Saturday, January 29, 2022

Before Motown, there was Dolphin’s of Hollywood

Dolphin Story

World premiere of Recorded in Hollywoodtells fascinating true story of black businessman and music producer John Dolphin — a little-known slice of L.A. history

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.  — In 1948, a decade before Motown, black businessman and entrepreneur John Dolphin opened his soon-to-be world famous Dolphin’s of Hollywood record store in South Los Angeles, just off legendary Central Avenue. Bringing this little-known slice of L.A. history to life on stage, the world premiere of Recorded in Hollywood opens at the Lillian Theatre on April 11.

Featuring a live on-stage band and a 19-member ensemble, Recorded in Hollywood, based on the biography “Recorded in Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story” by Jamelle Dolphin, features a book by Matt Donnelly and Jamelle Dolphin. The score includes 16 original songs by Andy Cooper plus covers of hit songs launched by Dolphin in his store, including Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” The Penguins’ “Earth Angel” and “Wheel Of Fortune” by The Hollywood Flames.

Four-time NAACP Best Director recipient Denise Dowse directs; musical direction is by Stephan Terry and choreography is by Cassie Crump.

John Dolphin recorded a host of R&B, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and even western music talent on a series of labels with evocative names like “Lucky,” “Money,” “Cash” and “Recorded in Hollywood.” The many great artists whose careers he advanced included Sam Cooke, Jesse Belvin, Charles Mingus, Pee Wee Crayton and Major Lance to name a few.

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Note the ‘On The Air’ sign in the window

For nearly ten years, Dolphin’s of Hollywood was the most famous record shop in the country – perhaps the world – with legendary DJs like Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg, Hunter Hancock and Charles Trammel spinning records all night from the front window. Recording artists appeared at the store and performed live on-air interviews, greeting and signing autographs for customers. Dolphin’s was the first business to stay open 24 hours – even on Sundays – and to popularize a brand new marketing strategy: “Buy One, Get One Free.” An innovator who pioneered the crossover music concept, John Dolphin went on white radio station KRKD and played a black music format, marketing black music to whites. White kids would pack the Dolphin’s of Hollywood record shop in the all-black neighborhood of South Central L.A. every night, bringing the races together during a time of segregation — and leading to increasing tension with Police Chief William H. Parker and the L.A.P.D. In 1958, Dolphin was murdered in his office by a disgruntled “wanna-be” songwriter. Teenaged songwriter and piano player Bruce Johnston was a witness; he had come with the hope that Dolphin would sign his unknown band, The Beachboys.

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“John started from scratch and evolved into one of the most important figures in the history of American music,” says Jamelle Dolphin, whose biography of his grandfather, inspired by years of colorful stories he heard growing up, was based on extensive research of historical records and hundreds of hours of verbal interviews with family and friends. “When he realized that no one was going to let him open his record store on all-white Hollywood Blvd., he brought Hollywood to Central Avenue. By naming the store ‘Dolphin’s of Hollywood,’ he was telling the world that he was going to stare discrimination in the face and not blink.”

Stu James (Benny in RENT on Broadway, First National Tour of Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple) stars in the role of “Lovin’” John Dolphin; Jade Johnson (recent graduate of USC’s School of Dramatic Arts) is his wife and partner, Ruth; Eric B. Anthony (Broadway casts of The Lion King, Hairspray, and Mary Poppins) plays songwriter Percy Ivy; Godfrey Moye (The Color Purple at Celebration Theatre) takes on the role of Sam Cooke; Nic Olsen (Avenue Q at Repertory East Playhouse) is Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg; Rahsaan Patterson (recording artist, “Bleuphoria”) plays Los Angeles Sentinel founding publisher Leon Washington; and Nic Hodges (Children of Eden, Once On This Island at AMDA) portrays Jesse Belvin. The ensemble, with each member playing multiple roles, includes Brooke Brewer, Justin Cowden, John Devereaux, Richie Ferris, Jenna Gillespie, Franklin Grace, Philip Dean Lightstone, Jake Novak, James Simenc, Matthew Sims, Jr., Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield and Katherine Washington.

“The pre-rock ‘n’ roll epoch is not at all unlike the independent hip-hop world from which I come,” notes Cooper, a founding member of hip-hop trio Ugly Duckling who jumped at the chance to create original songs that capture a key era in American musical history. “Street-wise entrepreneurs like John Dolphin had to be two steps ahead of the industry and faced all the risk and peril of a highly competitive and unregulated business. The predominantly black music, sometimes called “race music,” was promoted and sold on a local level, and places like Dolphin’s of Hollywood set the trends that the mainstream would soon emulate.”

Set design for Recorded in Hollywood is by Joel Daavid; lighting design is by Christina Schwinn; costume design is by Mylette Nora; graphic design is by Jason Meza; and casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. The stage manager is Ronn Goswick, and Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners produces.

“Recorded in Hollywood” opens on Saturday, April 11, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through May 17. There will be two preview performances – Thursday, April 9 and Friday, April 10 – both at 8 p.m. Tickets to all performances are $30 except previews which are $15. The Lillian Theatre is located at 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood, CA 90038 (1½ blocks west of Vine). For reservations and information, call (323) 960-4443 or go to

John Dolphin
John Dolphin

Larry Buford
Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, and author of Book/CD titled "Things Are Gettin' Outta Hand" (Steuben Pub.) He writes Human Interest articles and entertainment reviews for various newspapers across the country. He is also an editor, and provides services for press releases, interviews, business letters, resumes, etc. A native Detroiter, he is a former Motown songwriter.



  1. This comment is from my terrific 5th grade teacher who happens to be white:

    Oh!…..this is a play I gotta go see!! I started listening to “Huggy Boy” and Hunter Hancock when I was probably 13 or 14 years old……it was the beginning of opening my eyes/ears to music besides the classical music my dad played at home plus whatever was on the ‘major’ radio stations: Sinatra, Peggy Lee, etc. — also wonderful. And I went to Dolphin’s of Hollywood once or twice with friends (on the bus or maybe streetcar!)… was amazing!!! I wish I could remember more details. Maybe this play will bring some of my memories back.

    This is a great article!!

    Sandy Schuckett


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