around with that cigar. And when he walked around, you knew he was somebody, OK, because he had that air, which was kind of unusual in those days because being a black man with all that confidence that he had, he was like a role model to us.

MANN: Baker would hang out at Dolphin's store, which was just off Central Avenue, the main drag for black LA about back then.

BAKER: Going north on Central, there was the Club Alabam, The Last Word, The Memo, and the Lincoln Theatre. Breaks my heart that we didn't preserve that because that's where all the big bands went, all the shows, you name it - Cab Calloway - all of them were there.

MANN: But that's not where John Dolphin wanted to open his record store. Early in the musical, he tries to rent space on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood from a white businessman who turns him down.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As white businessman) It has nothing to do with the color of your skin.

STU JAMES: (As John Dolphin) Don't think of me as a black man. Think of me for what I am - a businessman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As white businessman) If you'll excuse me, I'm late for another appointment. Would you look at that? I do apologize, Mr. Dolphin.

JAMES: (As John Dolphin) I don't want your apology, I want a lease. Hollywood. Man, I don't need Hollywood. Hollywood needs me.

MANN: So Dolphin opened his store in South Central and called it Dolphin's of Hollywood. The year was 1948 and he had big ideas for a record shop, says Phil Gallo, who's written a book on the history of record stores.

PHIL GALLO: He came up with the idea of the 24-hour store, which pretty much did not exist. He had the idea of putting a radio station inside of a record store. And he had the idea of having a label that produce out of the record store.

MANN: Dolphin had popular white DJs spinning records all night long in the big storefront window. He bought airtime on radio station KRKD, which catered to white listeners. They played Dolphin-produced records and songs by others. And the crossover appeal of the shows helped break a few songs nationally.


THE PENGUINS: (Singing) Earth angel, earth angel, will you be mine?

MANN: Fans of all colors began descending on the store from across the city, says Phil Gallo.

GALLO: He had parking so people could hang out in that parking lot, hear the radio station, go into the store, make a purchase or two, go back outside and hang out. And that was really what was crucial. There was a scene that developed and it was just music fans, and it was young kids. And they came from all over.

MANN: But the store's popularity became too much for the authorities, says Matt Donnelly, who co-wrote "Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical."

MATT DONNELLY: They were worried about white girls dancing with black boys, and so they would make arrests, send the white kids home, and then they would occasionally shut down the shop.

MANN: John Dolphin was even arrested himself, but he always re-opened and remained a successful businessman...


JAMES: (As John Dolphin) When John Dolphin speaks in the class, it's the gospel, baby. So I need you to mark this down right now so you can remember that I told y'all (singing) I'm going to make it, I'm going to reach for the sky.

MANN: ...Until February 1, 1958. On that day, aspiring singer Percy Ivy, a longtime store employee, became upset when Dolphin wouldn't give him a record deal and shot the store owner to death. Singer Jeanette Baker says she heard about it the next day.

BAKER: It broke my heart when he got killed. It broke everybody's heart. I feel like crying now because all the artists, we knew that in that instant, our world had changed.

MANN: Dolphin's widow, Ruth, kept the store going until 1989. But few people today remember the store or its owners, says John Dolphin's grandson, Jamelle. When he was growing up, he says, people would ask him if he was related to the famous record store owner.

JAMELLE DOLPHIN: And this would be something I kind of grew fond of, and it just stopped happening around, say, the 1990s and 2000s. And I started digging more into, you know, what he did for Los Angeles and what he did for integration and bringing people together with music. And so I just became more passionate about his story, and I felt that it should be much more a part of the history of music in Los Angeles than what he is now.

MANN: So he wrote a book about his grandfather that became the basis for the new musical, which Dolphin also co-wrote with Matt Donnelly.

DONNELLY: He was ahead of his time, he was an entrepreneur, he was a visionary. He was, as James Brown put it, the first black man to be successful in the music business. And it's someone that needs to be remembered.

MANN: And Donnelly and Jamelle Dolphin hope "Recorded In Hollywood: The Musical" will help revive that memory. For NPR News, I'm Iris Mann.

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