Disc jockey Art Laboe sits behind the microphone in his studio in Palm Springs on a recent afternoon, getting a jump on a few dedications for an upcoming broadcast of the Art Laboe Connection on KDAY-FM/93.5.
“We’re going to play a song called ‘Gangsters Get Lonely Too,’” says Laboe, reading off a dedication from a mother to her son. “It goes out to ‘my son Mathew in Buckeye, Arizona, from mom Liz over in Phoenix.’ Says, ‘Happy belated birthday, and I love you keep your head up. All for you, son, from your mom Liz.’”
Laboe is 94 years old — he’ll be 95 on August 7 — and a radio legend. He digs through his wallet to find his SAG-AFTRA union card and proudly points out his membership dates back to 1943 when he talked his way into a job at KSAN-AM as an 18-year-old Navy recruit stationed at Treasure Island.
These dedications he’s recording? He’s believed to be the first DJ to take song requests and send them out from one listener to another. His live shows that broadcast from drive-in restaurants in Los Angeles in the ’50s were equally groundbreaking, as were the live rock-and-records shows he hosted for teenagers, most famously at the El Monte Legion Stadium.
And when some of the hits he played had aged a few years, Laboe coined the phrase “oldies but goodies” — yep, he’s that guy — and started a record company to issue compilation albums under that name and sold millions of copies.
You can still hear Laboe on the air six days a week and he presents concerts such as the upcoming Valentine’s Super Love Jam he’ll host at the Pechanga Arena San Diego on Saturday.
Art Laboe doesn’t plan to switch off his mic for good anytime soon.
The boy and the box that talked
When Laboe was born in 1925, AM radio broadcasts were only a few years old and even in his childhood radios were still scarce, he says.
“They had one next door, and some of the kids I used to play with at that young age had a radio,” he says of his boyhood in Salt Lake City. “They listened to ‘Little Orphan Annie’ and ‘Buck Rogers’ and all those kinds of things.”
So when his sister sent him a radio for his 8th birthday, well, it was a big deal.
“I can’t tell you how excited I was,” Laboe says. “I unwrapped it and plugged it in; it started talking and I was completely (amazed). I think, ‘Here’s this box that talks. It’s not a person, it just talks.’”
After moving from Utah to Los Angeles and graduating from George Washington High School in South L.A., Laboe entered the Navy and shipped north to Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay.
“The very first words I uttered on radio myself, I said, ‘This is K-S-A-N San Francisco,’ and it was in 1943,” says Laboe describing how he finagled a job at the station in part because the war had emptied the station of technicians and he had a first-class radiotelephone license.
“The radio stations were trying to be very formal in those days, they weren’t like they are now,” Laboe says of the mix of news and scripted dramas and comedies that dominated the airwaves at the time. But late at night, before KSAN-AM signed off at midnight, he had free reign to spin records by big bands and jazz singers, and eventually started asking listeners to call in if they wanted to hear a particular song.
“We started that — dedications — and they became much bigger,” he says. “More and more people wanted dedications. You’re carrying an emotional message because it’s actually your loved one’s voice.
“Very exciting because sometimes hear things on there that they wouldn’t expect. They would hear their wife’s voice say, ‘Hi, Peter, don’t forget, I love you forever.’ And so on.”
After the war, he came home to Southern California, working at stations such as KCMJ in Palm Springs, and in the ’50s, L.A. stations including KRKD, KXLA, and KPOP in Los Angeles. A few years passed and then one day, noticing how many kids were hanging out in their cars at drive-in restaurants in Hollywood, Laboe got another new idea.
At the drive-in
“I did the first drive-in show,” Laboe says modestly of what turned out to be a novel epiphany in the early ’50s. “And people picked that idea and went with it.”
His most popular and long-running show took place at Scrivner’s Drive-In on the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga boulevards — today it’s the Jack In The Box across the street from Amoeba Records — where Laboe would haul his radio equipment to do remote live broadcasts.
The show started as a late-night curiosity — Laboe, on the air, interviewing celebrities and musicians who might stop by to say hello on the air. “Matter of fact, some very big stars used to come to the drive-in,” he says.
Soon it became so popular the show moved to afternoons so more kids could attend; there were hundreds at times who came to see teen idols or request songs off a list of top hits that Laboe would have the station play.
That music was R&B as the ’50s began — something both Laboe and young listeners loved — and when rock and roll arrived he’s credited as one of the first, if not the very first, Los Angeles DJ to play it on the air.
