Art Laboe dies at 97; DJ played (and popularized) ‘oldies but goodies’


With his cheery baritone and enthusiasm for old rock, R&B, doo-wop and soul, Art Laboe was a fixture of West Coast radio for 79 years. The gregarious Los Angeles disc jockey was considered as much a voice of the city as Dodgers announcer Vin Scully or Lakers sportscaster Chick Hearn.

Mr. Laboe, who died Oct. 7 at 97, broadcast from radio stations across California and the Southwest, where his call-in show served as a community bulletin board and gathering space, a platform for children to dedicate songs to their parents or for friends to send out messages of love or support. His audience included generations of Mexican Americans, who forged close bonds with the Armenian American DJ while calling in to request songs from artists like Sister Sledge, Freddy Fender and Big Joe Turner.

“His show was the first place a young Chicano kid had to air his feelings, the first place you could say something and be heard,” Ruben Molina, the author of books on Chicano music and culture, said in a 2009 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It was like an intercom where you could tell the world — our world — ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love so-and-so,’ and everyone knew the next day.”

Mr. Laboe was still working until his death, albeit at a more leisurely pace than when he rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, hosting an all-night record show where he interviewed teenagers and other night owls until 4 a.m. He was one of the first DJs to play rock music on the West Coast, one of the first to play White and Black artists on the same program, and one of the first to pioneer the “oldies” radio format, playing 1950s and ’60s artists long after they disappeared from the pop charts.

“If you have to define an oldie, I’d say we look for songs that fit a particular time and place, penetrated people’s lives and caused the listener to think of where he was and what he or she was doing when first hearing the song,” he told Billboard magazine in 1974. “You may not remember the group’s name, but you remember the song.”

Mr. Laboe was often credited with popularizing the phrase “oldies but goodies,” which he trademarked and used for a 15-volume series of compilation albums that he released through his own record label, Original Sound. Under Mr. Laboe, the label also put out contemporary rock hits that included the 1959 singles “Bongo Rock” by Preston Epps, which reached No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and “Teen Beat” by Sandy Nelson, which rose to No. 4.

For many listeners, he was best known for his dedication-and-request show, “The Art Laboe Connection,” which was broadcast in recent years on 93.5 KDAY in Los Angeles. By the 1990s, the show had emerged as a way for family members to reach loved ones in prison, and often featured song dedications for incarcerated people in California, Arizona and Nevada.

Mr. Laboe liked to tell the story of a woman who came into his studio so that her young child could tell her incarcerated father, “Daddy, I love you.”

“It was the first time he had heard his baby’s voice,” Mr. Laboe told the Associated Press in 2019. “And this tough, hard-nosed guy burst into tears.”

More often, his conversations with listeners were upbeat, dwelling on love and relationships. “Art,” said one caller in 2009, “I want you to tell my husband, Juanito, ‘You’re my Chicano king. I’m your bootylicious. I can’t live without you. I’ll never let you go.’ And I want you to blow him a big kiss for me and play ‘You’re My Shining Star.’ ”

“OK, Juanita,” Mr. Laboe replied. “Here goes that kiss. … Muaah!”

Arthur Egnoian was born in Salt Lake City on Aug. 7, 1925. His mother was a homemaker, and his father worked at a smelting plant and died when Mr. Laboe was a boy, according to his executive assistant and show producer, Joanna Morones.

Mr. Laboe grew up in Los Angeles, where he was raised in part by two older sisters and fell in love with radio. The medium “opened up new doors for a guy who wasn’t a big, good-looking hunk,” said Mr. Laboe, who stood just over 5 feet tall.

“I used to sit with my hands on my chin looking into the grill cloth,” he told NPR, “imagining somebody at the other end.”

Mr. Laboe studied at Stanford University and served in the Navy, training in the Signal Corps — an experience that helped him land his first radio job, at the San Francisco station KSAN, which hired him when he was 17. After a station manager suggested he adopt a more conventionally American-sounding name, he became Art Laboe, taking the last name of a secretary.

By the mid-1950s he was hosting a radio show in Los Angeles, where he played early rock hits while other DJs stuck with tunes by Dean Martin or Doris Day. “It was like a tidal wave, and kids went nuts for it,” he told L.A. Weekly in 2005.

“Everyone was playing Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’ and all of a sudden I come and say, ‘Hey, mothers, gather up your daughters, here comes Art Laboe and his devil music!’ ”

Taking the microphone out of the studio, he would broadcast live from Scrivner’s Drive-In restaurant in Hollywood, where he was sometimes joined by pop musicians such as Ricky Nelson. Mr. Laboe would take requests for songs, allowing teenagers to select from a list of tracks that he would then play on-air. “You pick ’em, you dedicate ’em and you get ’em,’ ” he would say.

At the bottom of the request sheet were songs he called “oldies but goodies,” tracks like the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” or Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” which were a few years old but consistently got picked by listeners.

Recognizing that there was an interest in artists who had been popular a year or two earlier, Mr. Laboe organized an “oldies dance” in the nearby city of El Monte, to get around a Los Angeles ordinance barring children under 18 from attending dances that weren’t organized through the school system.

The show drew Mexican American teenagers from L.A.’s Eastside, helping Mr. Laboe forge a connection with the city’s Chicano population. He went on to organize a host of oldies shows in addition to promoting concerts featuring popular musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and Ray Charles.

Mr. Laboe also got into the compilation-album business. As he told it, he was on a date, listening to 45-rpm singles and fooling around on the couch, when he kept getting interrupted by problems with the record player. “Every time things got interesting, the spindle would stick or something else would go wrong and I had to get up and fix it,” he recalled. “Finally, this girl said, ‘Why doesn’t someone put those things into an album?’ ”

By 1959, he had released “Oldies But Goodies Vol. 1,” which featured songs by groups including the Five Satins and the Teen Queens and inspired more than a dozen sequels. He increasingly focused on his record business in the 1960s, and by the early ’70s was working at the Los Angeles station KRTH, which helped establish the oldies radio format. He also ran an oldies dance club on the Sunset Strip, at what is now the Comedy Store; bought radio stations in Tucson and Fresno, Calif.; and worked on music licensing for movies including “American Graffiti,” “Dirty Dancing” and “Lethal Weapon.”

Mr. Laboe was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2012. He died at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., after being diagnosed with pneumonia, said Morones, his assistant. He was twice married and divorced, predeceased by two sons, and leaves no immediate survivors, aside from his dedicated audience. “My listeners,” he once told the Los Angeles Times, “they are like a family.”

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