Art Laboe And His 'Devil Music' Made Radio Magic Laboe, a radio icon in Los Angeles, built a broadcasting career as one of the first DJs to play rock 'n' roll and to take requests live on the air. At 88 years old, he's still drawing listeners in, six nights a week, playing the "Oldies But Goodies" that made him famous.

Art Laboe And His 'Devil Music' Made Radio Magic

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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...


RATH: ...the politics...


UNIDENTIFIED RADIO PERSONALITY: He's the leader of the free world...

RATH: ...jazz...


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


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 Valentine's 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.


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

LABOE: Oh, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: You have a beautiful, handsome voice.

LABOE: (Laughter)

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: You're in the right field.

LABOE: You've got me blushing.


LABOE: Thanks a lot now. We'll play your song for you.



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 5 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. (Laughter) 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 even 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 'n' 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. (Singing) Da-da-da-da, if you're looking for 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.


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 LA. 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.


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

ANDREA: I'm calling from Riverside.


ANDREA: I would like to tell my husband Daniel, who's in Chino, Calif., 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 down 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 'n' 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 LA 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 and Pat Mejia.

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

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


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


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."


KOOL AND 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. Get your back...

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