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Radio DJ Art Laboe, who helped desegregate music venues and celebrated 'oldies but goodies,' dies at 97

One of the first DJs to play Black music in California, Laboe helped introduce Latinos to R&B, rock 'n' roll and soul oldies. 
Art Laboe, a disc jockey for more than 50 years, hosts his 2009 Art Laboe Valentine's Super Love Jam concert at the Jobing.com arena in Glendale, AZ Feb. 13, 2009. Laboe, 84, has a loyal fan base, which consists heavily of Latinos, who request melodramatic love songs no often heard on the radio. He says, "My listeners;  they are like a family."
Art Laboe, a disc jockey for more than 50 years, hosts his Art Laboe Valentine's Super Love Jam concert in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 13, 2009.Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Radio DJ Art Laboe, who interviewed Elvis for radio in the 1950s before he helped make Black music and Latino youths lifelong friends, has died.

He was 97.

Laboe, who hosted a show on Los Angeles radio station KDAY, died Friday of pneumonia, according to a statement on his Facebook page. Meruelo Media, the company that owns KDAY, confirmed his death.

The final show from Laboe, who is credited with coining the phrase "oldies but goodies," was broadcast Sunday.

He marked 79 years on the air, "the longest continuing period of broadcast service" of any U.S. DJ, in September, according to his website.

"Art Laboe's legacy will endure as his team will continue to produce his current nightly request and dedication syndicated radio show, 'The Art Laboe Connection,'" the post said.

The show is aired on stations throughout the Southwest. 

Laboe, who lived in Palm Springs, was known to contemporary audiences for keeping the flame alive for Latinos raised on the ultra-romantic crooner and dance group tunes of the 1950s and '60s.

The Laboe-curated sound of the Chicano Southwest, including R&B, rock 'n' roll and soul oldies, became a soundtrack for cruising lowriders and classic cars, and Laboe delivered it like a postal worker — rain or shine.

In 1981, the Los Angeles City Council declared July 17 Art Laboe Day. He later received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Laboe was born Arthur Egnoian in Salt Lake City to an Armenian American family. He moved to California to attend Stanford University before he served in the Navy during World War II.

Laboe started his radio career in San Francisco, where he changed his name to sound more American. But it was in Los Angeles where he found a formula that worked: playing Black and white R&B music and rock together for the city.

His first Los Angeles station was KPOP, and he eventually played records on KRLA.

Laboe also worked behind the scenes to promote concerts and produce records on his own label, Original Sound.

Long before "Now That's What I Call Music!" Laboe put hits from disparate artists on one LP record, and the products sold well. His label later found success, in 1959, with the hits "Bongo Rock" by Preston Epps and "Teen Beat" by Sandy Nelson.

"Bongo Rock" was remade by the Incredible Bongo Band, which made its own history with a similar track in 1973, "Apache," believed by many to be the origin song of hip-hop.

Laboe is said to have landed the first radio interview with Elvis Presley during his first trip to Hollywood. His first broadcasts came from Scrivner's Drive-In theater in Hollywood.

Laboe's reliance on cohorts of sound instead of race led to a subtle revolution: It helped to desegregate venues that featured rock and its sonic brethren.

In the mid-1950s, Laboe was the top daytime radio DJ in Los Angeles.

In recent decades, Laboe was noted for allowing inmates' relatives to send in dedications intended to be heard by their incarcerated loved ones.

One of the anecdotes about the dedications he told centered on a woman who went to the studio to allow her toddler to tell her incarcerated father, "Daddy, I love you."

“It was the first time he had heard his baby’s voice,” Laboe told The Associated Press in 2019. “And this tough, hard-nosed guy burst into tears.”

Otto Padron, the CEO of Meruelo Media, called Laboe "a colossal presence in LA and an irreplaceable part of the 93.5 KDAY family."

"His passing leaves a huge hole in the community, and his legacy of connecting to generations of Angelinos on heartfelt dedications and connections to the soul of LA, which cannot be replaced," Padron said in a statement.