John Dolphin – pioneer of 1950s multiracial music marketing
July 29 2020 marks 4th anniversary of the unveiling of ‘Dolphin’s of Hollywood’ Square in LA, a street renaming invoked by an LA Councilman called Curren Price. Its aim: to commemorate the contribution of African American businessman John Dolphin, the guru well-known for pioneering interracial music marketing in 1950s LA. Dolphin’s tactics brought Black, Hispanic and White kids together in unity.
But pitched against a shady setting of 1950s LA Authority Councilmen, we see how they set-out to fabricate the equivalent of ‘social distancing’ measures. The intention: to filter white Angelino teenagers away from LA’s rhythm-and-blues neighborhood. So from the archive we’ll see how these Councilmen probably set the scaffolding for what would spin out as #BlackLivesMatter 60 years later.
So, what brought me to be writing about John Dolphin? Well, it came after having watched Netflix’s ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ (2020), and the name Dolphin stood out, it being the name of a record store Dolphin records in LA where Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite incernate, was assistant to John Dolphin. So scratching beyond the polished veneer of a needle-sharp script and brilliantly low-spun understated acting of Eddy Murphy as Dolemite, you dust-down a crucial moment in recorded music history that where a systemic culture war was being battled.
And so here I’ve pieced together a short history through chaining some Wikipedia references (for dates) and combined those using sources from keyword searches (for social analysis). What gets revealed is the endeavor of Dolphin record store owner and African American recorded music producer and promoter John Dolphin who maybe is the godfather of interracial music marketing.
1950s possessive investment in whiteness
Getting black recording artist’s airtime on white radio stations helped direct white youth to the Dolphin records store. Such a mode of interracial music marketing made good business sense to John Dolphin, and what emerged was that black and white youth alike rubbed shoulders in-store, everyone enjoying a festive atmosphere fusion of R&B vibes blasting out onto the sidewalk, and the smell of BBQ-ribs from the local eateries.
Dolphin’s record store in the late-1940s early-1950s was a teenage hub and groove palace where Angelinos – be they African American, Hispanic or White – came to spin new R&B vibes on the in-store listening posts. Although predominantly an African American crowd, the record store was where you’d come to enjoy a cultural rubbing of shoulders, not only with other like-minded teenage music fans but also the recording stars of the era.
From that stitch in time, of an emerging late-1940s early-1950s vinyl music-buying public, this marks a salient moment that the LA authorities registered a culture war; that to the LA authorities, white teenagers should do white kid culture, and black teenagers, must stick to black kid culture and what starts as a ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ unfortunately resolves itself as institutional racism.
Evidently, maybe the cultural orbit of rhythm-and-blues was seen as being too much of a raw expressive culture for uptight white kids to handle?! Though let’s be clear, R&B wasn’t being attacked for even it’s so-called ‘obscene’ lyrics, as the professor, Anthony Macias, in his ‘Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics’ paper: “in short, when whites joined Negroes and Mexicans in greater numbers, the rhythm-and-blues scene was deemed subversive.”
One initial way social distancing of whites from their black and Hispanic teenage counterparts was invoked through the creation of the Los Angeles Music Bureau. Set-up by councilmen, its aim was to fracture the street-orientated urban culture to set-out taste-markers, and as an exercise in threatening the white kids with punitive sloganeering, the like of: ‘More Music for More People’ and ‘Citizenship through Music.’ To shakedown the ghetto:
“the Los Angeles Music Bureau poured out thousands and thousands of dollars to provide [white] youth and adult choruses, community sings, band and special concerts and broadcasts to an ‘annual voice contest’ for its citizens.”
In fact, let’s peel back a layer to expose the fallout effects of a 1940s/1950s desire to protect the white kids’ cultural sobriety, and we see its starker economic impact too. Today, we might say that the LA authorities too exception to white youths spending money in black-run businesses in the neighborhood around the Dolphin record store. And the mindlessness behind such initiatives as the Los Angeles Music Bureau systematically embedded disadvantage for upcoming generations of African American and Mexican American youth.
Myths of teenage tribes
In terms of peddling inaccurate myths that one group of teenagers belongs to a different tribe than the other, these myths tend to peddle that white kids score drugs and black kids are the dealers?! And although there are broader social fractures about why this can sometimes be the case, it’s the peddling of these myths which provoke a perverse stereotype: black = expressive & dealers, and white = uptight & susceptible. So back in the late-1940s early-1950s, it’s where the peddling of these myths began self-perpetuating at an institutional level.
