Art Laboe was an oldie, but a goodie

A few weeks ago, I happened to meet a friend of a friend named Manny. He is about my age and he was originally from East LA, while I grew up in the ghetto part of the San Fernando Valley, in The Projects not far from where Rodney King was beaten. 

Manny and I talked about shared experiences —sporting events, riots, earthquakes. The he asked me who my favorite DJ had been. Back in the 1960s, everybody had a favorite DJ. These people were Radio Gods. There was The Real Don Steele, a coked-out madman after whom the TV character Dr. Johnny Fever (“WKRP In Cincinnati”) was fashioned. 

There were names like Charlie Tuna, Sam Riddle and Robert W. Morgan. And then there was my personal favorite, Humble Harve. He had the greatest FM DJ, pimp-daddy voice. (You can hear his voice in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”) He was the coolest until he went home one afternoon, confronted his adulterous wife, then shot and killed her. He went on the run; for three weeks, his possible whereabouts were front-page LA Times news. He eventually turned himself in, pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter, served three years and was back on the air for another 40 years.

Richard Pryor used to tell the story about how his dad would sit around at the barber shop talking with the other guys about boxing. They would argue about boxers, but there was always one name that would bring things to a screeching halt. Somebody would say, “Well, what if he would have fought Sugar Ray Robinson?”

The place would erupt. “Aw, Man! Sugar!”

In radio in Southern California and the entire American Southwest, dating back to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and continuing on until his mellow voice was silenced just a couple weeks ago, there was one name that eclipsed all others and that was Art Laboe.

Some might argue for Wolfman Jack, but the fact is that, back then, there were so many radio stations in Los Angeles (including some that, by law, had to sign off at sunset), we couldn’t get Wolfman Jack, even with his station, XERB, broadcasting with 500,000 watts from Tijuana. You had to head up through The Grapevine toward Bakersfield or out into the desert toward Palm Springs to pick up The Wolfman. Even then, it was no contest. Wolfman had audacity; Art Laboe had ethnicity. And sincerity.

When he was just 13, Laboe built his own transmitter and (illegally) started broadcasting in Los Angeles. After serving in World War II and attending Stanford, he got into radio full time, hitting his stride in the mid-1950s. He started playing rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues at a time when Los Angeles radio was mostly country and western or easy listening. He was an immediate success and, to some, a giant threat.

He would put on shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium, packing 3,000 young people in for a show and dance. Back then, Los Angeles was shockingly segregated. (In the 1960s, there was still a law on the books in Burbank making it illegal for a Black person to be on the streets after sundown.) But Laboe’s dances were multi-ethnic and there was never any trouble. 

His radio show was also enormously popular. He would read dedications on the air and he noticed that a lot of people requested songs from four or five years in the past. (Chris Rock talked about this in a less-sensitive manner when he said that guys were always going to like the music that was playing the first time they had sex.) It was in the early 1960s that Laboe coined (and then later trademarked) the phrase “Oldie but goodie.”

He put together one of the first compilation albums of old R&B songs. It was on the Billboard Top 100 list for three years. He built a recording studio and promoted concerts, but always there was the radio show with the dedications. He would read them in a straightforward manner, never judgmental. “This goes out from Little Slinky to mi ruca, Cat’s Eyes.” (We could never understand why a guy would want to be known as Little anything.) A disturbing number of dedications came from Chino, where the State Prison is.

Laboe broadcast on multiple stations throughout the Southwest and was on Tucson radio for decades, often on Sunday nights. We all thought that he was some kind of Hispanic and that his real last name was Laborin. It turns out that he was Armenian, born Art Egnoian in Salt Lake City. But he was completely adopted by the Latino community. 

Laboe is the only non-Latino ever to serve as grand marshal of the East LA Christmas Parade. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a fountain in his honor in El Monte. But mostly he lives on in the hearts of people of multiple generations, people who would call in from Tucson or Albuquerque or East LA, asking for his help in mending a broken heart or reigniting a tattered romance.

Art Laboe died a couple weeks ago at age 97, the ultimate Oldie But Goodie.

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