Latinos Love Laboe
An interview with radio legend Art Laboe
Gabriel San Roman
As someone who has played a lot of number one songs over the course of decades, Los Angeles radio icon Art Laboe has pioneered a lot of 'firsts' himself. He has hosted the number one radio program various times throughout his career, was one of the first to format diverse cross-over programming as well as innovatively release compilation albums and concerts.
Published on LatinoLA: February 8, 2008
Laboe's most recent successes stem from his current radio program, "The Art Laboe Sunday Special," in addition to being heard five nights a week on Hot 92.3 Los Angeles. And it's no secret that among the most loyal of his fans, in the past and in the present, have been Latinos.
My mother recounts listening to Art Laboe as a teenager in El Paso and I tune in almost every night as I iron my clothes for the next working day.
I spoke with Art Laboe about his cross generational relationship with Latinos and about his career in radio from the offices of his famous Original Sound Record Company.
LatinoLA: As one of the first radio hosts to play black and Latino artists alongside music from white artists, was the inclusiveness of your playlist a very conscious act? Or was it simply about good music? Or a combination of both?
Art Laboe: If you're talking about the 50's, which is when I started, I played a lot of R&B in those days, people like Jackie Wilson, and Latino artists back then like Little Julian Herrera and others. It just depended on what people wanted because the kids kind of liked everything. They still do today if you look at the playlists. You'll see Alicia Keys on there and yet you'll see T-Pain and all the others like Bow Wow and they ask for both on my show because I have ratings with teens and also with the older demographics. The older people like the older love songs, and the kids still like some of the rap music and now Latin Hip Hop. It's a mixture and I think it crosses over if you're careful so that you don't play something that turns a certain part of the audience off. I try to play songs that maybe this person doesn't like as well as they like the next song, but they're not going to turn away on it. In other words, it's anti-niche programming. It's cross-over programming.
LatinoLA: But in the 1950's, was that diverse cross-over format in any way controversial given the climate of the time? Was it controversial with any Program Directors?
Art Laboe: If you look at the Billboard charts in those days, you'll see everybody on there. You'll see Les Paul, and Mary Ford. You'll see Joe Staford, Jerry Lee Lewis and you'll even see Elvis. They're all on the charts; Doris Day, Don Cherry, and ballad singers that are coming from the late 40's. Big Bands even, Jimmy Dorsey, and some of those people are on there. The Billboards charts reflect that. I have a Billboard chart book where you see people on there from almost every genre. In those days though there weren't too many Latino artists that were real big, but there were some that came through like Lalo Guerrero and a few people like that. Perez Prado, who was Latino - and I was an announcer on his TV show back in 1958 - had songs that were very big. There were some Latino artists in there but not young Latino artists so much, but a lot of them did cross over into pop, even then.
LatinoLA: Speaking of one Latino artist who was young and broke through in the 1950's, are there any personal recollections of Ritchie Valens that you would like to share?
Art Laboe: I knew Ritchie when he was 17. He was going to high school in Pacoima. He did his first shows for me at El Monte Legion Stadium when he first came out with his early stuff. Donna Ludwig, the girl he wrote the song "Donna" for, used to come to my dances in El Monte with Ritchie. When the movie La Bamba came out, it showed a lot of people that there was Latino music in the 50's. He was the first one that broke through when "Donna" went to number one across the country crossing all the lines. A little interesting story; in the early days when he did a lot of stuff with me, his mother Connie called at the El Monte Legion Stadium and she got me on the phone. Somebody said to me, "Ritchie's mother is on the phone," so I had to clear out to the box office wondering what she wanted that was so important. She says to me, "You tell Ritchie to come right home and don't chase those girls." I go backstage and I say, "Ritchie, I talked to your mother. She called. I've got a message for you. Go right home. Don't chase those girls." He broke out laughing. He thought that was real funny and of course, he didn't go right home!
LatinoLA: In 2004, the National Hispanic Media Coalition honored you with a lifetime achievement award. Did you have a big listener base with Latinos when you started your career? Or was that a relationship built over time?
Art Laboe: It started in the 50's and I didn't really know that I had that big of a following in East LA, but I started doing shows at El Monte Legion Stadium. In those days, teenagers couldn't go to public dances if they were under the age of 18 in Los Angeles, but they could in El Monte. A lot of times kids came over to El Monte to my dances. They came from everywhere; Beverly Hill, South Gate, Hollywood, the Valley, and of course a lot from East LA. That's where that started. It goes way back to the 1950's when I did some dances that were called "Oldies but Goodies" dances. Before there were "Oldies but Goodies," albums, there were "Oldies but Goodies" dances that I put on in '57 and '58. The first "Oldies but Goodies" album came out in 1959. That relationship started way back and has continued on. Now I play to sometimes two and three generations of Latinos, mostly of Mexican decent, who follow me. Sometimes I'll talk to someone on the air that's a teenager, and they'll say, "My mom wants to talk to you," and I'll talk to the mom. And sometimes they'll say, "Grandma wants to talk to you!" They all remember, and they still listen because I still play some songs from that era although I don't play a whole lot from the 50's, but I still do play songs like "Pledging my Love" by Johnny Ace.
