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

COLUMN ONE

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

After serving in World War II, he did stints at various radio stations and changed his name to Laboe when a general manager said it was catchier. When rock 'n' roll struck in the 1950s, Laboe launched a live broadcast from Scrivners, a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood. Masses of teens crowded around him to request songs and dedications, and his career took off.

He wanted to be a concert promoter, bring in big bands. But the city of Los Angeles banned youths younger than 18 from attending public dances and concerts. So he decided to host shows in El Monte, which attracted teenagers from the Eastside and its growing Mexican American population.

Latinos poured in to see Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis at the now-defunct El Monte Legion Stadium. Laboe played the rhythm-and-blues and doo-wop these youths craved. He compiled his fans' favorite songs on vinyl records, eight-tracks, cassette tapes and ultimately compact discs featuring Mexican American acts. He learned to pronounce Spanish names.

"It was never intentional," Laboe said. "The connection was there and when they came, I welcomed them with open arms."

Laboe became part of the emerging Chicano identity in Los Angeles, his voice and music the soundtrack of lowrider shows and nights spent cruising Whittier Boulevard. He is the only non-Latino selected as grand marshal of the East L.A. Christmas parade and is a favored award recipient among Latino organizations. At their functions, he says, he is often "the only white guy in the room."

These days he descends from his Hollywood Hills home in a black Jaguar and lunches at the Chateau Marmont.

His home decor features a nude portrait of Marilyn Monroe hanging above his bed, made up in pink-and-white sheets. A giant oil painting of his deceased cat, Baby, is the focal point of the living room. Motivational sayings written on Post-It notes (italics) (If you believe in your power to do great things, you will) (end italics) share space on his refrigerator door with doctor's notices detailing the symptoms of a stroke.

He has lived in the home, mostly alone, since 1964, when he and his second wife, a Las Vegas showgirl, divorced. Most of his relatives, with the exception of two older sisters, have died. "My listeners," he said, "they are like a family."

Regular Laboe listeners include middle-age mothers and high-ranking politicians in the state Capitol. His fans identify with the melodramatic songs he plays the way Tennesseans identify with country music. Some callers express themselves in Laboe-isms, parroting the lyrical verses heard on the oldies show.

(italics) I want to tell him to 'Smile now, cry later' because 'I will always be there for you.' (end italics)

State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) remembers cruising through Boyle Heights with Antonio Villar (later Villaraigosa) in the future mayor's canary yellow 1964 Chevy, bumping Laboe's music. It was the early 1970s, and Laboe was everyone's favorite uncle in the neighborhood, he said.

"There was no place else to be," Cedillo said, "but right there, listening to his music."

::

The crowd roars as Laboe steps onstage.

"We love you, Art!" young women yell in unison from their seats.

"You're the man!" the men holler.

It is the last hour of the Art Laboe Show LIVE concert in San Bernardino in September, and about 13,000 people, nearly all of them Latinos, are packed into the San Manuel Amphitheater.

Tattooed teenagers in baggy clothes sway in their seats alongside grandparents and children. Many slow-dance in the aisles and sing out loud as Evelyn "Champagne" King, the Manhattans and other acts perform songs that Laboe has helped keep alive.

The disc jockey emerges from backstage to introduce the last act. He is in his sixth suit of the evening, a gold polyester number that shimmers under red and yellow lights. He looks out into the audience and blows kisses.

"What a night! And it's not over yet. Wait till you see what we have coming up next."

Many of his fans, seeing his enthusiasm and hearing his vibrant voice, would never imagine the man on stage is almost 85.

"What is he?" asks a 16-year-old concertgoer. "I think 54. Or 63? . . . 61?"

No matter his age, Laboe has no plans to quit any time soon. He wants to syndicate his show in more states, enter the Radio Hall of Fame and learn how to use Twitter.

Yet radio is not the draw it once was. The recording studio he bought in the early 1960s no longer makes a profit and is up for sale. Some nights, a tired Laboe heads out early, leaving recorded dedications for his producer to read on the air.

Still, if the end of the Art Laboe era is approaching, his fans don't see it. Or don't want to believe it.

"I know he won't live forever," said Estella "Proxie" Aguirre, 67, a listener since the 1950s. "But I get a lump in my throat just talking about it. I love him like I love my husband, except Art Laboe and I never argue."

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esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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