DJ Art Laboe sits in his studio and talks about his 75 years in the radio business in 2018, in Palm Springs, California. Laboe, a pioneering disc jockey who hosted a syndicated early music show for decades, died Friday.
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Art Laboe, the pioneering DJ credited with helping desegregate Southern California, has died. He was 97.
Laboe died Friday night after contracting pneumonia, said Joanna Morones, a spokeswoman for Laboe’s production company, Dart Entertainment.
Laboe’s last show was produced last week and aired on Sunday night. Laboe is credited with helping desegregate Southern California by hosting live DJ shows at drive-ins that drew white, black, and Latino rock-n-roll dances and shocked an older generation still listening. music by Frank Sinatra and Big Band.
Laboe is also credited with coining the phrase “oldies, but goodies.” In 1957, he founded Original Sound Record, Inc. and in 1958 he released the compilation album “Oldies But Goodies: Vol. 1”, which remained on Billboard’s Top 100 chart for 183 weeks.
He later developed a large following among Mexican Americans for hosting the syndicated show “The Art Laboe Connection Show.” His baritone voice invited listeners to ask for autographs and request a 1950s rock and roll love ballad or an Alicia Keys rhythm and blues tune.
His radio shows in particular provided families of incarcerated loved ones with a platform to speak with their relatives by dedicating songs to them and sending them heartfelt messages and updates. Inmates from California and Arizona were sending in their own dedications and asking Laboe for updates on the family.
It’s a role Laboe said he was 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 a story about a woman who came to the studio so her young son could say to his father, who was serving time for a violent crime, “Dad, I love you.”
“It was the first time I was hearing her baby’s voice,” Laboe said. “And this tough, headstrong guy burst into tears.”
Anthony Macias, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, said the music Laboe played went with the dedications that enhanced the messages. For example, songs like Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “I’m on the Outside (Looking In)” and War’s “Don’t Let No One Get You Down” spoke of 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 household led by a single mother. His sister sent him his first radio when he was 8 years old. The voices and stories that came from him enveloped him.
“And I haven’t let go of it since,” Laboe said.
He moved to California, attended Stanford University, and served in the US Navy during World War II. He eventually got a job as a radio host 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.
When the United States entered World War II, Laboe served in the Navy. He later returned to the Southern California area, but the aspiring radio host was told by a radio station owner that he should work to become a “radio personality.” As a DJ for KXLA in Los Angeles, Laboe bought time at the station and hosted live late-night music shows from drive-ins where he met underground rockabilly and R&B musicians. “I have my own embedded research,” Laboe said.
He was one of the first DJs to play rock-n-roll in California.
Laboe soon became one of the first DJs to play R&B and rock-n-roll in California. Teenage listeners soon identified Laboe’s voice with the fledgling rock-n-roll scene. By 1956, Laboe had an afternoon show and became the city’s premier radio show. Cars jammed Sunset Boulevard where Laboe aired his show, and advertisers jumped in to get a piece of the action.
When Elvis Presley arrived in Hollywood, Laboe was one of the few to land an interview with the new rockabilly star.
The scene Laboe helped cultivate in California became one of the most diverse in the country. Venues like the El Monte American Legion Stadium played much of the music Laboe broadcast on his radio show, giving rise to a new youth subculture.
Laboe maintained a strong following over the years and became a promoter of aging rock-n-roll acts that never faded from Mexican-American fans of the classics. A permanent exhibit of Laboe’s contributions is at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland.
In 2015, iHeartMedia’s KHHT-FM (92.3) dropped Laboe’s syndicated early music show after the station abruptly switched 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 Art Laboe in San Diego, said the DJ maintained a strong following among Mexican-Americans for generations because he always put Latino, white and black artists together on his shows. Laboe also did not seem judgmental of his listeners asking for dedications for his loved ones in prison, Alcaraz said.
“Here is someone who gave a voice to the humblest through music,” said Alcaraz. “He brought us together. That’s why we’re looking for him.”
Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based National Hispanic Media Coalition, said generations of Latino fans attended Laboe-sponsored concerts to hear artists like Smokey Robinson, The Spinners and Sunny & The Sunliners.
“I see these really tough guys in the crowd. I mean, they’re scary,” Nogales said. “Then Art comes out and they just melt. They love him.”
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