"The Art Laboe Connection" is the nightly fireside chat with Latinos that neither FDR — nor any American president — have had with us.
For 23 years, six nights a week from 7 p.m. to midnight, and 6 to 12 on Sundays, Art Laboe, 89, has taken requests from his predominately Latino listenership spread across Arizona, Nevada and California. The broadcast legend who trademarked the term "oldies but goodies" and created the country’s first compilation album has not only played the hits. By reading and playing his listeners’ messages on the air he has given them a voice.
I was raised on Laboe’s voice wafting from a boxed transistor G&E radio beneath the wall-mounted phone in our kitchen. I listened to the underbelly of struggle present in its dedications. Like other loyal listeners, I have been able to decipher the numerous requests made to or from California cities like Corcoran, Madera, Wasco, Salinas and Chino as those from the state’s overcrowded prison system. I grew up hearing callers–particularly those who were imprisoned–say inspirational things like, "Keep your head up;" "Don’t let nobody get you down" and "Stay strong." They’d use popular nicknames such as Smiley, Shy Eyes and Clown Face.
Laboe has also served as a fixer. For example, if I was locked up and need to reconcile with my other half on the outside, Laboe would announce, "From José in Corcoran [Prison] to Guadalupe in Fresno: I’m sorry for last week and hope this song reaches you well." And here is when Art would interject with as pragmatic a cosign as possible, something like, "OK José, well I hope you’re listening Lupe, here’s your song ‘Daddy’s Home.’"
Just as the oldies Art plays represent the longing for better days, so do the people who call into his show with hopes of repairing fragmented ties with loves lost. "The Art Laboe Connection" is one of the few remaining request-line shows where oral narrative is at the root to its success, function and production. There’s arguably nothing on the airwaves as original as "The Art Laboe Connection."
Yet "The Art Laboe Connection" was silenced last month. The New York-based conglomerate iHeartMedia changed the oldies format of Hot 92.3 FM, the show’s Los Angeles home. That station, now called Real 92.3, is dedicated to hip-hop and R&B. Meanwhile Laboe’s show was moved to Fresno’s KOKO 94.3 FM, a significantly smaller station.
IHeartMedia’s Vice President of Marketing Eileen Woodbury told the L.A. Times, "We believe this new format will resonate well with the audience in Los Angeles." But the response from Laboe’s fans has been a resounding "no." At press time close to 9,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the station go back to oldies and put "The Art Laboe Connection" back on the air.
As for Laboe, he exited 92.3 with class and respect, but not without a body shot to the new ownership. "We wish the best of luck to the new format," he told the LA Times. "And to all those who were let go to make way for the Real 92.3."
I believe that if you really love radio, you will do everything in your power to keep DJs such as Art Laboe on the airwaves until they are physically incapable of doing soor when they decide to quit. And before that day comes, they should have their programs archived.
Indeed, the oral and aural histories documented in Laboe’s request-line radio show are Library of Congress worthy. Laboe represents the Latino/Chicano voice and experience from the 1940s to the present. He is that important to Latino and Los Angeles history.
As a small token of my appreciation for his years of service, I have three songs I want to personally dedicate to Mr. Art Laboe. From José in Oakland by way of Pomona, to Art in Los Angeles: Keep your head up.
Of the many War songs requested on Laboe’s show, this is an anthem of Chicano struggle. For everyday Angelinos and state inmates alike, this is the song you send someone when they’ve been laid off, denied bail or they’re trying to graduate from college. Between the subtle güiro and the mourning horns, this is the song that should’ve been playing at the end of the Zoot Suit Riots.
The album cover of the debut Chicano album says it all–brown pride through indigenous imagery. Malo,* a band created by Carlos Santana’s cousin, found success with this low-rider gem that picks up where "Angel Baby" and Brenton Wood’s "Me & You" left off. "Suavecito" conjures up an image of a pair of lovers at an L.A. drive-thru leaning together against the side of a ’50s-era Chevy.
There are few things better to hear after Art Laboe’s dedication than the opening notes of this classic from the Stylistics. This is the kind of song that can’t be faded into or faded out of–you must hear it in its entirety. It describes how I feel about the impact Art had on my motherand her friends from the ’50s onward.
*Post has been updated to reflect the proper name of the band Malo.