At 84, Art Laboe’s an oldie but still a goodie
The disc jockey smiles when he hears Juanita Santos’ raspy voice.
“Art,” she says from her small town near Fresno, “I want you to tell my husband, Juanito, ‘You’re my Chicano king. I’m your booty- licious. I can’t live without you. I’ll never let you go.’ And I want you to blow him a big kiss for me and play ‘You’re My Shining Star.’ ”
“OK, Juanita. Here goes that kiss. . . . Muaah!”
Phone lines flash six nights a week inside a dimly lit Hollywood studio where Art Laboe sits before his microphone, faithful to his old-fashioned format: playing sentimental oldies and taking dedications. For more than 50 years, his deep, soothing voice has been as cherished among Latinos in the Southwest as Chick Hearn’s rapid-fire staccato once was among Lakers fans.
Listeners with nicknames such as Mr. Porky, Lil’ Crazy, Big Papi, Bullet, Bugsy and Payasa call in from Oxnard, Riverside and Boyle Heights; from Phoenix, Albuquerque and Nevada. They are lonely women, rueful men, rapt lovers, entire families with squeaky-voiced children who ask Laboe to wish their grandmothers good night.
The 84-year-old disc jockey helps them celebrate anniversaries, mourn their dead and profess their love. He is the intermediary who reconciles arguments, encourages couples to be affectionate, sends out birthday wishes and thank yous.
His program, which is especially popular among listeners 25 to 54 years old, has consistently ranked near the top of its evening time slot, according to the ratings firm Arbitron. The Art Laboe Connection plays in more than a dozen cities in four states and draws about a million listeners a week.
“His show was the first place a young Chicano kid had to air his feelings, the first place you could say something and be heard,” said Ruben Molina, author of two books on Chicano music and American culture. “It was like an intercom where you could tell the world -- our world -- ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I love so-and-so’ and everyone knew the next day.”
Messages arrive by phone, a few by mail. Sometimes Laboe reads them on the air:
Her name is Ana Ivette Vasquez and I want to let her know that I’m really sorry for doing her wrong, for all the tears she dropped and pain I put her through. I want to dedicate you this song from deep down in my heart: “I Need Love.”
Other times he plays the recorded voices of listeners, who speak to him as to an old friend, often in a broken English laced with gangster slang.
I want to hear “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” for all the firme homies from Orange County, from their homie Dreamer. I want to tell them to keep their head up and stay strong.
“He is more Chicano than some Chicanos,” said comedian Paul Rodriguez, who grew up listening to Laboe. “And everyone from the toughest vato to the wimpiest guy would say the same.”
Laboe eases into his leather chair just before the 7 p.m. start of his broadcast on HOT 92.3 FM. Tea and cough medicine are within reach. His producer, Tom Peniston, sits across a radio mixing board, munching on a sandwich.
The light blinks with the evening’s first call:
This dedication is to Marcela Baca. I wish the family would just stop fighting. I wish we could all get along. This is Alex in Phoenix, Arizona. . . . .I want to play that song “So” by War.
Laboe comes to life on the microphone. He’ll prod a shy caller to declare his feelings. He’ll blush when another gushes, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m really talking to you!”
He observes rules that he says keep him in business: Never flirt with a woman or call her “baby” or “honey” because it drives away male callers. Never ask if a caller is in prison -- it’s not polite. Some in his audience have come to speak in a sort of code, referring to cities that hint that their loved one is incarcerated.
I want to dedicate “The Ship Won’t Sail Without You” to my husband, Big, in Chino from Roxanne. I love you and I’ll be up that way tomorrow.
Most important, the disc jockey never judges his listeners.
“Here’s somebody . . . . who might feel that what they have going on is of little importance in life,” Laboe said. “And now they come on the radio and their voice goes out to the whole world.”
Laboe, just over 5 feet tall, has bulging eyes, bushy brows and a prominent nose. As a boy, he always was the loner, the Armenian kid other students barely noticed, especially girls.
Drawn by the anonymity of radio, Laboe started his own amateur station in 1938 out of his bedroom in South Los Angeles. He was 13. Back then, he was Art Egnoian and he had recently moved to California from Utah to live with his sister.
“The radio opened up new doors for a guy who wasn’t a big, good-looking hunk,” he said.
