The legendary John Dolphin, also known as Lovin’ John, was one of the first and most well respected, black business man who made his way in the music business of Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s. An independent record label owner and R&B producer, his contributions to the formative years of Rock & Roll are often overlooked. A minimogul who had almost every facet of the record business covered, was taking storm of this segregated town and bringing people of all colors together through music.
Dolphin first entered the music business as a retailer where in 1948, when he opened Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a record store on Vernon Avenue that would stay open 24 hours a day to cater to the late-shift workforce. The store featured deejays broadcasting on the local station of KRKD, in front of the huge, glass window Mr. Dolphin had installed on the face of the store so that people on the outside could see in. Some of the most popular deejays found a home for their art in front of this window, playing for late night crowds of Blacks, Whites, and Latinos alike, who would dance and party together well after dark, until the cops came in and shut the parties down.
Party time began with DJ Ray Robinson, followed by DJ Hunter Hancock, and Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg. John would have the deejays play records from his own label, but more than that, he would introduce brilliant recordings also from other record labels and artists whom had not previously received proper publicity. By this technique, John made Billboard hits of many recordings that had been nearly shelved by everyone else. A few of these hits include “Earth Angel” by The Penguins and “Dream Girl” by Jessie Belvin.
Dolphin’s of Hollywood, located in the South Central/Watts area of Los Angeles, on East Vernon Ave, near the corner of Central Ave., was given this name because Mr. John Dolphin initially wanted to open his store in Hollywood. However, Blacks were not allowed to own and operate businesses in Hollywood in the 1940s. So, John Dolphin thought up the next best thing, he would call his South Central store Dolphin’s of Hollywood. This was how he brought Hollywood to the hood and this record shop would soon become the most famous record shop in America, but also, its radio show on KRKD became the most popular black radio show in America. In fact, recording artists from all over would appear at the store and perform live-on-air interviews, while greeting and signing autographs for the customers. These well-known artists included Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughan, Little Richard, James Brown “the Godfather of Soul”, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Ike and Tina Turner, Fifth Dimension, Solomon Burke just to name a few. Open 24 hours a day, even on Sundays, customers could come at all hours of the day and capitalize on the “Buy One Get One Free” special, while hundreds would dance the Saturday nights away in front of the store, to the deejay’s tunes.
John Dolphin not only brought Hollywood to the hood, but he also brought fame to many underserved, talented, black artists whom had been hidden behind the facade of Crossover music. This Crossover Music concept was essentially taking music originally recorded by African Americans and having white artists re-record it, as during this time, most black music was considered taboo and hard to sell to the masses. So John, hiring one of the most famous white deejay of the time, DJ Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg, drew white teenagers and young adults to Dolphin’s of Hollywood in ever increasing numbers. And these crowds would buy black music, learning the lyrics and tunes, and share them with their friends; bringing fame to musicians whose music had previously been stolen from them without regard.
In 1950, John Dolphin mounted his own label, Recorded In Hollywood, with the motto: “We’ll record you today and have you a hit tonight,” inaugurated by jazz pianist Erroll Garner’s “Lotus Blue.” The imprint scored its first major hit with its sophomore release by R&B singer Percy Mayfield. The song was called “Two Years of Torture” and was followed by the “Dream Girl” record of Jesse Belvin and the “Jacquet Blows the Blues” record of tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. In mid-1951, Dolphin cut a licensing deal with King Records. This resulted in nearly two-dozen Recorded in Hollywood recordings earning national release on King’s Federal imprint. In 1953, John Dolphin introduced Little Caesar’s “The River”, a record later banned for fear its emotional intensity might have led listeners to contemplate suicide. So in 1954, Lovin’ John sold Recorded in Hollywood and its catalog to Decca, soon after founding a new label: Lucky Records. This new venture proved short-lived, releasing only nine singles, including efforts from the Hollywood Flames, Joe Houston, and Jimmy Wright.
Later on, a pair of additional labels, Money and Cash, soon took Lucky’s place. Money was the more successful of the two, notching local smashes including Ernie Freeman’s “Jivin’ Around,” Johnny Fuller’s “Mean Old World,” and Don Julian & the Meadowlarks’ “The Jerk”, which sold about 2 million records and topped the billboard Pop and R&B charts at #1 in the U.S. and also went on to become a #1 hit in Great Britain.
Now, the commercial impact of most of the records released under Mr. Dolphin’s labels had been nearly impossible to gauge, as he would bypass distributors, delivering boxes of records directly to the front doors of rival retailers. The philosophy he established with his artist was that they should never sell their publishing rights, for the one who owns an artist’s publishing rights owns the artist. When an artist gives up their publishing rights in exchange for a cash advance, the result is that the music publisher then has the ability to exploit an artist’s music however they chose, in exchange for money, which the artist will see little or none of. So this is why John was so adamant about his artists retaining their rights. He felt that black artists had been exploited long enough, so this was his attempt to stop the cycle in its tracks.
After an influential ten years in the music business, on February 2, 1958, Percy Ivy, a disgruntled songwriter whom had recorded with John, went to John Dolphin’s Hollywood office to demand money for his un-noteworthy recordings. John made these recordings as a favor to Ivy but had no intention of ever using any of them. His generosity should have been enough for Percy and no money should have been owed. However, Ivy thought otherwise. With a gun in his pocket and demands on his mind, Percy shot John Dolphin dead behind the desk of his office. Two young people, future session drummer Sandy Nelson and later-day Beach Boy, Bruce Johnston; both of whom traveled to South Central in the hopes of enticing John with their songs, witnessed the murder. This was a devastating day for all those who would come to know and later remember Lovin’ John.
After the untimely death of Mr. Dolphin, Dolphin’s of Hollywood was run by Dolphin’s assistant, Rudy Ray Moore, also known as Dolemite, along with John’s widow, Ruth Dolphin. Ruth would later reactivate Money Records, which served as a springboard for the great soul chanteuse Bettye Swann and her 1967 smash hit single, “Make Me Yours” which became a #1 Billboard hit for Money Record.