“Oldies but Goodies”: Longtime oldies DJ Art Laboe, 97, dies

PALM SPRINGS, California — Art Laboe, the pioneering DJ who is credited with helping to end racial segregation in Southern California, has died. He was 97.

Laboe died of pneumonia on Friday night, said Joanna Morones, a spokeswoman for Laboe’s production company Dart Entertainment.

Laboe’s final show was produced last week and aired on Sunday evenings.

Laboe is credited with helping end segregation in Southern California by organizing live DJ shows in drive-in theaters that attracted whites, blacks and Latinos who danced to rock-n-roll and shocked an older generation, still listening to Frank Sinatra and big band music.

Laboe is also credited with coining the phrase “Oldies, but Goodies”. In 1957 he founded Original Sound Record, Inc. and in 1958 released the compilation album Oldies But Goodies: Vol. 1, which stayed in the top 100 on the Billboard chart for 183 weeks.

He later developed a strong following among Mexican Americans for hosting the syndicated The Art Laboe Connection Show. His baritone voice invited listeners to invoke dedications and request a 1950s rock-n-roll love ballad or a rhythm-and-blues tune by Alicia Keys.

His radio broadcasts, in particular, provided a platform for the families of incarcerated loved ones to speak to their loved ones by dedicating songs and broadcasting heartfelt messages and updates. Inmates from California and Arizona sent in their own dedications and asked Laboe for news of the family.

It’s a role that Laboe said he was honored to play.

“I’m not judging,” Laboe said in a 2018 interview with The Associated Press at his Palm Springs studio. “I like humans.”

He often told a story about a woman who came to the studio so her toddler could say to her father, who was in prison for a violent crime, “Dad, I love you.”

“It was the first time he heard his baby’s voice,” Laboe said. “And this tough, tough guy broke down in tears.”

Anthony Macias, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, said the music Laboe played suited the dedications that reinforced 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 in a Mormon household run by a single mother during the Great Depression. His sister sent him his first radio when he was 8 years old. The voices and stories that emerged enveloped him.

“And I haven’t let go since then,” 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 announcer at KSAN in San Francisco and took the name Art Laboe after a boss suggested he take a secretary’s surname to sound more American.

When the United States entered World War II, Laboe was serving in the Navy. He later returned to the Southern California area, but a radio station told the aspiring radio announcer to work on becoming a “radio personality” instead. As a DJ for KXLA in Los Angeles, Laboe bought station time and hosted live overnight music shows from drive-in theaters, playing underground rockabilly and R&B musicians. “I have my own built-in research,” Laboe said.

Laboe soon became one of the first DJs to use R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in California. Teen 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 top radio program. Cars clogged Sunset Boulevard, where Laboe aired his show and advertisers jumped to get a slice of the action.

When Elvis Presley came to Hollywood, Laboe was one of the few who got an interview with the new rockabilly star.

The scene that Laboe cultivated in California became one of the most diverse in the nation. Venues like American Legion Stadium in El Monte played much of the music Laboe aired on his radio show and spawned a new youth subculture.

Laboe maintained a strong following over the years and morphed into a promoter of aging rock ‘n’ roll acts that never went away from Mexican-American fans of oldies. A permanent display of Laboe’s contributions resides at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland.

In 2015, iHeartMedia’s KHHT-FM (92.3) shut down Laboe’s syndicated oldies 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 watching Art Laboe in San Diego, said the DJ has had a strong following among Mexican Americans for generations because he always featured Latino, white, and black artists together on his shows. Laboe also didn’t seem to judge his listeners who asked for dedications for loved ones in prison, Alcaraz said.

“Here is someone who gave voice to the humblest of us all through music,” Alcaraz said. “He brought us together. That’s why we were 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 the likes of Smokey Robinson, The Spinners and Sunny & The Sunliners.

“I see these really tough looking guys in the crowd. I mean, they look scary,” Nogales said. “Then Art comes out and they just melt away. She loves him.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

https://abc7.com/art-laboe-death-southern-california-dj-radio-stations-socal-los-angeles-area-obituary/12312455/ “Oldies but Goodies”: Longtime oldies DJ Art Laboe, 97, dies

Laura Coffey

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