Music
3:48 pm
Sun February 9, 2014

Art Laboe And His 'Devil Music' Made Radio Magic

Originally published on Sun February 9, 2014 5:33 pm

At 88 years old, and after seven decades in the business, Los Angeles radio host Art Laboe is still at it.

Six nights a week on The Art Laboe Connection, Laboe takes requests from his loyal listeners, who tune in on more than a dozen stations in California and the Southwestern United States.

This week, he'll be hosting his annual series of Valentine's concerts, featuring the "Oldies But Goodies" he's played for decades.

Laboe, with his welcoming baritone voice, has won his share of accolades over his long career. Among others, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1981 and a spot in the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2012.

But it's the adoration of Laboe's fans that keeps him going.

"You have a beautiful, handsome voice," caller "Leticia" recently told Laboe on the air. "You're in the right field."

Somewhat flustered, Laboe replied, "You've got me blushing."

In Love With Radio From An Early Age

Laboe's story starts in 1925, when he was born Arthur Egnoian in Salt Lake City.

He says from the moment his family got their first radio, he was hooked.

"I was 8 years old and we plugged it in, and I told my mom, 'Mom, the box is talking!' " Laboe recalls. "And after that, she couldn't tear me away from this radio."

By the time he was a teenager, he was on the air himself with a low-watt ham radio.

"I'd talk to neighbors and I'd give them a phone number once in a while," Laboe says, "and I could get a call or two."

He served in the military during World War II, and his training for the U.S. Army Signal Corps helped him to talk his way into a job in radio. It was a station manager at KSAN in San Francisco who said he should change his last name from Egnoian to Laboe.

An Early Pioneer In Rock 'N' Roll

By the mid-1950s, the newly renamed Art Laboe was hosting his own show in Los Angeles, just as rock 'n' roll was bursting into the scene. And Laboe wanted to be part of it.

"People are playing Doris Day, [and] 'Que Sera, Sera,' " Laboe says. "And I'd say, 'OK, Mothers, gather up your daughters. Here comes Art Laboe and his devil music!' "

Even early on, Laboe was an innovator. He would get out of the studio and broadcast live from now-defunct Scrivener's drive-in restaurants in LA. People would sit in their cars, windows rolled down, and shout out requests.

"He understood that cars and music and teenagers go together, especially in Los Angeles," says Josh Kun, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California.

Kun says the on-air requests — with messages to loved ones serving in the military, or even in prison — have always been the key to Laboe's appeal.

"He's recognized that playing songs on the radio is never just about playing songs on the radio," he says, "that playing songs is about building communities and it's about connecting to the most intimate, most painful, most emotional aspects of people's lives."

Over the decades, Laboe has worked as concert promoter, helped produce new artists, and was one of the first people to sell compilation albums with his "Oldies But Goodies" series.

But on one station or another, Laboe has remained on the radio — and stayed with his listeners.

Among LA Latinos, Laboe An 'Icon'

Somewhat surprisingly, this 88-year-old Armenian-American has his most ardent following among Latinos.

A group called the South El Monte Arts Posse has been gathering oral histories and photos of the city's early rock 'n' roll scene and its connections in Mexican-American life. Laboe is part of that tradition.

Rubén Guevara, a 71-year-old musician, attended a recent event held by the Arts Posse. And he says Laboe has provided the soundtrack to a lot of life in Southern California.

Laboe played "music we fell in love to, got married to, raised kids with," Guevara says. "And he became, you know, a really constant family member."

Luie Delgado, 36, says that Laboe has listened, without judgment, to people of all backgrounds, "taking messages and names and names that were familiar, names that were even in Spanish."

He says what makes Laboe's show powerful, is "just knowing that you were being heard."

No Plans To Retire

Laboe says it's "difficult" to think of leaving the business: "I'm still a radio guy," he says.

It's even harder for his fans to think of him going off the air.

Susan Straight, a writer and professor at the University of California, Riverside, says she grew up listening to Laboe and still calls in with her own dedications.

"I think of him as timeless," she says. "And I have to confess, I have never, ever thought about there being a night, when Art Laboe's voice wasn't there."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

If you take a moment to flip through the radio stations here in Los Angeles, past NPR, of course, you'll pass by the pop stations...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: ...the politics...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's the leader of the free world.

RATH: ...jazz...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: ...but then you might come upon a voice like no other on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

ART LABOE: Well, hi there. This is Art Laboe, checking in here. We'd like you to connect with us and help us pick some music and say hi on the air to one of your friends or just call in and say, hey, I want to hear this song.

RATH: Art Laboe. That signature voice is on the air six nights a week on more than a dozen stations in California and the Southwestern U.S. He's 88 years old now but not slowing down. This week, he'll be hosting his annual series of Valentines concerts featuring the "Oldies But Goodies" he's played for decades. NPR's Tom Dreisbach has this profile.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Now, I could tell you about all of the accolades and awards Art Laboe has received. Here's just a couple: A star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a spot in the National Radio Hall of Fame. But to really understand what Art Laboe means, you've got to listen to the devotion of his fans who call in almost every night of the week.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I've never talked to you. You're a wonderful man, Art.

LABOE: Oh, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You have a beautiful, handsome voice. You're in the right field.

