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Calling Art

The Birth of the Late-Night Dedication

[clock] 21-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2015

Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro We’re going back, way back, back before it all started, before nearly anyone but the skinny old man with the silver-toned voice can remember. Back to 1943: Treasure Island, San Francisco. The war was on, and this scrawny eighteen-year-old kid named Art Laboe stepped into his first radio station, asking for a job. He remembers the manager—a big, burly guy. Art was eighteen, five foot two inches, 111 pounds, a slice of nothing. “Maybe I can get a job here?” is what he asked the manager, and when he says this now, imitating what he sounded like then, he makes his voice high and adolescent, cracking a bit. “No, no, no,” he replies to himself—doing the manager now, voice going low, almost growling. “You don’t have the voice for it.” A quick smile, because we know how that turned out, then: “You’re too young. I don’t know why she let you in here. We don’t have anything for you.” Art tells how he started shuffling toward the door, but the manager wasn’t done with him yet and barked out, “One more thing: If you want to be on the radio, on this station, you have to have a third-class FCC license.” Well, Art had a first-class license. He was studying radio engineering at Stanford and said so. “Come back here!” The manager again, that growl. Art leans back, sighing a little with the effort as he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out his wallet, then a card, which he lays on the table, pointing. “That card,” he says now, still growling, still the manager on Treasure Island in 1943. “You see? All my engineers have been drafted. I shouldn’t be on air. Now, with you, with that card, that card makes me legal.” I look down at the card he’s pointing to and see that it is, indeed, a radio license, updated, a long string of zeros preceding his license number.

He describes how the manager took him back to where the transmitters were and asked if he knew how to tune them, the big hulking refrigerator-looking things with all sorts of wires coming out (yes, yes he did); how he looked up and saw a sign on the wall, tacked there and written out on butcher paper: if the damn thing works leave it alone. They shook hands, the manager and Art, and from that moment on, for more than seventy years, he’s been in the radio business.

Only at first it was behind the scenes, working as a station mechanic. He wanted to be on air. So between the church programs, the vitamin programs, the chunks of time bought up in fifteen-minute slots, Art came on to announce what was up next. The station signed off at midnight, but by eleven o’clock no one was buying any air time. That left a whole hour to fill with whatever he wanted. He wanted to fill it with music, mostly. The big-band stuff. Swing and jazz. But that got dull all on its own. So Art thought, Maybe I’ll get some phone calls. And he gave out his number. 

The only problem was that when people called in—and they sure enough did—how could they be heard? There wasn’t the technology to hook a phone into the board, or even project a call through a speaker to pick it up on the mic. What came next came naturally. Art would repeat the conversation to everyone else, into the microphone. “I’ve got someone on the telephone here,” he’d begin. “Who’ve I got on the phone? Merle. Well, I’ve got Merle on the phone. She says she’s glad she’s listening. Oh? She wants to hear the Benny Goodman Trio. Well, thank you, Merle. We’re going to play the Benny Goodman Trio now, for Merle.” And the record would drop, just like that. It’s what his instincts told him: to communicate, to reach out to whoever was listening, to see if they’d call in so he could grab that moment and share it with everyone, spin it into song. 

He was there three months before he was called up on flight duty, then worked transmitting Morse code, sending wires to shore aboard clipper ships carrying blood from island to island throughout the South Pacific. After the war, he came back to Los Angeles, where he’d grown up, the son of Armenians fleeing the genocide, a little wisp of a kid who became a Ham operator at thirteen and here he was ten years later ready to send his voice out over the airwaves. Only, all the big-time radio guys were back from the war, too, sucking up all the jobs. He had to go all the way out to Pomona, to a station so small it was housed in a Quonset hut. He worked there a year and doesn’t have much of anything to say about that job except that it led to KCMJ in Palm Springs, where things really started cooking. 