It turns out that the LAPD officers would take-up their coffee and donuts in a cafe across from the Dolphin record store and on seeing whites in the shop, would customarily enter the store and escort white kids off the premises, warning them it was ‘a no go area’. Yeah, I know, sad! Unreal! White kids were given verbal warnings to stay away from black businesses like Dolphin records for them being predicted as ‘dangerous’ addresses. Translate this and it’s a basic formula of fear-mongering: the selling of a myth to white kids, an utter fable!
A second social distancing measure then was invoked as a law, this time designed to restrict underage youth dancing; which came in reaction to seeing that white kids were dancing with black and Hispanic kids at popular southern Californian dance parties. And at this point, it’s worth highlighting the difference in attitude that LAPD has towards black and Chicano kids from that of white kids. While white kids were verbally warned to steer clear of the black neighborhoods, it’s remarked that:
“glaring officers hated to see white kids attending southern Californian dance parties with Black and Chicano youngsters … so would stand around … harassing them with bullshit questions, checking their IDs.”
A legendary producer and marketing guru
Additional to interracial music marketing, John Dolphin ran the RIH (Recorded In Hollywood) label, of several famous artists in 1951 having the first chart success Once There Lived A Fool, recorded by Juke Ellington’s edgy vocalist Jimmy Grissom, then covered by the likes of Tony Bennett in the ‘crossover music’ trend for radio play. Dolphin has three main marketing tactics hew used to circumvent African American recording artists being censored.
The first was in short-circuiting the crossover-music trend of having white-artists re-record black music. To do this Dolphin shrewdly bought airtime in the late-night slots on local radio stations like KRKD, to catch the white kids’ ears. Broadcasting from the in-store Dolphin records’ booth, the white-skinned DJ Dick ‘Huggy Boy’ Hugg championed the black-music format; simultaneously marketing African American artists to whites, whilst bringing fame to otherwise under-served talented black artists.
Another tactic to shore-up the promotion of African American recording artists was for Dolphin to invest in his own recording pressing plant; avoiding fear of being blackballed by the pressing plants within the Hollywood vicinity. Probably the worst business practice, and counter to profit, was his ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ (bogof) marketing tactic, which in practice was giving away a disc cut by an unknown artist with every popular vinyl purchased.
One of the modern marketing trends of the ‘vinyl reissue’ can also be attributed to John Dolphin’s legacy. Having sold the RIH (Recorded In Hollywood) label as a going concern, the Recorded In Hollywood back catalog became repackaged as ‘Hollywood’ records and the re-issues started in 1953 with Linda Hayes, whose title Take Me Back shifted an astronomical 150,000 discs, which by today’s standards equates to a limited run.
Finally, there’s also shot wise takeaways about how John Dolphin developed his positive character, very much aligned with pushing boundaries of a social position which could easily have held him back from challenging the status quo.
Why the name RIH (Recorded In Hollywood)? Well, Dolphin had been refused the lease on shop locations in the real Hollywood, and so opened a shop nearby the beating heart of Hollywood, but still technically in Hollywood and created the ‘Recorded In’ label.
And what of his family name, Dolphin? If I recall rightly, on leaving his Oklahoma he was inspired by the word spelled in French Dauphin, switching it to the anglicized sounding Dolphin.
Of the Dolphin record store? It spread to six Hollywood locations before closing its doors in the 1990s. In spite of social segregation, according to Dolphin’s grandson Jamelle Dolphin “he was just a businessman with a love for music.”
ENDNOTE: “Dolphin’s and the neighboring barbecue restaurants would be packed, but uniformed police officers “would chase away the white kids,” while undercover agents would search blacks on “suspicion of” selling drugs. In late 1954, Dolphin gathered a petition of 150 black business people from the neighborhood protesting these tactics. Sergeant George Restovich countered that the gatherings violated the ten o’clock curfew, and that other businessmen complained about teenagers assembling on sidewalks while Dolphin’s outside loudspeaker blared music onto the street.”
All quotes, if not otherwise indicated, are from the paper ‘Bringing Music to the People: Race, Urban Culture, and Municipal Politics in Postwar Los Angeles’, Anthony Macias, American Quarterly, VL – 56, IS – 3, John Hopkins University Press (Sept 2004): pp693-717
The title originally chosen for this piece was titled ‘From teenage kicks* to police brutality: 1950s LA’*( Teenage Kicks referencing The Undertones disc.) to acknowledge current events, however, the title re-drafted as ‘John Dolphin – the pioneer of 1950s multiracial music marketing’ gives a more pragmatic approach to a story that itself is infused with woeful injustice. Peace out!
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