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At 84, Art Laboe's an oldie but still a goodie

After more than 50 years on the radio, the disc jockey is still going strong, playing sentimental songs and making dedications. His deep, soothing voice is cherished by his Latino listeners.

November 12, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez

The disc jockey smiles when he hears Juanita Santos' raspy voice.

"Art," she says from her small town near Fresno, "I want you to tell my husband, Juanito, 'You're my Chicano king. I'm your booty- licious. I can't live without you. I'll never let you go.' And I want you to blow him a big kiss for me and play 'You're My Shining Star.' "

"OK, Juanita. Here goes that kiss. . . . Muaah!"

Phone lines flash six nights a week inside a dimly lit Hollywood studio where Art Laboe sits before his microphone, faithful to his old-fashioned format: playing sentimental oldies and taking dedications. For more than 50 years, his deep, soothing voice has been as cherished among Latinos in the Southwest as Chick Hearn's rapid-fire staccato once was among Lakers fans.

Listeners with nicknames such as Mr. Porky, Lil' Crazy, Big Papi, Bullet, Bugsy and Payasa call in from Oxnard, Riverside and Boyle Heights; from Phoenix, Albuquerque and Nevada. They are lonely women, rueful men, rapt lovers, entire families with squeaky-voiced children who ask Laboe to wish their grandmothers good night.

The 84-year-old disc jockey helps them celebrate anniversaries, mourn their dead and profess their love. He is the intermediary who reconciles arguments, encourages couples to be affectionate, sends out birthday wishes and thank yous.

His program, which is especially popular among listeners 25 to 54 years old, has consistently ranked near the top of its evening time slot, according to the ratings firm Arbitron. The Art Laboe Connection plays in more than a dozen cities in four states and draws about a million listeners a week.

"His show was the first place a young Chicano kid had to air his feelings, the first place you could say something and be heard," said Ruben Molina, author of two books on Chicano music and American culture. "It was like an intercom where you could tell the world -- our world -- 'I'm sorry' or 'I love so-and-so' and everyone knew the next day."

Messages arrive by phone, a few by mail. Sometimes Laboe reads them on the air:

(italics) Her name is Ana Ivette Vasquez and I want to let her know that I'm really sorry for doing her wrong, for all the tears she dropped and pain I put her through. I want to dedicate you this song from deep down in my heart: "I Need Love." (end italics)

Other times he plays the recorded voices of listeners, who speak to him as to an old friend, often in a broken English laced with gangster slang.

(italics) I want to hear "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" for all the firme homies from Orange County, from their homie Dreamer. I want to tell them to keep their head up and stay strong. (end italics)

"He is more Chicano than some Chicanos," said comedian Paul Rodriguez, who grew up listening to Laboe. "And everyone from the toughest vato to the wimpiest guy would say the same."


Laboe eases into his leather chair just before the 7 p.m. start of his broadcast on HOT 92.3 FM. Tea and cough medicine are within reach. His producer, Tom Peniston, sits across a radio mixing board, munching on a sandwich.

The light blinks with the evening's first call:

(italics) This dedication is to Marcela Baca. I wish the family would just stop fighting. I wish we could all get along. This is Alex in Phoenix, Arizona. . . . .I want to play that song "So" by War. (end italics)

Laboe comes to life on the microphone. He'll prod a shy caller to declare his feelings. He'll blush when another gushes, "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm really talking to you!"

He observes rules that he says keep him in business: Never flirt with a woman or call her "baby" or "honey" because it drives away male callers. Never ask if a caller is in prison -- it's not polite. Some in his audience have come to speak in a sort of code, referring to cities that hint that their loved one is incarcerated.

(italics) I want to dedicate "The Ship Won't Sail Without You" to my husband, Big, in Chino from Roxanne. I love you and I'll be up that way tomorrow. (end italics)

Most important, the disc jockey never judges his listeners.

"Here's somebody . . . . who might feel that what they have going on is of little importance in life," Laboe said. "And now they come on the radio and their voice goes out to the whole world."

Laboe, just over 5 feet tall, has bulging eyes, bushy brows and a prominent nose. As a boy, he always was the loner, the Armenian kid other students barely noticed, especially girls.

Drawn by the anonymity of radio, Laboe started his own amateur station in 1938 out of his bedroom in South Los Angeles. He was 13. Back then, he was Art Egnoian and he had recently moved to California from Utah to live with his sister.

"The radio opened up new doors for a guy who wasn't a big, good-looking hunk," he said.

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