If you've tuned into an oldies station in L.A. over the past half a century, chances are you've heard Art Laboe. The legendary disc jockey has been spinning the hits and taking requests on L.A. air waves since 1949.
Earlier this month he was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, and after decades on the air, Laboe continues to give shout-outs on behalf of his listeners. KPCC's Vanessa Romo sat down with Laboe to talk about his legacy.
On the corner of Sunset and Alvarado – above the Burrito King – is a billboard dedicated to the king of dedications.
Art Laboe's face may not be instantly recognizable, but his warm voice is. For more than half a century, Laboe’s been a conduit for lovers dedicating love songs to each other.
He’s a purveyor of rhythm & blues since the time when L.A.’s airwaves were segregated. An Armenian DJ without a drop of Latino blood, who’s now the adopted godfather to L.A.’s Chicano youth. He also coined the phrase “oldies but goodies."
They were oldies and definitely goodies in 1955 when Laboe started broadcasting live from Scrivener’s Drive-In burger joint in Hollywood.
"It just blew up. I mean, kids, only music they were hearing were these schmaltzy love songs and all of a sudden, here’s this afternoon program and the microphone is live, you hear girls giggling, horns honking, 'Hey Joe!' You hear all this background going on," said Laboe. "It sounds like a party. They’d never heard anything like that on the air. Neither had I."
It was fresh and spontaneous and teenagers couldn’t get enough. He even let them pick the records.
"Then comes rock and roll. I was at the right place at the right time, and rock and roll came like a tidal wave," said Laboe. "I was like a surfer that caught this giant wave and it just pulled me along with it."
Political scientist and civil rights activist Jaime Regalado grew up in Boyle Heights. Mention Art Laboe, and he perks up.
"He was the Dick Clark for Chicanos and for many young whites who liked the original R&B sound as it became rock and roll, and African-Americans as well," said Regalado. "You know thousands of kids over the years just worshiped him because he basically integrated rock and roll and rhythm and blues music for a very diverse and a very hungry audience. Especially of Chicanos."
While anyone in radio today would pay good money to cultivate Laboe’s loyal Latino audience, it happened quite by accident.
At the time, L.A. teens could dance only at school or church. So Laboe booked bands like Handsome Jim Balcom, The Jaguars and The Penguins and headed to the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium and El Monte Legion Stadium.
"Well a lot of my friends had the cool-looking cars and the cool-looking girlfriends. Of course we used to go in groups," said Regalado. "One of my friends, Denny, had a tuck-and-rolled lowered Mercury and I used to love it. We used to identify with it and that was part of the emblem, the symbolism."
Laboe still dazzles concert fans with his gold lame suits, and getting on the air with him is still a right of passage for east-side kids.
Marie Torres was a lovestruck 14-year-old in El Monte in the early 90s. She remembers calling Laboe and dedicating songs to her former love.
"My boyfriend was a year older than me and I called to dedicate 'Always and Forever' to my old man," said Torres. "No joke. My old man which was 15. And I said in East Los [Angeles]. I don’t know what I was thinking. I grew up in the suburbs and I said in 'East Los.'"
The dedications are memorable for Laboe, too. Sitting in his dimly lit studio about an hour before his show, he recalled a moving request from a woman whose husband was an avid listener in prison.
"She says, 'You think I could have my daughter say something to her daddy?' Carrissa, I think was her name," said Laboe. "And she says, 'I love you daddy.' And he had never heard his daughter’s voice. Here he is in jail and he just broke up, you know?"
He knows this because when the guy got out, he called to thank him.
The 87-year-old Art Laboe — make that Radio Hall of Famer Art Laboe — is on the air every night on Hot 92.3. He is still working and has no plans to retire.