Art Laboe, The Original Oldie But Goodie

Happy 95th birthday to a man who not only is a Guinness World Record holder for broadcasting, he literally saved an entire era of music by people of color from being whitewashed and became an icon of Southern California Hispanic culture. #oldies #oldiesbutgoodies #lowrider #chicano #rhythmnadblues #rockandroll #doowop #crusing

There are a great many people who have written about music history, specifically the original Rock and Roll era, and tell you that it began with Elvis. After the former truck driver from Tupelo went into the Army in 1958, Rock and Roll was considered “dead”, and really didn’t gain any serious cache until the arrival of The Beatles in the U.S. in 1964. These same people, many of them cisgender, straight white men, will also tell you there were no Rock and Roll bands prior to The Beatles, either.

Sadly, any even cursory glance at the influences of these two truly iconic artists bears witness to the truth: both acts have repeatedly stated just how important early Rock and Roll acts were to their mega-careers. I have always know better, and as the years have gone by, a small, but vocal group of historians attempt to teach about Rock and Roll’s Black origins, only to be dismissed, because these artists weren’t “Rock and Roll” enough in their worldview.

Art Laboe, October 2018, at KDAY studios. Photo by Russell Contreras, courtesy of the AP.

I have always stated how fortunate I believe I am to have been born in Los Angels in 1968, with all of my formative years spent there through 1986. Mind you, we were incredibly poor, my parents were in and out of jail, we were sometimes homeless and lived in some of the roughest but most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the county, especially Wilmington, the harbor area of the city of angels. These places were alternately called the ghetto or barrio by white, middle and upper-class snobs, places that weren’t redlined by the racist white establishment. It was simply home to us.

I was exposed to cultures many would not even know existed because they weren’t the stereotypical El Lay lifestyles represented, so in a sense, it was almost like a secret. This was reflected in broadcast media of the area, especially on the airwaves. We often didn’t have a television, just like many economically disadvantaged people, but everyone had a radio.

Barbara Lynn, 1963. Photographer unknown.

And we had something incredibly special: We had Art Laboe. Rarely mentioned in the same breath as other legendary DJ’s like Alan Freed or Murray The K, Laboe has been broadcasting for 77 years, and holds a world record unlikely to be beaten any time soon for this achievement.

Laboe, of Armenian descent, was born Arthur Egnoian in Salt Lake City, Utah, and moved to Los Angeles in the 1940’s. He attended college there and received a degree in radio broadcasting. He joined the Navy during the Second World War and worked as a radio telegraph operator, broadcasting to ships at sea. During this time, he also took a job at KSAN, playing Jazz, Swing and Big Band music on the legendary San Francisco radio station, where we would take requests from listeners, reading them live on air, a tradition he continues to this day.

“Hello? I want to dedicate this to my dad that’s in Lancaster (prison) and I miss him tonight…”

TEENAGER CALLER TO THE ART LABOE CONNECTIONS’S REQUEST LINE, 2018

He moved back to L.A., continuing to work as a DJ. And then Rock and Roll happened. He was the very first DJ to play this new type of teen-centric music on the West Coast, as many would not broadcast it, because it was almost completely Black artists on independent labels. These teenagers, who now make up the Baby Boomer generation, caught on to the new music in a very big way, much to the dismay of their parents. If you think that the way the local townsfolk in the film Footloose in 1984 were ridiculous for not allowing dance music in their town, it was literally 100 times worse all over the country, due in no small part to racism. This included so-called laid back, liberal Los Angeles.

The original Oldies but Goodies album, 1959. Courtesy of Original Sound. Later copies would be printed with yellow letters, positioned on the left, with the red starburst on the right.

Laboe attempted to get a permit to hold a local weekly dance for the kids. The Los Angeles Board of Education banned all Rock and Roll dances in city limits during the mid-to-late 1950’s. (I can’t even make this up.) Undaunted, he went to the suburb of El Monte, hosting not only the county’s first ever Rock and Roll dances and live concerts, they were also the first in the city to be integrated, with Black, white and Hispanic attendees.

When the initial wave of Rock and Roll waned in the public interest, so did the careers of many of its purveyors and its dominance on Pop radio. Believing that people still wanted to hear this music, he formed his own record company, Original Sound, to release a first of its kind compilation of these tracks. Many of the artists were people of color, on independent labels and ignored by pretty much everyone in the industry. The resulting album, Oldies But Goodies, a term Laboe himself coined, was released in 1959. Against all odds, the album climbed to number 12 nationally, spent 3 and a half years on the Billboard LP charts and spawned literally, and I mean literally, at least a thousand imitators.

The Dells, 1961. Photo courtesy of Marv Johnson.

As time went on, Laboe mixed newer hits with oldies, something he still again does to this day. His legendary time as 1110 AM KRLA also connected him to Chicano/a culture in Los Angeles, peoples of Mexican descent that also at the time called them selves pachuco/a or chollo/a (who also made up the Low Rider car culture), with Hispanic, Latino or Latinx being the modern name variations of this group. When KRLA went all-oldies in the mid-1980’s, the station’s most die-hard supporters were this demographic, and his nightly Dedication show, where listeners would call in, were often filled with messages not only to and for Hispanic listeners, he also encouraged those with family members who were incarcerated to send messages to their loved ones, as I once did. This is still a tradition also continued to this day.

Something else he also continues to this day: staging annual concerts featuring many of the great artists of the original Rock and Roll era and beyond, often drawing massive crowds numbering ten thousand or more.

Rosalie “Rosie” Méndez Hamlin, lead singer of Rosie and The Originals, 1961. Photo courtesy of Debbie, Joey, and John Hamlin.

Laboe will turn 95 this week on August 7th, and broadcasts the Art Laboe Connection throughout California and the Southwest on Sunday evenings. Maybe you have never heard of him, but believe me, without him, a major part of music history would have been forgotten forever.

First Part

  • Night Owl, 1955, Tony Allen
  • Happy, Happy Birthday Baby, 1957, The Tune Weavers
  • Sincerely, 1954, The Moonglows
  • Oh, How It Hurts, 1967, Barbara Mason
  • Tears On My Pillow, 1958, Little Anthony and The Imperials
  • Eddie My Love, 1956, The Teen Queens
  • Donna, 1958, Ritchie Valens
  • Daddy’s Home, 1961, Shep and The Limelites
  • Gee, What A Guy, 1963, Yvonne Carroll and The Roulettes

Second Part

  • So Fine, 1959, The Fiestas
  • It’s Gonna Take A Miracle, 1965, The Royalettes
  • I Do Love You, 1965, Billy Stewart
  • Angel Baby, 1960, Rosie and The Originals
  • I’m Your Puppet, 1966, James and Bobby Purify
  • Maybe, 1957, The Chantels
  • You’ll Lose A Good Thing, 1962, Barbara Lynn
  • Oh, What A Night, 1956, The Dells
  • Goodnight My Love, 1959, Jessie Belvin

Finale

  • Memories Of El Monte, 1963, The Penguins featuring Cleve Duncun

Love to you all.

Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr. 
Host, Show Producer, Webmaster, Audio Engineer, Researcher, Video Promo Producer and Writer

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