After serving in World War II, he did stints at various radio stations and changed his name to Laboe when a general manager said it was catchier. When rock ‘n’ roll struck in the 1950s, Laboe launched a live broadcast from Scrivners, a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood. Masses of teens crowded around him to request songs and dedications, and his career took off.
He wanted to be a concert promoter, bring in big bands. But the city of Los Angeles banned youths younger than 18 from attending public dances and concerts. So he decided to host shows in El Monte, which attracted teenagers from the Eastside and its growing Mexican American population.
Latinos poured in to see Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis at the now-defunct El Monte Legion Stadium. Laboe played the rhythm-and-blues and doo-wop these youths craved. He compiled his fans’ favorite songs on vinyl records, eight-tracks, cassette tapes and ultimately compact discs featuring Mexican American acts. He learned to pronounce Spanish names.
“It was never intentional,” Laboe said. “The connection was there and when they came, I welcomed them with open arms.”
Laboe became part of the emerging Chicano identity in Los Angeles, his voice and music the soundtrack of lowrider shows and nights spent cruising Whittier Boulevard. He is the only non-Latino selected as grand marshal of the East L.A. Christmas parade and is a favored award recipient among Latino organizations. At their functions, he says, he is often “the only white guy in the room.”
These days he descends from his Hollywood Hills home in a black Jaguar and lunches at the Chateau Marmont.
His home decor features a nude portrait of Marilyn Monroe hanging above his bed, made up in pink-and-white sheets. A giant oil painting of his deceased cat, Baby, is the focal point of the living room. Motivational sayings written on Post-It notes (If you believe in your power to do great things, you will) share space on his refrigerator door with doctor’s notices detailing the symptoms of a stroke.
He has lived in the home, mostly alone, since 1964, when he and his second wife, a Las Vegas showgirl, divorced. Most of his relatives, with the exception of two older sisters, have died. “My listeners,” he said, “they are like a family.”
Regular Laboe listeners include middle-age mothers and high-ranking politicians in the state Capitol. His fans identify with the melodramatic songs he plays the way Tennesseans identify with country music. Some callers express themselves in Laboe-isms, parroting the lyrical verses heard on the oldies show.
I want to tell him to ‘Smile now, cry later’ because ‘I will always be there for you.’
State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) remembers cruising through Boyle Heights with Antonio Villar (later Villaraigosa) in the future mayor’s canary yellow 1964 Chevy, bumping Laboe’s music. It was the early 1970s, and Laboe was everyone’s favorite uncle in the neighborhood, he said.
“There was no place else to be,” Cedillo said, “but right there, listening to his music.”
The crowd roars as Laboe steps onstage.
“We love you, Art!” young women yell in unison from their seats.
“You’re the man!” the men holler.
It is the last hour of the Art Laboe Show LIVE concert in San Bernardino in September, and about 13,000 people, nearly all of them Latinos, are packed into the San Manuel Amphitheater.
Tattooed teenagers in baggy clothes sway in their seats alongside grandparents and children. Many slow-dance in the aisles and sing out loud as Evelyn “Champagne” King, the Manhattans and other acts perform songs that Laboe has helped keep alive.
The disc jockey emerges from backstage to introduce the last act. He is in his sixth suit of the evening, a gold polyester number that shimmers under red and yellow lights. He looks out into the audience and blows kisses.
“What a night! And it’s not over yet. Wait till you see what we have coming up next.”
Many of his fans, seeing his enthusiasm and hearing his vibrant voice, would never imagine the man on stage is almost 85.
“What is he?” asks a 16-year-old concertgoer. “I think 54. Or 63? . . . 61?”
No matter his age, Laboe has no plans to quit any time soon. He wants to syndicate his show in more states, enter the Radio Hall of Fame and learn how to use Twitter.
Yet radio is not the draw it once was. The recording studio he bought in the early 1960s no longer makes a profit and is up for sale. Some nights, a tired Laboe heads out early, leaving recorded dedications for his producer to read on the air.
Still, if the end of the Art Laboe era is approaching, his fans don’t see it. Or don’t want to believe it.
“I know he won’t live forever,” said Estella “Proxie” Aguirre, 67, a listener since the 1950s. “But I get a lump in my throat just talking about it. I love him like I love my husband, except Art Laboe and I never argue.”
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