“The owner of Motown came up to me at Scrivner’s in Hollywood one day and said, ‘My name is Berry Gordy, and I’m starting this record company, and I’ve got my first record and I wonder if you’d play it,’” Laboe says of the clout that came with a popular show. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll take it home and listen.’ And it was one of the Motown biggies he gave me, so I started playing a lot of Motown.”
The drive-in shows got more and more crazy, and with a Los Angeles ordinance that forbid teen dances that weren’t approved by the school board, Laboe looked east to El Monte for the next chapter of his life and career.
Memories of El Monte
“The kids, they had a lot of energy, and they wanted to dance,” Laboe says. “So we decided to put on some dance shows, and when we did the first one in El Monte Legion Stadium” — in a city that didn’t mind teen dances — “I think we had a couple thousand people, between what would be outside and trying to get in and those that are in.
“Everybody was excited, especially young people,” he says. “Because here was something for them, you know? You’d have Chuck Berry or somebody like that who would come to our show. He used to come out to the drive-in, too. The biggest stars would come. They all knew me.”
Stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddly, Ricky Nelson and doo-wop groups like the Penguins all were on Laboe shows in El Monte or at the Hollywood drive-in back then, performing sets for fans between records Laboe would play for them to dance to. (He’s still so beloved in El Monte that just two years ago they declared it Art Laboe Day.)
Somewhere in the ’50s, listeners occasionally asked him to play a song from a few years back.
“I think some people did a dedication and popped that word out — just, you know, ‘This is an old song, but it’s a good song,’” Laboe says. “And then I says, ‘An oldie but a goodie? That’s what I am.’ And they all laugh.”
They laughed, Laboe saw an opportunity.
“I started a record company,” he says. “I figured, ‘I’m not letting this go to waste.’ So I put out ‘Oldies But Goodies, Vol. 1,’ and sold over a million. A million! And this is just an old bunch of old songs together. So I said, ‘Why not make it a series?’ So I did. And now, behind you on the wall, are 15 volumes of ‘Oldies But Goodies.’”
Old and not so old
Laboe’s radio home since 2015 is KDAY-FM/93.5 where his show is broadcast Sundays from 6 p.m. to midnight. It’s also syndicated weeknights from Oxnard to Riverside and Palm Springs — essentially all across Southern California — and other stations in the Southwest.
The oldies are newer today than they were in the ’50s and ’60s. When he hosts his Super Love Jam at Pechanga Arena San Diego on Saturday, the live performers will be mostly drawn from ’80s R&B acts such as Evelyn “Champagne” King, Midnight Star and Peaches and Herb.
The listeners still call and write non-stop in hopes of getting their names or those of their loved ones on the air. Laboe takes the top off a box in his mailroom filled with a few hundred letters, the vast majority of them from a captive audience — prison inmates are among his most loyal listeners, he says. This is just the haul from the most recent few weeks.
“Many incarcerated people are able to get messages for their wife or girlfriend or just a friend, and you don’t have to be anybody special to do that,” he says.
He is so well-known, he notes, that he tried an experiment once, telling listeners to just address their letters to Art Laboe, Palm Springs, California: The mail got through just fine, he says.
But he is not so well-known that the sidewalk hawkers on Hollywood Boulevard know him by sight, though. There’s a story there Laboe loves to tell about the time he was waiting for the light to change at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, right next to his own star on the Walk of Fame.
“There’s this guy there hustling stars, you know, give us a dollar and we can sell you a star,” Laboe says. “The light doesn’t change. The guy’s preaching to me all this time, but I say, ‘I already have a star there.’ The guy laughed and says, “Yeah, sure.’ He didn’t believe me.”
Laboe laughs at the memory — when you’ve been a radio personality as long as he has you can afford to laugh — and explains why the thrill of being a part of people’s lives is a big part of the reason why he gets up and goes to work.
“I did the Hollywood Bowl a couple of times,” he says of the oldies shows he’s promoted for years. “One time I walked out on stage and said, ‘My name is Art Laboe,’ and the place broke up. Everybody was cheering and screaming and all that.
“When you step out on a stage and it’s people as far as you can see like there is at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s really hard to get that out of your mind,” Laboe says.
And when one day he’s no longer on the air, how will fans cope? Well, perhaps there’s a message in the song Laboe says might be his favorite oldie ever.
“There’s a song by a group called the Skyliners and it’s called, ‘Since I Don’t Have You,’” he says. “That’s been a song that touches my heart because there’s so many people that you don’t have anymore.
“And you know, that’s my favorite. Everybody has one. I have a few. But that’s one of the big ones.”
Art Laboe Valentines Super Love Jam
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15
Where: Pechanga Arena San Diego, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., San Diego
How much: $38.50