There’s a listener who frequently calls in to Art Laboe’s Sunday night radio show and always asks to hear the Manhattans, their 1976 single “Kiss and Say Goodbye” in particular. According to Laboe, the woman’s told him she likes to blare his show while she watches sports on mute. “Her enthusiasm for that group and that song is quite interesting,” he says. “I ask her if that song means anything, [reminds her of] an old boyfriend or anything—nope, she just likes to hear it.” For many of Laboe’s listeners, his show is a trip back in time—even if it isn’t a trip to anywhere in particular.
On June 30, Laboe kicks off the holiday week with his seventh annual Summer Love Jam at the Show inside Agua Caliente Casino Resort and Spa in Rancho Mirage. The Manhattans will be on stage. So will Peaches and Herb, known for ’70s hits like the disco jam “Shake Your Groove Thing” and the ballad “Reunited.” Deneice Williams, who topped the charts in ’84 with “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” will be performing too, as well hip-hop outfit A Lighter Shade of Brown and others. It’s a lineup that’s a lot like Laboe’s radio show, spanning decades to bring together multiple generations of fans with a good dose of nostalgia.
At 92, Laboe is a true local radio legend. He’s about to celebrate 75 years working in the medium and his personal history is tied to L.A.’s rock ‘n’ roll heritage. Laboe, who is of Armenian descent, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1925 and developed a fascination with radio when he was 8. A couple years later, he came out to Los Angeles to visit his sisters and decided to stay, ultimately graduating from George Washington High School. He spent a bit of time outside of Southern California—Laboe served in the military and actually got his start in radio at KSAN in San Francisco—but it was back in Los Angeles where he made his mark. Laboe’s profile grew with the ascent of rock ‘n’ roll.
Over time, his show became known not just for music, but for the dedications. Callers send out messages to loved ones near and far. They miss you. They want to wish you a special day. They think maybe it’s time to give love a second chance. Sometimes Laboe and his team are able to work out the scheduling of the dedications to roll right when the recipient should be tuned into the station.
“I definitely feel that I have a very close connection with most of the people that call in,” says Laboe. And it’s one that continues to grow. The Art Laboe Connection airs on multiple stations in California, Arizona, and Nevada. The show was also just picked up by a station in Denver. Locally it broadcasts on 93.5 KDAY FM, but people can listen from just about anywhere online. Laboe mentions talking to a listener in Houston, where the show doesn’t air on terrestrial radio. He says he asked her why she would listen to his show online. “She says, I listen to your show because there’s nothing like that, where people get to talk on the air and do their own dedication and things like that,” Laboe recalls.
Last March, a new townhouse development opened on the site of the former El Monte Legion Stadium. At the grand opening, Laboe received a key to the city. The city of El Monte also declared March 10 to be a day in the broadcasting star’s honor. “I was really proud to get that key to the city from El Monte,” says Laboe.
Laboe’s concerts aren’t a new thing. In fact, back in the 1950s, he was putting together shows at El Monte Legion Stadium. The shows in El Monte were made for the teenage crowd; as Laboe explains, laws in the city of Los Angeles at that point prevented dances for people under 18. They also brought together the performers with the fans. “We would have a break and they would all mix and have a drink together, most of it non-alcoholic because they were under 21,” Laboe says.
These events became incredibly culturally significant with performances by seminal artists of the genre like Jerry Lee Lewis. By 1963, those concerts inspired the Penguins’ song “Memories of El Monte,” which was written by Frank Zappa and Ray Collins. Today, you’ll find a portrait of Laboe along with other rock ‘n’ roll trailblazers inside El Monte’s bus depot, near the site of the old stadium.
“It was a great time for music,” says Laboe, but he adds there were similarities between early rock ‘n’ roll and what he has continued to play over the years. “A lot of them were love ballads,” he says. For Laboe, who has a special segment of his show dedicated to love songs, those are big with his audience. Love songs have even influenced the annual Summer Love Jam. He says that, sometimes, people will run into old flames at the shows. Other times, they might meet new ones.
“People have met at our concerts. Got married. If it works out good, then I’m a big hero,” he says with a chuckle. “If it doesn’t, then I’m a bum, I guess.”
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