A pioneering DJ who was the longtime host of a syndicated oldies show, Art Laboe, passed away on Friday. Photograph: Russell Contreras/AP
Art Laboe, the pioneering DJ credited with bringing southern California's segregation to an end, has died. He was 97.
According to Joanna Morones, a representative for Laboe's production business, Dart Entertainment, Laboe died on Friday night after contracting pneumonia.
Laboe's most recent show was produced last week and aired on Sunday night.
Laboe is credited with assisting in the abolition of segregation in southern California by organizing live DJ shows at drive-in restaurants that drew white, Black, and Latino residents who danced to rock'n'roll, shocking an older generation that was still listening to Frank Sinatra and Big Band music.
In addition, Laboe is credited with coining the term "oldies but goodies." In 1957, he founded Original Sound Record, Inc., and in 1958, he issued the compilation album Oldies But Goodies: Vol. 1, which spent 183 weeks on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
He eventually gained popularity among Mexican Americans as the host of the syndicated The Art Laboe Connection Show. His baritone voice prompted listeners to phone in dedications and request a 1950s rock'n'roll love ballad or an Alicia Keys rhythm and blues piece.
His radio performances, in particular, provided a forum for families of jailed loved ones to communicate with their relatives by dedicating songs and providing poignant messages and updates. Inmates in California and Arizona would send in their own dedications and beg Laboe for family updates.
Laboe expressed gratitude for the opportunity.
"I don't judge," Laboe told the Associated Press in a 2018 interview at his Palm Springs studio. "I enjoy meeting new individuals."
He frequently recalled the tale of a woman who stopped by the studio with her baby so she could tell her father, who was serving time for a heinous crime, "Daddy, I love you."
"It was his first time hearing his baby's voice," Laboe explained. "And this strong, tough-as-nails guy fell into tears."
According to Anthony Macias, an ethnic studies professor at the University of California, Riverside, the music Laboe performed complemented the dedications, amplifying the themes. Songs like I'm on the Outside (Looking In) by Little Anthony & the Imperials and Don't Let No One Get You Down by War, for example, talked about tenacity and the desire to be accepted.
Born Arthur Egnoian in Salt Lake City to an Armenian American family, Laboe grew up in a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints household maintained by a single mother during the Great Depression. When he was eight years old, his sister gave him his first radio. He was engulfed by the voices and stories that emanated from it.
"I haven't let go since," Laboe explained.
He traveled to California, attended Stanford University, and served in the United States Navy during WWII. He eventually obtained a position as a radio broadcaster at KSAN in San Francisco, where a manager advised he use the last name of a secretary to seem more American.
When the United States entered World War II, Laboe joined the navy. He eventually went to the southern California area, but a radio station owner advised the aspiring radio broadcaster that he should instead focus on becoming a "radio personality." As a Los Angeles DJ for KXLA, Laboe purchased station time and broadcast live overnight music shows from drive-ins where he met underground rockabilly and R&B bands. "I've got my own research built in," Laboe explained.
Laboe quickly rose to prominence as one of California's first DJs to specialize in R&B and rock'n'roll. Teen listeners quickly associated Laboe's voice with the burgeoning rock-and-roll movement. Laboe had an afternoon show by 1956 and had become the city's most popular radio program. Cars clogged Sunset Boulevard, where Laboe's program was aired, and marketers rushed to grab a piece of the action.
When Elvis Presley came to Hollywood, Laboe was one of the few people who had an interview with him.
Laboe's California scene grew to be one of the most diversified in the country. Much of the music Laboe played on his radio program was played at places like El Monte's American Legion Stadium, giving rise to a new teenage subculture.
Laboe's fan base grew over the years, and he evolved into a promoter of aged rock'n'roll stars who never faded for Mexican American aficionados of the oldies. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland has a permanent exhibit commemorating Laboe's achievements.
Laboe's syndicated oldies program was cancelled by iHeartMedia's KHHT-FM in 2015 when the station unexpectedly moved to a hip-hop format, provoking violent demonstrations in Los Angeles. "Without Art Laboe, I'm So Lonely I Could Cry," essayist Adam Vine wrote.
Later that year, on another station in Los Angeles, Laboe returned to the radio.
Lalo Alcaraz, a syndicated cartoonist and television writer who grew up in San Diego listening to Art Laboe, said the DJ had a strong following among Mexican Americans for years because he constantly mixed Latino, white, and Black musicians on his broadcasts. Laboe also did not appear to criticize his listeners who requested dedications for loved ones in jail, according to Alcaraz.
"Here is someone who, through music, gave a voice to the most humble of us all," Alcaraz said. "He drew us together. That's why we went looking for him."
According to Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition in Los Angeles, generations of Latino fans have visited Laboe-sponsored concerts to hear artists such as Smokey Robinson, the Spinners, and Sunny & the Sunliners.
"I notice these tough-looking people in the throng," Nogales observed. "Then Art appears, and they just melt." "They adore him."