“The town I live in is lonely. So lonely I could cry.” So goes the refrain from one of Thee Midniters’ hits, and such is the feeling in my heart now that DJ Art Laboe has been taken off the air in Los Angeles because his station changed formats. HOT 92.3, which played old-school R&B, has become REAL 92.3, “LA’s Hip-Hop N’ R&B” station.”
Art Laboe, 89, had been hosting “request and dedication” radio shows for more than 60 years when I first fell for him in 2006. As a night P.A. for a TV network sitcom, I delivered scripts around the midnight city for the producers, writers, actors, and executives to find on their doorsteps the following morning. Laboe’s playlists eased my journeys through the hazy maze of freeways.
In the 1950s, Art Laboe had his first hit radio show with a Friday night live broadcast from Scrivener’s Drive-In Restaurant in Hollywood. In that American Graffiti-esque setting, Laboe took requests from teenagers in their cars. Fifty years later, I’d pass this corner most nights when I was finishing my deliveries. Scrivener’s had become a Jack In The Box. So it goes.
When Laboe began to host concerts in 1955, he did so outside L.A.’s city limits to accommodate his multiracial teenaged audience. Rock and roll had grown popular with white youth, and LAPD Chief William H. Parker and the Los Angeles City Council cracked down on integrated dances, so promoters like Laboe looked elsewhere in the county; thus began his relationship with El Monte, which allowed teenagers to dance freely together, and its El Monte Legion Stadium. Laboe’s audience packed the stadium every other week to jump to the sounds of R&B and to slow dance to The Penguins’ “Earth Angel.” The concert series, and the low-rider culture that grew around it, sealed the devotion of Art Laboe’s working-class Chicano fan base.
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Memories of El Monte are all that remain. The stadium was torn down in 1974, and now it’s a post office parking lot. So it goes.
It was Laboe who coined the term “Oldies but Goodies” (he owns the trademark) and he’s been playing them ever since. But his Oldies but Goodies are not the songs of Oldies stations everywhere. You’re not likely to hear The Beatles or The Stones; rather, Laboe’s repertoire consists primarily of Chicano Soul, which blends doo-wop, R&B, and soul. Every jam is a slow jam.
Laboe’s highest achievement is how he connects people separated by distance and time. His show has been a longtime favorite among prisoners in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and callers often dropped hints: Every time I heard, “We got your letter,” or a dedication went out to someone “up in Chino,” I assumed its intended recipient was locked up there.
The other night I listened to Art Laboe’s show online, and a dedication came on, along with a request for “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Smokey Robinson, and I heard a woman pledge to her husband: “I’ll always be here for you, you don’t even have to worry about it.” I can’t say whether her husband is serving time, serving in Afghanistan, or driving a long-haul truck, but it was clear from her tone that he’s far away and not coming back soon. How often do we see, or hear, such intimacy?
The other secret of Art Laboe is that he still resonates with young people just like he did at Scrivener’s Drive-In. Most of the outrage I’ve seen since his station changed formats has come from some young community organizers and artists I know. These sophisticated music fans are equally likely to be listening to Kendrick Lamar, Immortal Technique, or Radiohead, but they were raised on Art Laboe, and they found his show to be as healing and moving as I did.
I still reach for the HOT 92.3 radio preset when I’m driving home at night. But Art’s not there, and evenings in Los Angeles are less romantic.
The only consolation is that you can hear his show most nights of the week on the outskirts of Los Angeles — in Oxnard, San Diego, Barstow, Bakersfield. He’s also still on in Tucson and Las Vegas, and you can listen online at Fresno’s KOKO94.com. While I’m hopeful that he’ll find a new home in Los Angeles, I appreciate the irony of missing his music. I’m in love with something, someone, who’s far away. The town I live in is lonely. So lonely I could cry.