KCMJ was the sole broadcaster in town. No other radio was out there—the San Jacinto Mountains blocked out the signals from the L.A. stations. Most people didn’t even have televisions yet. Art stuck to what he knew, which was late night, and out there in the desert among the millionaires and their poolside cocktails, he blossomed like some rare desert flower. From a quarter past ten until midnight, it was “Music for the Party with Art Laboe.” He even got a speaker telephone so he could hang the mic down over it and talk to all the millionaires and, mostly, their daughters—they were the ones who’d call in and chatter and giggle and make for great radio, and who liked all the latest, craziest music. Bing and Frank. Oh, Frank. Sinatra lived out there then. He had Art over for breakfast once, made him scrambled eggs. Art begged for a job on his next tour but Frank told him no, the tour’s only six months, what’ll you do after? You keep your job. You’ve got a good job now. And Art couldn’t argue with that. He remembers, also, that outside Frank’s place, right by the doorbell, there was a sign that read, if you haven’t been invited you’d better have a damn good reason for ringing this bell.

What started to happen in Palm Springs was that Art picked up a little following. Suddenly it’s midnight and Art’s signing off—and what then? Eventually people got to complaining, which got Art thinking, and finally he had a talk with his manager, who told him, well, he can’t up his pay—which was $65 a week—but if he wanted to stay on for a while longer he could. Art thought that was swell, and so instead of signing off one night he told all those listeners “and if I get fifteen phone calls I’ll stay on another fifteen minutes,” and bing, bing, bing the lines lit right up. Finally, it got so late, around two or three in the morning, that Art had to say goodbye—but not completely. He told them, “Well, I’m going to go off the air now because I’m going to the Palm House, and I’ll see you there.” He’d show up and there’d be a dozen people waiting to buy him a drink. 

The next station was Reno, Nevada. Brief stint. “Met a lot of divorcées. Had a lot of fun.” Then he was ready to try L.A. again. 

Back in L.A., he got a job at KRKD. The towers are still up, right smack in the middle of downtown, topping the Spring Arcade Building. It took him the longest time to figure out where the RKD came from until, a few years ago, he realized: Arcade. RKD. He worked the overnights, midnight to five, and sold ads for the nightshift during the day: fifty commercials for $49. By that time he’d been working on his voice, but it didn’t make sense with his body, this deep friendly baritone reverberating out from his tiny frame. He tramped the streets of L.A. and few could believe this still-scrawny kid was selling radio time. So he looked in the phone book, searching for people to maybe buy some spots he could sell so he could stay on the air, and there was this drive-in, a new kind of thing, pull your car up and order food from it. And it was open twenty-four hours, all through the night, which was his time, and, well, it just seemed perfect. He goes out to see the man who owned the drive-in, a fella by the name of Paul Scrivner, whose place was called Scrivner’s, and Scrivner said, Yeah, that’s a helluva deal, how could you afford not to take it? And Art said, Well, maybe we’ll get some people to come in. So Art sold him fifty spots and did one better, pulling the trick from Palm Springs: During sign-offs he said he was going to get breakfast at Scrivner’s and maybe he’d see you there. And wouldn’t you know it? That got people coming in. 

Art thought about what might happen if the show took place at the drive-in: What if he was right there with the listeners, and the microphone could pick up all the chatter and the honking and the whooping in the background? This was the early 1950s now. The hot rods and the hair and the car horns that would play a little song when they honked. And here’s Art, hopping into a car to ask the kid what song he’d like to hear for his sweetheart, who’s right there next to him. All kinds of kids started coming to Scrivner’s to hear themselves on the radio, to hear Art play what they wanted to hear, music that no one else on the dial was playing. A lot of rhythm and blues. Ray Charles. Ruth Brown. Big Joe Turner. None of the other jocks knew this stuff, but Art knew it, because the kids knew it. He started bringing twenty-five, thirty records down to the drive-in on Cahuenga and Sunset, and he’d hand out little sheets of paper for the kids to fill out requests. He’d leave the microphone on even during the songs, sometimes, just to pick up the atmosphere on those warm weekend nights, with all those souped-up engines purring and the conversation going and the night just generally dreamy, “generally outdoor Southern Californian noises,” he says. “Nothing better.” 