LatinoLA: You have also founded the "Art Laboe Foundation." What does that foundation do? When did it start and why did you start it?
Art Laboe: In 1980, I had a good year. I made a good amount of money in the record business and also in the radio business. I started the Art Laboe Foundation to give back. Since then, I've given quite a few scholarships. We started the foundation in 1980,. We're now giving away, just in Los Angeles to Lincoln, Garfield, Roosevelt, and Wilson, over $100,000 dollars in scholarships. We continue to do that every year. We also give away scholarships in Fresno, Arizona and Hollywood. Also, there's an Art Laboe pet food bank in Hollywood where people who have AIDS or are sick and who have animals and can't afford food, they can go there and get free food for their pets. That's indiscriminate for anyone that is in need. I have leaned, in my scholarships, toward Latino schools, the ones that have a lot of Latino kids, because they have always followed me. I have a file of thank you letters from young people that have earned scholarships. Every year we do 8 scholarships in Southern California. The National Hispanic Media Coalition didn't award me just for that. When I talked to them, they asked me to mention the foundation, because they weren't really aware of that. We don't make a lot of noise about it usually. Mainly they gave me that award - which was unusual because they usually go to Latinos - for being there in that community for over 50 years doing things in it. It was for a whole series of things that they felt that I should get that award. I've been there as a presenter to other people that have gotten awards. I'm almost there every year.
LatinoLA: As someone who is credited for coining the term "oldie but goodie" when does an oldie become a goodie? When did the contemporary music you played at the beginning of your career in broadcasting transform into oldies?
Art Laboe: That happened in the summer of 1956 at a drive-in in Los Angeles called Scrivners. I did a program from there in the afternoon from 3-6 and I played all current songs. In those days, the big songs would have been probably Big Joe Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. I used to get a few requests for songs that were three or four years old. For someone that's 16 or 17, two or three years in their life is a long time ago because they don't start living their social life at age one. They started living their social life in those days, maybe at 11 or 12 and that was half of their lifetime. It didn't have to be very old to be an old one. They'd say, "The old songs are the good songs so play one of those old songs that's real good." At the bottom of the list, I started making a list of those called "Oldies but Goodies." That list would only have three or four songs on it like "Pledging My Love." Kids started requesting more and more of the older ones so that list got longer because so many people wanted them.
LatinoLA: Having worked in radio over the course of many decades, what changes have you seen in this medium of mass communication?
Art Laboe: The music is considerably different because as time wears on, a lot of the songs I play now, that we call oldies, are from the 70's, 80's and even 90's. I'm a believer in that because of the history of the program. An oldie doesn't have to be that old. It doesn't have to be from the 50's because someone that's 40 years old remembers something twenty years ago from the 80's and that's an oldie! Something like "Reunited," came out in 1980. That was like an oldie the day it came out. Some songs have that sound, that the day they come out, they're going to be there for a long time and you just know that. Nowadays, I call most of what we do "Killer Oldies," rather than "Oldies but Goodies," because "Oldies but Goodies," became your dad's music. The young kids like their own thing. The older people don't seem to care whether I call them oldies or killer oldies. The young kids like the idea that these are not just the regular oldies, these are killers! And there's a lot of Latino artists now that are doing well. Baby Bash, he's Latino and comes from Fresno. There are other young Latinos that are very successful, both not only in music but in media. The National Hispanic Media Coalition has been real instrumental in getting Latinos into the media.
After all these decades, and achievements, what keeps you doing radio? What keeps you setting up and promoting concerts? What's the inner inspiration?
It's been a circle. For a number of years, I wasn't on the radio, not very much, in the period of the 80's. From 1980 - 1990, I wasn't real active in radio. One of things is that I started in radio when I was very young, only 17 years old, so I loved radio. In those days, there was no television and there was no FM. There was only radio, movies and the stage. Radio was like television is today. It was the glamour business. I wanted to be in that business and I was able to get in it mostly because I was a radio engineer when I started. I was going to Stanford University and studying radar engineering to go into the service. That's how I got my first job, because I had an FCC license. They needed it at KSAN in San Francisco. The inspiration is it's still great to do radio the way I do it because I'm communicating with people on a one-to-one basis and to me that's what radio is about. The ratings reflect that. I have huge ratings almost everywhere I am. I'm number one whenever I'm on. We wipe out all the competition and that means all of it. I must be doing something right there. And just being there all that time helps, but that's not the whole thing because there's a lot of people that were there that are either retired, or quit, or have gone on to the big rock n' roll show in the sky, I've just outlasted a lot of people. But I don't think that in itself will get you ratings today. Everyone wants to know if you're worth listening to now. What keeps me going, to answer the question, is the love of the fans and my love for them. I think that comes through. They tell me it does.
For more information about Art Laboe's radio program and upcoming Valentine Super Love Jam concert series, please visit www.killeroldies.com and www.artlaboe.com
Gabriel San Roman:
Gabriel San Roman is a writer and radio producer. He blogs sleeplessly at mimisdeprived.wordpress.com