Art Laboe, the legendary Southern California radio DJ, dead at 97

Art Laboe, a radio DJ whose career ran for 79 years, died Friday at his Palm Springs home of pneumonia. He was 97.

Joanna Morones, who went to work for Laboe as his executive assistant in 1995, and eventually served as his producer, marketer and promotions person, said Laboe had been well until recently when a respiratory ailment landed him in the hospital for pneumonia.

After a week there, with the prognosis grim, Laboe decided to spend his final days at home, Morones said.

“He got home and after a couple of days he stopped eating, and then a couple of days later he passed,” she said. “It wasn’t a long thing, thank God. He didn’t suffer.”

Morones said she was with Laboe on Friday before leaving to return to the station to finish production on his show for Sunday, Oct. 9.

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“I went to go see him and said my goodbyes because we knew it was inevitable,” she said. “I said, ‘Art Laboe, I’ve got to get back to the station to produce your radio show, I’ll see you in a little while.’”

Soon after his aide called to tell her Laboe had died, and Morones returned to his home to sit with him until his body was taken away.

In recent years, Laboe’s radio home was at KDAY-FM/93.5 in Palm Springs, where he and Morones produced the Art Laboe Connection, a show that featured such Laboe doing the kind of now-vintage radio for which he found fame in Los Angeles in the ’50s.

A radio legend to the end

On a visit with Laboe in the studio in 2020, just a few months before the pandemic forced him to hunker down and record his show from home, Laboe was busy doing dedicates from the hundreds of fans who still wrote him asking him to send a song over the air to a loved one.

“We’re going to play a song called ‘Gangsters Get Lonely Too,’” Laboe read for one dedication from a mother to her son. “It goes out to ‘my son Mathew in Buckeye, Arizona, from mom Liz over in Phoenix.’ Says, ‘Happy belated birthday, and I love you keep your head up. All for you, son, from your mom Liz.’”

Those simple personal touches — taking a request, dedicating a song — are things Laboe is often credited as being the first DJ to do.

Laboe was also famous as one of the first DJs to take the music to the people. His live shows at Scrivner’s Drive-In in Hollywood in the ’50s were renowned. Laboe would drive his radio gear from the station to the drive-in on the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga boulevards.

There, usually at night, he’d spin R&B and early rock records for teens listening at home or who’d shown up in person, and conduct interviews with celebrities who stopped by.

Eventually the Scrivner’s shows got so big the city acted to shut them down. Laboe then moved to east to El Monte Legion Stadium, booking live shows with rock and roll acts such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson and the doo-wop group the Penguins.

The El Monte shows became so popular and such an enduring memory for generations of fans that in 2018 the city declared Art Laboe Day in his honor.

Laboe was also proud to have coined the phrase “oldies but goodies,” a term he eventually used on a multi-volume series of compilation albums he released on his own record label.

“I think some people did a dedication and popped that word out — just, you know, ‘This is an old song, but it’s a good song,’” Laboe says the moment in the ’50s when that phrase arrived. “And then I says, ‘An oldie but a goodie? That’s what I am.’ And they all laugh.”