For more than 50 years, Art Laboe’s deep, soothing voice has been as cherished among Latinos in the Southwest as Chick Hearn's rapid-fire staccato once was among Lakers fans. Six nights a week inside a dimly lighted Hollywood studio, Laboe sits before his microphone, faithful to his old-fashioned format: playing sentimental oldies and taking dedications.
The disc jockey helps listeners 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 hit 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.
He has lived in his Hollywood Hills 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."