If you’re reaching for a comparison, you could call him the Vin Scully of radio deejays. Because Art Laboe has been playin’ the oldies since back when they — and he — weren’t even old. He was 18, and in the Navy, when he took the microphone at a San Francisco radio station almost 75 years ago. His shows helped to put early rock ’n’ roll on the nation’s playlists. His Latino listeners lionize him; he just rolled through East L.A. as “legendary marshal” of its Christmas parade.
That a 92-year-old guy still airs listeners’ dedications and plays their songs six nights a week across California and part of the West is a testament to knowing how to ride the roller coaster of radio wavelengths and radio trends, from the days when music came out of radios as big as air conditioners, to now, when the Top 40 — heck, the Top 40,000 — can play from your pocket.
How did you get hooked on radio?
I was switched on to radio when I was 8 or 9 years old, when my sister gave the family a little radio, and I used to sit and stare into the speaker cloth for hours. My mother couldn’t drag me away. And I thought, what a thing this is — here’s this box talking. It just mesmerized me, listening to it day and night. I’d listen to soap operas, listen to big bands at night.
I dreamed of being on a network, to be able to come on the air and say, “This is CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting System.” That dream actually came true about 1948, when I was with KOLO in Reno.
And when did you discover rock and roll?
I guess that would have to be about 1949, maybe. But rock and roll, what we know as rock and roll, really didn’t happen until the ’50s. It was rhythm and blues before that — R&B became rock and roll. The audience that I gathered quickly in the ’50s when the war was over and I came back to Los Angeles — it was a whole new thing.
Elvis was the big rush at that point, and I wanted to be in on it. I came up with this idea for a program called “Drive-In Restaurant,” which there were a lot of in California at that point.
You broadcast from a drive-in called Scrivner's, at the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga.
I was a pretty good salesman and I would go out and try to get people to buy radio time. And if I did, I would be able to maybe have a show, from midnight to three.
But then, right around 1955, maybe ’54, the drive-in man, Paul Scrivner — he had a chain of drive-ins — said, “Well, I’m buying all this time from you, why can’t you do the show out here in the afternoons?”
And it hit me like a lightning bolt: Why not? A lot of the kids are staying up late to hear some of the rock and roll and big bands. They liked all kinds of music, anything that was new and different. And then this Elvis stuff just grabbed ’em by the collar.
So we decided to try it out. We put this thing on the air when Elvis was in his prime, doing “Hound Dog” and all of those songs. I even got Elvis to come to the drive-in once.
He wouldn’t go on the air, though. But he came over. He had Natalie Wood with him, and I thought, wow this is great! So I just said that Elvis was there, and it looked like a traffic jam in about 10 minutes. He didn’t want to talk so I didn’t talk to him. I just decided to play a song for Natalie Wood.
That phrase “oldies but goodies” — you trademarked that, right?
Yeah, we trademarked I think around 1959 or ’60. I went into the record business and that was one of my primary projects, the “oldies but goodies” album series. And that started my record company.
Did that make you more money than being on the radio?
A lot more! These were compilations and they’d never been done before, of different artists on one album. I’d lease these songs from various record companies and combine them with different artists on one album, like 12 songs, six on each side. I heard that Mitch Miller, who was president of A&R [artists and repertoire] at CBS, had one in his hand, and he looked down at it and said, “What an idea!”
Your Latino fan base is huge. When your show was canceled in 2015, there was a big outcry, especially from those Latino listeners, and that helped to get you back on the air. Those listeners think of you almost as a member of the family.
They do, to this day. I sometimes have three generations of Latinos listening to me.
Some of those listeners, let alone their parents, weren’t even born when that ’50s music originated. What’s the appeal?
We play a song, the song connects to you personally. When you have the focus groups and [radio stations] are trying to figure out what songs to play from the past, a group comes in and they give them a little button and they decide what they like, and then a lot of stations program that way. The reason mine works so well is I have a focus group every night.
I have people answering the phones. And [listeners] can ask for songs on Facebook. They can tweet [requests] — all of the social media. We have people answering [listener] letters, especially so that people who are incarcerated get a chance to listen to the radio at night and hear their dedication to their wife at home.
I want to ask you about ways the music industry has changed. In the ’50s there was the “pay-to-play” payola scandal, which took down the famous East Coast DJ Alan Freed.
Taking money to play records was basically wrong, and so the stations fired all those people who were doing that.
Alan Freed was a friend of mine when he came here [after he was fired]. I helped him get a job. He was on KDAY for a while, the old KDAY, but then he went to a couple of outlying places. He never caught on out this way. Just didn’t happen for him.
Jimmy Webb, who I talked with earlier this year, told me that musicians used to joke that one day people would carry around whole albums’ worth of music in their pockets. The technology now is astonishing; you don’t really need a radio station any more.
No, you don’t, and that’s why I think the radio business is kind of sinking.
Does it need to be personalized? Would that help to save it?
I can’t give you a big yes or no. That’s part of what makes my success, is the intimacy. The intimacy between the radio listener and the radio station can project itself as personal.
It’s a whole different ballgame than it was. I will have been on commercial radio for 75 years in September, when I started at KSAN in 1943. KSAN was an AFRA station, American Federation of Radio Artists, and in order to go on the air, I had to join AFRA. On my card, it says “member since 1943.”
Yours must be card number, what, 11?
I don’t know, but it’s funny — my card has four or five zeroes in front of it!
You and radio have grown up together. What do you wish your 90-something self could tell your 20-something self?
I’ve found out in my years of radio you can’t predict the future. Who would ever have predicted the Beatles would become as big as they are? Creating a style of music, a different style — like rap music, for instance. It came along, and it was completely different. It broke through. That’s happened through the years: If somebody’s got something really worth hearing for whatever reason it is, [listeners] will come back to it if that’s the only place they can get it.
Look at Taylor Swift. She’s a great artist, and she broke through because she’s talented and she can write and everything. She sings, “You belong with me” — that’s potent, because it’s probably happened to many people. They look at somebody, and somebody else is walking down the street with them, and that’s an emotion that you know. Bingo, it’s the bulls-eye.
I’ve loved radio all my life and I still do, and I think there’s a place for it. The way it’s delivered may change, because it doesn’t have to be terrestrial radio. Most terrestrial radio stations are having a rough time.
[Anyone] could go on the air with your own show. You could get yourself an internet site and bang away on whatever you want to play. If it’s something special and pretty interesting and nobody else is doing it, I think you’ve got a good chance to break through.
Do you have an all-time favorite song?
There’s a song I once owned by the Skyliners called “Since I Don’t Have You.” An oldie but goodie is something you listened to when you were in high school, or maybe the early years of college, and it will ring a bell right away. And then you put it on the air. Kind of foolproof, you know?