This is the second part of an interview feature by Darlene Donloe. Read Part I.
This is the second time the show has been in Los Angeles. It was at the Lillian Theater. Is this the same show or have things changed?
Jamelle Dolphin: The first one we did was a different show. Now, we touch more on the civil rights aspect of it. We go deeper into John’s [Dolphin] business and his way of thinking. We also look at how things were going on in the music business.
Tell me about the music.
We have 15 original songs that were written by Andy Cooper. He does an excellent job. It’s good music from the period. It starts with Big Band and evolves to Doo Wop, early R&B and rock and roll.
Of course you never met him, but when you were doing research on your grandfather, what did you find out about him that shocked you?
There were a lot of things. One of the things was the fact that he did everything, all his business, in cash. He never went into debt. That was a good thing. In the music business they were doing the loan sharking thing. And then you’d be in debt. He bought his store — all cash.
Where did he get the money to open the record store?
He promoted concerts. He came from Detroit. He had a used car lot. He worked for Ford. He hired the black workers at Ford. He was promoting concerts and then he moved to Los Angeles and started promoting concerts at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington were just some of the people he promoted. He took that and started his record shop. No one could get a piece of his business; he was a smart businessman in the 40s and 50s. At that time, he was intermingling with white professionals. That was pretty much unheard of.
What do you like about him? What don’t you like about him?
I didn’t like that he was a player. I grew up with my grandmother. She was great. He was a guy who was big and flash. He was out there, you know? He was flashy. He was too much of a player. I had way too much love for my grandmother.
What did your family and other people tell you about what kind of person he was?
Most of what I heard was that he was very much into his family and kids. He loved his kids and took them everywhere he went. His first is John Jr., who he had with my grandmother. Then there was Erroll and Jerroll, who were twins. Then there was my Aunt Pat. He was flashy and wanted people to think he was important, but being flashy was more of just a gimmick for him to make his business better. He wanted to be and look like an important person. Actually, he was an at home, simple, nice guy. He was a softy.
Your grandfather was killed by a disgruntled songwriter. You weren’t around, but it still has to hurt.
It was devastating. It was really devastating. I can’t imagine. My father was eight or nine years old.
Why does this story make for a good staged musical?
It’s the evolution of music. It covers from the Big Band era to rock and roll. The great thing about his story is the mixing of the races. It was a big issue in the 40s and 50s. He had white kids and black kids hanging out at his shop, hanging out listening to music. The hate came from the LAPD harassing black patrons and telling the white people they would be robbed and raped by the blacks. This is a story that is untold. It has been wiped out in history.
What do you think of when I say “Motown?”
The difference would be this was happening a decade before Motown started. He had his own record store. Gordy [Berry, the founder of Motown] was a young kid who would come to L.A. and speak to my grandfather. He looked at my grandfather as someone to follow. Before he opened Motown in ‘59, my grandfather was killed in ‘58, but he had already established himself.
What do you think about Berry Gordy? Do you keep in touch with him?
Berry Gordy dated my grandmother in the 60s. I never talk to Berry now. I’ve tried to reach out to him. When my grandmother passed in 2005, he sent a statement saying he really loved Ruth Dolphin. I’ve never talked to him personally. He knew of my grandmother and the store. I would love to talk to him, though. Motown: The Musical and our show were both open at the same time. It was kind of a fun thing. He was doing Motown, his Broadway show at the Pantages. It’s an awesome story. Both of these stories needed to be told.
Dolphin’s of Hollywood record shop was a legendary store on Central Avenue in 1948. What else should everyone know about this store?
My grandfather would record a lot of local artists trying to find just the right gem of a singer. He had a recording booth in the store. They had a slogan: “We’ll record you today, have you a hit by tonight.” That was something he would say. Leon Washington, who owned The Sentinel newspaper, would put [ads] in the paper. He had a two-for-one thing. Whenever you bought a record he gave you a free record, but there was a catch to it; the free record would be one of his artists.
Who was your grandfather’s biggest artist?
Jesse Belvin (Guess Who) was a huge R&B success. He passed in 1960 in a car accident. He was huge. He had just come off tour with Sam Cooke. There was also Percy Mayfield and Little Caesar.
What kind of response do you get in Los Angeles when you say your last name?
I used to always get a response growing up as a kid. People would ask, “Are you related to John Dolphin?” As I got older, there was nothing. That was part of my motivation to write the book. I self published it in 2011. My grandfather’s name and legacy was dying. He was left out of books and everything. I saw that when I started researching.
You mentioned your book. How long did it take to write the book and why did you self-publish?
It took two years. I self-published because I didn’t want to have to go to a publishing company and convince them it was a good story. I wasn’t interested in waiting and convincing people. It was always my idea to follow the book with a show. I wanted to bring it to life. I wanted to make it factual and promote it. Now, it’s at the point that my grandfather is now on Wikipedia.
Any thoughts about making it a movie?
Yes, definitely. We are putting a treatment together. We’re also looking at a television series.
Is there anything about your grandfather’s story that you didn’t put in the musical because it just didn’t fit?
In the musical it was hard to fit the mafia. During that time there was a lot of mafia stuff. They were on Central Avenue. But I didn’t fit that in because I didn’t think it was necessary. I don’t know how my grandfather got away from that… maybe because he had his own money.
What do you want the audience to come away with?
I want them to come away with knowing his name and story and how he was a pioneer in the music business. Everyone knows Berry Gordy but no one knows John Dolphin.
Your grandfather left a wonderful legacy. What legacy do you want to leave?
I want to be the one who brought his story to the masses. I want to be a part of the reason why they know about his story.
Is there a Part 2 to this story?
We’re always trying to improve the show, and I never feel satisfied. I want to take it to a bigger stage and grow it. Maybe take it to Broadway. I love seeing it, I love the development. I’m sure I’ll love this one even more.
NOW PLAYING: RECORDED IN HOLLYWOOD at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, through August 7.
The true and fascinating love, life, and times of 1950s Los Angeles entrepreneur and activist John Dolphin—the trailblazing black businessman who made his mark on the national music scene long before Motown ever existed.