The legendary DJ Art Laboe, who was instrumental in the desegregation of Southern California, has passed away. He was 97. According to Dart Entertainment spokeswoman Joanna Morones, producer Laboe passed away on Friday night from pneumonia.
Laboe’s final episode aired on Sunday night, and it was recorded just last week. Live DJ events at drive-in restaurants that Laboe organized attracted whites, blacks, and Latinos who danced to rock ‘n’ roll, shocking an older generation still listening to Frank Sinatra and Big Band music, and ultimately contributed to the end of segregation in Southern California.
The saying “oldies but goodies” has often been attributed to Laboe. His company, Original Sound Record, Inc., issued its first album, a greatest hits collection titled “Oldies But Goodies: Vol. 1,” in 1958. The album spent 183 consecutive weeks on Billboard’s Top 100 chart.
Later, as the host of the syndicated program “The Art Laboe Connection Show,” he gained a substantial following among Mexican Americans. His baritone voice beckoned callers to dedicate songs and take requests for everything from rock ‘n’ roll love songs of the ’50s to Alicia Keys’ rhythm and blues.
His radio shows provided an outlet for people with loved ones in prison to express their feelings for them through song dedications, letters, and news updates.
Prisoners in California and Arizona would write their own dedications and write to Laboe to find out what was going on with their loved ones back home. Laboe expressed gratitude for the opportunity to portray the part.
“I do not judge,” Laboe told The Associated Press in an interview at his Palm Springs studio in 2018. To quote the speaker: He often related the incident of a mother who brought her young daughter to the studio so she could visit her father in prison and tell him, “Daddy, I love you.”
“He heard his baby’s voice for the first time,” Laboe remarked. And this hardened warrior suddenly started crying. Prof. Anthony Macias of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, remarked that the music Laboe played during the dedications perfectly complements the speeches.
Some popular songs of the era, such as “I am on the Outside (Looking In)” by Little Anthony & the Imperials and “Do not Let No One Get You Down” by War, addressed the themes of sticking it out and not letting others bring you down.
Laboe was born Arthur Egnoian to Armenian-American parents in Salt Lake City, where he grew up in a Mormon household maintained by a single mom during the Great Depression. At the tender age of eight, his big sister sent him his first radio.
The stories and sounds from within it surrounded him. After that, I have not let go,” Laboe declared. He uprooted to California, enrolled in Stanford, and enlisted in the US Navy to fight in WWII.
After a suggestion from his boss that he take the surname of a secretary in order to appear more American, he found a position as a radio broadcaster at KSAN in San Francisco and changed his name to Art Laboe. Laboe joined the Navy when the United States became involved in World War II.
Later, when he moved back to the SoCal region, a radio station owner advised him to focus on developing his “radio personality” instead of his announcing skills. Laboe worked as a Los Angeles radio DJ for KXLA, purchasing airtime and broadcasting live overnight shows from drive-ins, where he frequently encountered unsigned rockabilly and R&B artists..
Laboe boasted, “I got my built-in research.” In little time, Laboe was recognized as one of the pioneering DJs in the Golden State to play R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.
Teenage listeners quickly began associating Laboe’s singing with the nascent rock and roll movement. In 1956, Laboe’s afternoon show had already become the most popular in the city. When Laboe broadcast his show, Sunset Boulevard became gridlocked, and sponsors scrambled to get in on the action.
When he arrived in Hollywood, Laboe was one of the few journalists who were granted an interview with the new rockabilly star Elvis Presley. Laboe played a role in making California’s scene one of the most diverse in the country.
Much of the music Laboe broadcast on his radio show was played at venues like the American Legion Stadium in El Monte, giving rise to a new teenage subculture. Over the years, Laboe evolved into a promoter of aged rock-and-roll bands whose popularity among Mexican-American aficionados of oldies never waned.
Laboe’s accomplishments are exhibited in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Protests broke out in Los Angeles in 2015 after iHeartMedia’s KHHT-FM (92.3) abruptly shifted to a hip-hop format, prompting the station to cancel Laboe’s syndicated oldies show.
I am so lonely without Art Laboe that I could as well cry, Adam Vine stated in his essay. A few months later that same year, Laboe was back on the air in Los Angeles, albeit on a different station.
One of Art Laboe’s longtime fans, the syndicated cartoonist and television writer Lalo Alcaraz, recalled that the DJ’s unwavering commitment to mixing Latino, white, and Black musicians on his broadcasts helped him keep a loyal audience among Mexican Americans for decades.
Alcaraz also noted that Laboe did not seem to pass judgment on those who asked for dedication to prisoners. Alcaraz praised this individual, stating, “Here is someone who gave a voice to the most humble of us through music.” Our paths crossed because of him. This is why we went in search of him.
National Hispanic Media Coalition CEO Alex Nogales of Los Angeles claimed that generations of Latino fans had traveled to see performers like Smokey Robinson, The Spinners, and Sunny & The Sunliners at Laboe-sponsored events. There are some tough-looking dudes here.
Nogales remarked, “I mean, they look scary.” When Art appears, everyone immediately becomes mush. That is how much they love him.