Art Laboe, DJ who popularized ‘Oldies but Goodies,’ dies at 97
By Neil Genzlinger and Annabelle Williams
Art Laboe, the disc jockey who as a mainstay of the West Coast airwaves for decades bridged racial divides through his music selections and live shows, reached listeners in a new way by allowing on-air dedications and helped make the phrase “oldies but goodies” ubiquitous, died Friday at his home in Palm Springs, California. He was 97.
An announcement on his Facebook page said the cause was pneumonia.
Laboe worked in radio for almost 80 years. In 1973, The San Francisco Examiner was already calling him the “dean of Los Angeles rock ’n’ roll broadcasting,” and he would be on the air for almost a half-century more after that.
He started in the business as a teenager during World War II, working at a San Francisco station, KSAN, before gravitating to KPMO in Pomona and KCMJ in Palm Springs. The idea of a disc jockey with a distinctive personality had not yet become the norm in radio — at KCMJ, a CBS affiliate, he was mostly an announcer doing station identifications and such between radio soap operas — but for an hour late at night he was allowed to play music.
He featured big bands, crooners and other sounds of the day. But as tastes changed, his selections changed, and sometimes he was at the front edge of the evolution. In 1954, by then working in Los Angeles, Laboe “was largely responsible for making the Chords’ ‘Sh-Boom’ (sometimes cited as the first rock ’n’ roll record) an L.A. No. 1,” Barney Hoskyns wrote in “Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes, and the Sound of Los Angeles” (1996).
He also saw the appeal of “oldies” practically before they were old. Around 1949 he had started working at KRKD in Los Angeles, selling advertising by day and playing music in the wee hours. He thought an all-night restaurant, Scrivener’s Drive-In, might be interested in advertising on his all-night show, so he paid a visit and sold the owner, Paul Scrivener, some spots. A few months later, Scrivener made a suggestion.
“‘You know, that show’s pretty good,’” Laboe, in a 2016 interview with The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, recalled Scrivener saying. “‘Why couldn’t you do that show from my drive-in?’ So I did.’”
He would broadcast from the restaurant (he moved to KLXA and then KPOP in this period), stopping by cars and asking the occupants to pick a song from a list.
“At the bottom of the list,” The San Francisco Examiner wrote in 1973, “were a half a dozen ‘oldies’ titles — songs at that time no more than three years old — and when this portion of the list began to show the heaviest action, Laboe wondered if there might be something to this.”
He had already formed his own record label, Original Sound, and in 1959 it issued “Oldies but Goodies, Vol. 1,” a compilation album — a relatively new concept — that included “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins, “Earth Angel” by the Penguins and 10 other songs that, although they’d been on the singles charts only a few years earlier, had already begun to acquire a nostalgic feel. The album stayed on the Billboard chart for more than three years, and many more volumes followed.
Early in his career Laboe began taking requests on the air, allowing listeners to dedicate a song to a friend, love interest or other special person. It became one of his signatures; few if any other disc jockeys were doing that in his early days. Some callers would dedicate a song to a loved one who was incarcerated. And early on, Laboe welcomed Black and Mexican callers, a barrier-breaking thing to do at the time.
In the 1950s, Laboe also began producing and serving as emcee at live music shows at the American Legion Stadium in El Monte, a blue-collar city east of Los Angeles, that were known for the racially diverse crowd they attracted. The Penguins, Ritchie Valens and countless other acts performed at the El Monte shows.
“Friday and Saturday night rhythm-and-blues dances at the El Monte Legion Stadium drew up to 2,000 Black, white, Asian American and Mexican American teenagers from all over Los Angeles city and county, becoming an alternative cultural institution from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s,” scholar Anthony Macias wrote in American Quarterly in 2004.
Laboe was still producing live shows into his 90s. “If you come to one of our concerts,” he told KQED in 2019, “you’ll see a mixture, a complete mixture, of what we have in California.”
He was also still on the radio, on the syndicated “Art Laboe Connection,” after having logged time at assorted stations.
Arthur Egonian was born on Aug. 7, 1925, in Salt Lake City to a family of Armenian immigrants. His obsession with radio began at a young age: His sister gave him his first radio for his 8th birthday. In a 2020 interview with The Press-Enterprise, he recalled being amazed by the “box that talks.” That experience sparked his interest in the nascent radio scene.
He attended George Washington High School in Los Angeles and studied engineering for a time at Stanford University.
He was hired at KSAN while still a teenager; his voice, he said, had not yet acquired the timbre that became his calling card.
“The very first words I uttered on radio myself, I said, ‘This is K-S-A-N San Francisco,’ and it was in 1943,” he said.
The station manager suggested he Americanize his name, and he is said to have taken “Laboe” from the name of a secretary there. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he moved to Southern California, which became his home base.