‘Oldies but Goodies’: Longtime radio DJ Art Laboe dies at 97
His latest show was produced last week and aired Sunday night.
Laboe is credited with helping end segregation in Southern California by hosting live DJ shows at drive-in restaurants that drew white, black and Latino listeners who danced to rock’ n’ roll – and shocked an older generation who still listen to Frank Sinatra and Big Band music.
The DJ is also credited with coining the phrase “oldies, but goodies”. In 1957 he started Original Sound Record, Inc. and in 1958 released the compilation album “Oldies But Goodies: Vol. 1”, which remained in the Billboard Top 100 for 183 weeks.
He later developed a strong following among Mexican Americans for hosting the syndicated “The Art Laboe Connection Show”. Her baritone voice invited listeners to call for dedications and request a 50s rock ‘n’ roll love ballad or an Alicia Keys rhythm and blues track.
His radio shows have given families of incarcerated loved ones, in particular, a platform to talk to loved ones by dedicating songs and sending heartfelt messages and updates. Inmates in California and Arizona sent their own dedications and asked Laboe for family updates.
It’s a role Laboe said he felt honored to play.
“I don’t judge,” Laboe said in a 2018 interview with The Associated Press at his Palm Springs studio. “I like people.”
He often told the story of a woman who stopped by the studio so her toddler could say to his father, who was serving time for a violent crime, “Dad, I love you.”
“It was the first time he heard his baby’s voice,” Laboe said. “And this badass burst into tears.”
Anthony Macias, a Riverside professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, said the music played by Laboe accompanied the dedications, reinforcing the messages. For example, songs like “I’m on the Outside (Looking In)” by Little Anthony & the Imperials and “Don’t Let No One Get You Down” by War were about perseverance and a desire to be accepted. .
Born Arthur Egnoian in Salt Lake City to an Armenian-American family, Laboe grew up during the Great Depression in a Mormon family led by a single mother. His sister sent him his first radio when he was 8 years old. The voices and the resulting stories enveloped him.
“And I haven’t let up since,” Laboe said.
He moved to California, attended Stanford University, and served in the United States Navy during World War II. Eventually, he landed a job as a radio announcer at KSAN in San Francisco and adopted the name Art Laboe after a boss suggested he take a secretary’s last name to sound more American.
He then returned to the Southern California area, but a radio station owner told the budding announcer that he should work on becoming a “radio personality” instead. As a DJ for KXLA in Los Angeles, Laboe bought station time and hosted live music shows overnight from drive-ins where he met rockabilly and underground R&B musicians. “I have my own built-in search,” Laboe said.
He quickly became one of the first DJs to play R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in California. Teenage listeners quickly identified Laboe’s vocals with the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene. In 1956, Laboe had an afternoon show and became the city’s first radio program. Cars blocked Sunset Boulevard where Laboe aired his show, and advertisers jumped in for a slice of the action.
When Elvis Presley came to Hollywood, Laboe was one of the few to get an interview with the new rockabilly star.
The scene that Laboe helped cultivate in California has become one of the most diverse in the country. Places such as the American Legion Stadium in El Monte played much of the music Laboe played on his radio show, spawning a new youth subculture.
Laboe has maintained a strong following over the years and transformed himself into a promoter of aging rock ‘n’ roll acts that never faded from Mexican-American fans of alumni. A permanent display of Laboe’s contributions is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland.
In 2015, iHeartMedia’s KHHT-FM dropped Laboe’s syndicated oldies show after the station abruptly shifted to a hip-hop format sparking angry protests in Los Angeles. “Without Art Laboe, I’m so lonely I could cry,” wrote essayist Adam Vine. Later that year, Laboe returned to the Los Angeles airwaves on another station.
Lalo Alcaraz, a syndicated cartoonist and television writer who grew up listening to Laboe in San Diego, said the DJ maintained strong popularity among Mexican Americans for generations because he always played Latin artists, white and black together in its broadcasts. Laboe also didn’t seem to judge listeners who asked for dedications for loved ones in prison, Alcaraz said.
“Here is someone who gave a voice to the humblest among us through music,” Alcaraz said. “He brought us together. That’s why we looked for it.
Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based National Hispanic Media Coalition, said generations of Latino fans have attended Laboe-sponsored concerts to hear Smokey Robinson, The Spinners or Sunny & The Sunliners.
“I see these guys looking really tough in the crowd. I mean, they look scary,” Nogales said. “Then Art comes out and they melt. They love him.
Former Associated Press reporter Russell Contreras provided biographical material for this report.