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And The Beat Goes On
Bennett Kogon, 07/29/2019
View on L.A. TACO
Art Laboe talks love, tacos, and oldies after 75 years on the radio
Art Laboe has been a voice if not The Voice of L.A. radio for the better part of an entire century. After 75 years on the radio, Laboe remains one of the most recognizable voices in West Coast radio as host of the Art Laboe Connection on Sunday nights (6 pm to 12 am) locally on KDAY 93.5fm. The oldies centric show is syndicated on about a dozen other stations throughout the region. He’s 93 years old and still likes to make his own tacos.
“Sometimes I’ll make ‘em at home you know, on the barbecue,” Laboe told L.A. Taco. “I like to make mine with cheese and chile, a little bit of sauce, some lettuce in there, and whatever else you’d want to throw in. Nice and warmed over. And munch away!”
Laboe was the middle of preparing for next big oldies show at the the Honda Center next month when I talked to him. The Whispers, The Delfonics, Peaches and Herb – the lineup, set for Valentine’s weekend, is a testament to Laboe’s perhaps best known reputation as the king of love dedications.
You often hear something like: “This one goes out to Jessica in Whittier from Barry with love…” followed by “La La Means I Love You” by The Delfonics.
Laboe told me he enjoys love songs because they can be used to send a message. “If you dedicate a song like ‘Always and Forever’ by Heatwave,” he says. “Sometimes the message is better than just saying ‘I will love you, always and forever.’ You could communicate your feelings to someone without having to do it directly.”
Laboe played rock ‘n’ roll on the radio in the 1950s when almost no other disc jockeys would. He coined the iconic phrase “Oldies but Goodies.” But he still rocks out to modern artist on occasion. Art is particularly impressed by the work of Lady Gaga. “She really rocks,” he told me. “It’s a good example of what can happen if you’ve got the talent and the moxy to get up there and do it.”
The OG DJ also told me he’s embraced modern technology, like streaming, because he’s always embraced evolution in the gear and the sound. The ability to put people on the air was a technology that came with time, he explains, as was the opportunity to hear dedications from across the country by streaming his show online. Every Sunday through Friday from 9 pm to midnight, Laboe’s other radio program “The Love Zone” streams online at jammin943.com. It features all love song dedications.
The love affair with sound and tech all began in Salt Lake City. Raised in an era before television, Laboe still recalls his first impression of the radio, which was scarce at the time. His sister gave him his first radio when he was about eight years old and he was completely enthralled by it.
“I went crazy for that little box. I couldn’t figure out what made it talk,” he recollects. “I followed the wires that went to the A/C plug and would look into that speaker cloth for hours, studying the different announcers. I just thought it was a miracle.”
After graduating from George Washington High School in South Los Angeles, Laboe joined the Navy to fight in WWII. He was stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco. If the journey had not taken him to San Francisco, perhaps his career in radio would have played much out differently, if at all.
It had only been a fews months after his eighteenth birthday when Laboe made his debut on commercial radio in 1943. Not too far from the naval base, was the headquarters of AM radio station KSAN. Laboe’s eagerness convinced the station to give him a job and they would allow him to go on the air nightly, just before sign-off.
“In those days, radio stations would sign off the air at midnight,” he recalls. “You know, give a cordial ‘sweet dreams’ and that kind of thing. And then they would just go dark. Sometimes they’d run out of sponsors by 10 o’clock, because nobody wanted to advertise in the middle of the night. So they’d let me go on the air and people would ask me to play certain songs.” And that is how on-air dedications began.
But it wasn’t until he came back home to Los Angeles in the late 1940s, that Laboe’s career in radio truly blossomed. He feels that the music was a big part of the reason, too. “The big bands started to get more aggressive,” he explains. “The music changed and I changed with it. And if people wanted to ask for it on the radio, then they must like it.”
Many of the groups coming out of Los Angeles during this period possessed that classic rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues style that Laboe and his listeners championed early on. With it, came that signature “love sound.”
In addition to radio, Laboe also promoted events in the 1950s at the famed El Monte Legion Stadium. He chose that location because it was out of city jurisdiction and didn’t require official approval to host dance nights aimed at teenagers. These events are remembered today as being culturally impactful to the city of Los Angeles, where fans of various backgrounds could congregate and celebrate the music they loved.
Frank Zappa co-wrote, with Ray Collins, “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins as a doo-wop homage to all the acts that played at Legion Stadium. Zappa apparently got the idea for the song after spending some time listening to Laboe’s compilation album Memories of El Monte. Laboe actually paid to have Zappa record the song, after some convincing, and even helped recruit the Penguins to sing and perform it. Zappa played the xylophone on the original recording.
These days, Laboe takes that same genuine spirit and presents several variety concerts throughout the Southwest region per year. The Valentine’s Super Love Jam is the latest installment of such Laboe-endorsed live entertainment. It’s the kind of show that connects L.A. through the generations of the love sound that will outlast us all. Because, as he notes, nothing says it better than music.
Bennett Kogon is host of "The Bennette Show" on KXLU 88.9-FM in Los Angeles.
All images courtesy of Art Laboe.