PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Art Laboe, the pioneering radio DJ credited with helping to end segregation in Southern California, has died. He was 97.
Laboe died Friday night after contracting pneumonia, said Joanna Morones, a spokeswoman for Laboe’s production company, Dart Entertainment.
His last show was produced last week and aired on Sunday night.
Laboe is credited with helping to end segregation in Southern California by organizing live DJ shows at drive-in diners that attracted white, black and Latino listeners who danced to rock-n-roll—shocking a older generation that still listens to Frank Sinatra and Big Band music.
The DJ is also credited with coining the phrase “oldies, but goodies.” In 1957 he started Original Sound Record, Inc. and in 1958 released the compilation album “Oldies But Goodies: Vol. 1”, which remained on the Billboard Top 100 chart for 183 weeks.
He later developed a strong following among Mexican Americans for hosting the syndicated “The Art Laboe Connection Show.” His baritone voice invited listeners to call in dedications and requests for a ’50s rock-n-roll love ballad or a rhythm and blues tune from Alicia Keys.
His radio shows especially gave the families of incarcerated loved ones a platform to talk to their loved ones by dedicating songs and sending heartfelt messages and updates. Inmates in California and Arizona would post their own dedications and ask Laboe for family updates.
It’s a role Laboe said he felt honored to play.
“I don’t judge,” Laboe said in a 2018 interview with The Associated Press at his Palm Springs studio. “I like people.”
He often told a story about a woman who came by the studio so her young child could tell her father, who was serving time for a violent crime, “Dad, I love you.”
“It was the first time he had heard his baby’s voice,” Laboe said. “And this tough, tough guy burst into tears.”
Anthony Macias, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, said the music Laboe played went with the dedications and reinforced the messages. For example, songs like Little Anthony & the Imperials’ “I’m on the Outside (Looking In)” and War’s “Don’t Let No One Get You Down” spoke of perseverance and a desire to be accepted.
Born Arthur Egnoian in Salt Lake City to an Armenian-American family, Laboe grew up during the Great Depression in a Mormon household run by a single mother. His sister sent him his first radio when he was 8 years old. The voices and stories that came from it enveloped him.
“And I haven’t let go since,” Laboe said.
He moved to California, attended Stanford University and served in the US Navy during World War II. Eventually he got a job as a radio announcer on KSAN in San Francisco and adopted the name Art Laboe after a boss suggested he take the last name of a secretary to sound more American.
He later returned to Southern California, but a radio station owner told the aspiring speaker that he should work on becoming a “radio personality” instead. As a DJ for KXLA in Los Angeles, Laboe bought station time and hosted overnight live music shows from drive-ins where he would meet underground rockabilly and R&B musicians. “I got my own built-in research,” Laboe said.
He quickly became one of the first DJs to play R&B and rock-n-roll in California. Teenage listeners quickly identified Laboe’s voice with the fledgling rock-n-roll scene. By 1956, Laboe had an afternoon show and became the city’s top radio program. Cars jammed Sunset Boulevard, where Laboe aired his show, and advertisers jumped to get a piece of the action.
When Elvis Presley came to Hollywood, Laboe was one of the few who did get an interview with the new rockabilly star.
The scene that Laboe helped cultivate in California became one of the most diverse in the country. Places like El Monte’s American Legion Stadium played much of the music Laboe broadcast on his radio show, giving birth to a new youth subculture.
Laboe maintained a strong following over the years, transforming into a promoter of aging rock-n-roll acts that never faded from Mexican-American fans of oldies. A permanent exhibit of Laboe’s contributions is located at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland.
In 2015, iHeartMedia’s KHHT-FM dropped Laboe’s syndicated oldies show after the station abruptly switched to a hip-hop format, sparking angry protests in Los Angeles. “Without Art Laboe, I’m so lonely I could cry,” essayist Adam Vine wrote. Later that year, Laboe returned to the airwaves in Los Angeles at another station.
Lalo Alcaraz, a syndicated cartoonist and television writer who grew up listening to Laboe in San Diego, said the DJ maintained a strong following among Mexican Americans for generations because he always played Latino, white and black artists together at his shows. Laboe also didn’t seem to judge listeners who asked for dedications to loved ones in prison, Alcaraz said.
“Here is someone who gave a voice to the most humble of us all through music,” Alcaraz said. “He brought us together. That’s why we sought him out.”
Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based National Hispanic Media Coalition, said generations of Latino fans attended Laboe-sponsored concerts to hear the likes of Smokey Robinson, The Spinners or Sunny & The Sunliners.
“I see these really cool guys in the crowd. I mean, they look scary,” Nogales said. “Then Art comes out and they just melt. They love him.”
Former Associated Press reporter Russell Contreras contributed biographical material to this report.