Art Labow, a radio DJ whose career spanned 79 years, died Friday at his home in Palm Springs 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, marketing and promotions person, said Laboe was doing well until recently when a respiratory illness landed him in the hospital with pneumonia .
After a week there, with a bleak prognosis, Laboe decided to spend his final days at home, Morones said.
“He came home and after a few days he stopped eating and a few days later he passed,” she said. “It wasn’t long, thank God. He did not suffer.”
Morrownes said she was with Laboe on Friday before he left to return to the station to finish production of his show for Sunday, Oct. 9.
“I went to see him and said goodbye because we knew it was inevitable,” she said. “I said, ‘Art Labow, I have to get back to the station to produce your radio show, I’ll see you in a little bit.’
Soon after his aide called to tell her that Labo had died, and Morones returned to her 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 the kind of Laboe performing the kind of now-vintage radio that made him famous in Los Angeles in the 1950s. those years.
A radio legend through and through
On a visit with Laboe in the studio in 2020, just months before the pandemic forced him to hide and record his show from home, Laboe was busy with dedications from hundreds of fans who were still writing to him asking him to send a song on the air of a loved one.
“We’re going to play a song called ‘Gangsters Are Lonely Too,'” Labeau read of a dedication from a mother to her son. “It goes out to ‘my son Matthew in Buckeye, Arizona, from mom Liz in Phoenix.'” Says, “Happy belated birthday and I love you, keep your head up. All for you son from your mother Liz.
These simple personal touches—taking a request, dedicating a song—are things Laboe is often credited with being the first DJ to do.
Laboe is also known as one of the first DJs to bring music to the people. His live concerts at Scrivner’s Drive-In in Hollywood in the 1950s were famous. Labeau would drive his radio from the station to the entrance at the corner of Sunset and Cahuenga avenues.
There, usually at night, he would spin R&B and early rock records for teenagers who listened at home or who showed up in person, and conducted interviews with celebrities who stopped by.
Eventually, Scrivner’s shows became so big that the city decided to shut them down. Laboe then moved east to El Monte Legion Stadium, booking live gigs with rock and roll acts such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson and the doo-wop band the Penguins.
El Monte’s shows became so popular and such a lasting memory for generations of fans that in 2018 the city declared Art Labeau Day in his honor.
Laboe also took pride in coining the phrase “oldies but extras,” a term he eventually used in a multi-volume series of compilation albums he released on his own record label.
“I think some people took it upon themselves and took that word out — just, you know, ‘It’s an old song, but it’s a good song,'” Laboe says of the moment in the 1950s when the phrase came about. “And then I’m like, ‘An oldie but a goodie?’ This is me. And everyone laughs.”
In recent years, Laboe has promoted annual oldies shows at the Glen Helen Amphitheater in San Bernardino. The final show took place on Saturday, October 8, one day after Laboe’s death, with acts such as Peaches and Herb, Rose Royce and the SOS Band on the bill.
About 12,000 people attended Saturday’s concert, Morones said.
Living on the radio
Asked in 2020 when he made his radio debut, Labeau pulled a worn union card from his wallet and pointed to where it said he had been a member since 1943. At the time, he was 18, a Navy recruit graduating from Los Angeles High , when, stationed on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, he eventually landed a job at KSAN-AM in San Francisco.
If you do the math, Laboe has not only been a radio DJ continuously for 79 years, he’s been on the air for parts of nine different decades.
Morones said news of Laboe’s death was being kept under wraps for Saturday’s concert, as well as the latest Art Laboe Connection radio show on Sunday, Oct. 9, in part to allow fans to enjoy him one more time without feeling the grief of his death.
The plans being discussed would keep the Art Laboe name on the radio and concert marquees going forward, Morones said.
“We hope to continue (the radio show) mostly as it is, which is a devotional and call-based show,” she said. “We’ve been archiving Art’s songs for the past seven years. So instead of him reading dedications, what we’re going to do is go to the archives and find recordings of him talking about music.”
During the pandemic, a second host, Old School Becky Lou, joined to help on air as Laboe’s energy sometimes waned, and she may also be part of an ongoing program of Laboe radio obituaries.
Eventually, a public memorial will be organized in Laboe’s memory and honor, Morones said.
“Art wanted a big concert to be featured, so we’re looking at something in the Los Angeles area,” she said. “Probably El Monte, because there’s been huge success there in the past, though I’m not sure there’s a big enough place for it there.”
Premonition of the end
Two years ago, when asked how he hoped fans would cope when he was no longer on the air, Laboe pointed to what he said might be his favorite old song of all time.
“There’s a song by a band called the Skyliners called ‘Since I Don’t Have You,'” he says. “It was a song that touches my heart because there are so many people that you don’t have anymore.
“And you know, that’s my favorite. Everyone has one. I have some. But this is one of the big ones.”