LABOE: You got me blushing. Thanks a lot now. We'll play your song for you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Okay, Art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KOKOMO")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I want to take you...

DREISBACH: His style may not be flashy, the music is not new, but Art Laboe has lasted.

LABOE: I'm on the radio. Been on for 70 years.

DREISBACH: I met Art Laboe at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Behind that deep baritone is a small, kind man. He's just over five feet tall. And Art Laboe's story starts in 1925 when he was born Arthur Egnoian in Salt Lake City, Utah. He says from the moment his family got their first radio, he was hooked.

LABOE: I was 8 years old when we plugged it in. And I told my mom: Mom, the box is talking. And after that, she couldn't tear me away from this radio. I used to sit with my hands on my chin looking into the grill cloth imagining somebody at the other end.

DREISBACH: By the time he was a teenager, he was on the air himself with a low-watt ham radio.

LABOE: I'd talk to neighbors, and I'd give them a phone number once in a while, and I'd get a call or two. And I was really in seventh heaven, you know?

DREISBACH: He served in the military during World War II, and his training in the Signal Corps helped him to talk his way into a job in radio. It was a station manager in San Francisco who said he should change his last name from Egnoian to Laboe. By the mid-1950s, Art Laboe was hosting his own show in Los Angeles, just as rock and roll was bursting onto the scene. And Art Laboe wanted to be part of it.

LABOE: People are playing the - Doris Day, you know, (singing) que sera, sera, sera. And I'd say, OK, Mothers, gather up your daughters. Here comes Art Laboe and his devil music. La-da-da-da, if you're looking for trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) If you're looking for trouble, you came to the right place.

DREISBACH: Did you really go on the air and say: Here's comes Art Laboe with his devil music?

LABOE: Yeah. I didn't do it every night, but I did do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE")

PRESLEY: (Singing) My daddy was a green-eyed mountain jack because I'm evil.

DREISBACH: Even early on, Laboe was an innovator. He would get out of the studio and broadcast live from drive-in restaurants in L.A. People would sit in their cars, windows rolled down and shout out requests. And that's where Laboe's career really took off.

JOSH KUN: He understood that cars and music and teenagers go together, especially in Los Angeles.

DREISBACH: That's Josh Kun. He's a professor at the University of Southern California. And he says the requests have always been the key to Art Laboe's appeal.

KUN: He's recognized that playing songs on the radio is never just about playing songs on the radio. That playing songs is about building communities, and it's about connecting to the most intimate, most painful, most emotional aspects of people's lives.

DREISBACH: Over the decades, Laboe has worked as a concert promoter, he helped produced new artists. He was one of the first people to sell compilation albums with his "Oldies But Goodies" series. But in one way or another, Laboe has stayed on the radio and stayed with his listeners. And with a dedication on his show, people feel like their loved ones - some serving in the military, others even in prison - aren't quite so far away.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM)

LABOE: Well, hi, Andrea. What city are you calling from?

ANDREA: I'm calling from Riverside.

LABOE: OK.

ANDREA: I would like to tell my husband Daniel who's in Chino, California, right now - Hi, Daddy. I love you, and I miss you. And you know that you're my world and that you mean everything to me. I'm counting now the days...

DREISBACH: Somewhat surprisingly, this 88-year-old Armenian-American has his most ardent following among Latinos. I recently visited El Monte, a city just outside of Los Angeles. That's where a group called the South El Monte Arts Posse has been gathering memories and photos of the city's early rock and roll scene and its connections to Mexican-American life.

RUBEN GUEVARA: If there's really an icon - you know, that word is used so often - an L.A. icon, he's really the one.

DREISBACH: That's Ruben Guevara. He's a 71-year-old musician, and he's played in bands since the early 1960s. He says Art Laboe has provided the soundtrack to a lot of his life.

GUEVARA: Music we fell in love to, you know, got married to, raised kids with. So he became like, you know, a really constant family member.

DREISBACH: The group at the event was mostly Latino - a mix of young and old - and people spoke lovingly of Art Laboe, mostly because every night on the radio, especially in those early days, he listened without judgment to a community that did not often get attention from the media. Here's Louie Delgado in Pat Mejia.

LUIE DELGADO: Taking messages and names, and names that were familiar, names that were even in Spanish, just knowing that you are being heard.

PAT MEJIA: You could relate to him or he related to you. You almost felt like you knew him.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM)

LABOE: A dedication going out to Omar, Victor, Scottie, Blair, Coco, Joe, Maria, Uncle Ricky and Lion all from Raul in Fresno, California, listening...

DREISBACH: Like most nights, Art Laboe will be on the air tonight. He says he has no plans to retire.

LABOE: It is difficult for me to think of leaving the radio business. I'm still a radio guy, and I have to say this, you know, I think my reality has exceeded my dreams by far.

DREISBACH: And he has come a long way from that boy with the ham radio connecting with an audience just around the block. Tom Dreisbach, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM)

LABOE: Well, we might be dancing, we might be playing love songs, but right here, we're going to rock with Kool & the Gang and "Get Down On It."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET DOWN ON IT")

KOOL & THE GANG: (Singing)Get down on it. Get down on it. Get down on it. Get down on it. How you gonna do it if you really don't wannna dance. By standing on the wall? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.