At 93, this DJ keeps spin­ning oldies to link inmates, fam­i­lies

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Rus­sell Contreras As­so­ci­ated Press

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — It’s ap­proach­ing 9 p.m. and Art Laboe ad­justs the mi­cro­phone as Sis­ter Sledge’s “We Are Fam­ily” ends.

“And now it’s time for you to call up for those good­night ded­i­ca­tions,” Laboe an­nounces.

“Hello?” a young girl says. “I want to ded­i­cate this to my dad that’s in Lan­caster (prison) and I miss tonight I just want to say, Dad, I love you no mat­ter where you go.” She dis­solves into tears.

The 93-year-old DJ based in Palm Springs cred­its one group of lis­ten­ers for keep­ing him on the air af­ter 75 years: fam­ily mem­bers who want to send mes­sages to loved ones in prison.

Ev­ery Sun­day on his syn­di­cated show “The Art Laboe Con­nec­tion Show,” his bari­tone voice calls on fam­ily mem­bers to speak di­rectly to inmates in Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona or Ne­vada. Some­times, Laboe reads parts of let­ters writ­ten by inmates.

It’s a role Laboe says he feels hon­ored to play.

“I don’t judge,” Laboe said at his Palm Springs stu­dio. “I like peo­ple.”

He of­ten tells a story about a woman who came by the stu­dio so her tod­dler could tell her fa­ther, who was serv­ing time for a vi­o­lent crime, “Daddy, I love you.”

“It was the first time he had heard his baby’s voice,” Laboe said. “And this tough, hard-nosed guy burst into tears.”

Born Arthur Eg­noian in Salt Lake City to an Ar­me­nian-Amer­i­can fam­ily, Laboe grew up dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion in a Mor­mon house­hold run by a sin­gle mom. His sis­ter sent him his first ra­dio when he was 8 years old. The voices and sto­ries that came from it en­veloped him.

“And I haven’t let go since,” Laboe said.

He moved to Cal­i­for­nia, at­tended Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and served in the Navy dur­ing World War II. Even­tu­ally, he landed a job as a ra­dio an­nouncer at KSAN in San Fran­cisco and adopted the name Art Laboe af­ter a boss sug­gested he take the last name of a sec­re­tary to sound more Amer­i­can.

But it was when Laboe worked as a DJ for KXLA in Los An­ge­les that he gained fame.

Laboe was one of the first DJs to play R&B and rock ’n’ roll in Cal­i­for­nia and is cred­ited by schol­ars for help­ing in­te­grate dance halls among Lati­nos, blacks, Asian-Amer­i­cans and whites who were drawn to his mul­ti­cul­tural mu­si­cal line up.

By 1956, Laboe’s af­ter­noon show be­came the city’s top ra­dio pro­gram.

Over the decades, Laboe main­tained a fan base, es­pe­cially among Mex­i­canAmer­i­cans who fol­lowed him from sta­tion to sta­tion. He started get­ting calls from inmates’ fam­ily mem­bers in the 1990s on his syn­di­cated oldies show. Cur­rent and former gang mem­bers were some of his most loyal fans.

“Here is some­one who gave a voice to the most hum­ble of us all through mu­sic,” said Lalo Al­caraz, a syn­di­cated car­toon­ist and tele­vi­sion writer who grew up lis­ten­ing to Laboe in San Diego. “He brought us to­gether. That’s why we sought him out.”

Over the years, the syn­di­cated show on Sun­day has aired in Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada, Ari­zona and New Mex­ico.

In 2015, iHeartMe­dia’s KHHT-FM (92.3) dropped Laboe’s syn­di­cated oldies show af­ter the sta­tion abruptly switched to a hiphop for­mat, spark­ing an­gry protest in Los An­ge­les.

“With­out Art Laboe, I’m So Lonely I Could Cry,” wrote es­say­ist Adam Vine. Laboe later re­turned to the Los An­ge­les air­waves on an­other sta­tion.

Alex No­gales, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Los An­ge­les-based Na­tional His­panic Me­dia Coali­tion, said gen­er­a­tions of Latino fans still at­tend Laboe-spon­sored con­certs to hear the likes of Smokey Robin­son, The Spin­ners or Sunny & The Sun­lin­ers.

“I see these re­ally tough look­ing guys in the crowd. I mean, they look scary,” No­gales said. “Then Art comes out and they just melt. They love him.”

RUS­SELL CONTRERAS/AP 2018

DJ Art Laboe has a de­voted fol­low­ing among those who give ded­i­ca­tions to loved ones serv­ing time in prison.

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