John Dolphin

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Los Angeles R&B producer John Dolphin was one of the first and most notorious black independent record label owners, although his contributions to the formative years of rock & roll are often overshadowed…
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Los Angeles R&B producer John Dolphin was one of the first and most notorious black independent record label owners, although his contributions to the formative years of rock & roll are often overshadowed by the cutthroat business practices that ultimately led to his death. A former car salesman, Dolphin first entered the music business as a retailer -- sometime during the Korean War, he opened Dolphin's on Hollywood, a record store on Vernon Avenue that remained open 24 hours a day to cater to the late-shift workforces necessitated by the conflict overseas. In time, Dolphin's even featured a DJ broadcasting over local station KRKD from inside the store's walls, beginning with Ray Robinson and most famously including Hunter Hancock and Dick "Huggy Boy" Hugg -- this enterprising spin on payola would serve Dolphin well in the years to follow, as he could instruct the DJs on his payroll to play the records his labels produced. (His motto: "We'll record you today and have you a hit tonight.") Finally he mounted his own label, Recorded in Hollywood, in 1950. Inaugurated via jazz pianist Erroll Garner's "Lotus Blue," the imprint scored its first major hit with its sophomore release, R&B singer Percy Mayfield's "Two Years of Torture."

Records from crooner Jesse Belvin ("Dream Girl") and tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet ("Jacquet Blows the Blues") followed in the months to come, and in mid-1951 Dolphin cut a licensing deal with King Records that resulted in close to two dozen Recorded in Hollywood masters earning national release on King's Federal imprint. But the commercial impact of most of the records released under Dolphin's watch is impossible to gauge -- the quintessential cigar-chomping hustler, he bypassed distributors whenever possible, delivering boxes of records direct to rival retailers' doors. As a result, few Recorded in Hollywood releases made the industry trade charts, but Dolphin's empire flourished nevertheless, and in 1953 he scored again with Little Caesar's "The River," a record later banned by New York's influential WINS for fear its emotional intensity might have led listeners to contemplate suicide. Dolphin sold Recorded in Hollywood and its catalog in 1954 to Decca, soon after founding a new label, Lucky. This new venture proved short-lived, releasing only nine singles including efforts from the Hollywood Flames, Joe Houston, and Jimmy Wright.

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." Dolphin sold Money and its holdings in 1956 to Don Pierce's Hollywood Records. Of course, none of his artists saw a dime from the deal, and on February 2, 1958, the inevitable occurred: Percy Ivy, a disgruntled songwriter in search of royalties, shot Dolphin dead outside his Dolphin's of Hollywood office. (Witnesses to the shooting included a pair of white kids -- future session drummer Sandy Nelson and latter-day Beach Boy Bruce Johnston -- who'd traveled to South Central in the hopes of interesting Dolphin in their songs.) His widow, Ruth, later reactivated Money Records, which would serve as a springboard for the great soul chanteuse Bettye Swann and her 1967 smash, "Make Me Yours."