But it got too big, frankly, and Art got taken away, given a fancy job at KFWB. Art was working the nightclubs on the Sunset Strip, interviewing all the celebrities, making $300 a week—more than he could ever bring in at the drive-in. Still, he missed the energy, all those kids and that music. The old bandleaders would come down to the drive-in when they were in town—Lawrence Welk, Les Brown, Buddy Rich: big-band people. They loved this new stuff, too, they’d tell him, but could never play it. It would ruin their careers. There were only a handful of stations in L.A. then, most of them talk, a little country, a little swing. None of that rhythm and blues and nothing, no sir, not a thing touched what was next—the tidal wave nobody saw coming. Art missed the drive-in so badly he quit his big-shot job and went back to Scrivner’s for just ninety bucks a week. This was the summer of 1955. That fall, the tidal wave arrived: Little Richard, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry—rock and roll. 

Art always says that he was like a surfer, just riding this thing that swept him along with it, all this new music that everybody but the kids said they hated. But the brilliance of Art Laboe has always been not his voice or the music but how he listens. There in the hot rod at the drive-in, attuned, leaving the mic on, ready, open to anyone and everything who showed up. Art started a record company called Original Sound Records, and pressed doo-wop compilations of songs that were four or five years old. He noticed the high-school kids liked those, too, the old songs from back in elementary school, junior high. Oldies, they called them. One day Art said they were “oldies but goodies.” It sounded right, and he said it again, and again, then stamped it on his records. “I’m in the nostalgia business,” he says. “Always have been.” 

The drive-in scene was crazy now, overflowing. There was a need, Art saw, for something that could contain all these teeming teens—a dance, a great big dance for all the kids throughout L.A. He found a promoter and they set about looking for a ballroom. Back then, he says, you couldn’t hold a public dance for high schoolers in the city of Los Angeles without it being sanctioned by the board of education, which meant hosting it at a high school, which meant throwing some cookie-and-ice-cream party, and they weren’t looking for any cookie-and-ice-cream party. They went east to El Monte: Legion Stadium. Before Art arrived, the Legion mostly hosted country jamborees and boxing matches. Art took over Saturday night, booking two or three acts, spinning records for dancing in between. The acts were wild. So wild nobody danced when they were on but just stood there screaming. Kids came from everywhere. Orange County, Beverly Hills, South Gate, the Valley, everywhere you could think of. Black, white, Latino. Mostly Latino, this being way out east. All they wanted was rock and roll, rhythm and blues, soul, and shaking, and dancing real slow with their baby. 

Proxie Aguirre from Venice Beach had her aunt drive her all the way across the broad L.A. basin toward the San Gabriel Mountains out to the Legion on Saturday nights. This was 1956. She was fourteen. “Oh my God they were fine,” she says, remembering those nights in El Monte. “He had all the good people, all the good bands. There was no place to sit, of course, but you went to dance. Everybody danced. There was Little Caesar and the Romans, Don Julian, James Brown, Big Joe Turner, The Shields … you name it and he had them in El Monte. We all looked older then. I know I looked older then. The guys will tell you, ‘Oh, you look healthy,’ and healthy meant you had nice boobs and a big butt. But you know I was in love with Art. He was, he still is a gorgeous man, a handsome man and so nice, and I fell in love with him, you know, as a friend. Not as someone you’d be going along with. It’s a different love I have, for Art.”

She’s retired now, working part time as a caregiver in Van Nuys. “I live a very simple life,” she says. Not really any hobbies, even, except to keep up with her boys and grandkids. What she does is listen to the radio, and listen to Art. She calls in, just like Merle, and has been doing so for decades. After the drive-ins and dances and even a television show, Art went back to his roots, back to the studio and the call-ins. Then he started doing one better: the dedication. Get them calling in, then get them on the air, then talking, then have them dedicate a song to that special someone. The whole show, still at night, always at night, wrapped up around the dedication. 

Proxie calls and asks to play “Heaven,” by Los Lonely Boys—she loves that one. Or “Confessin’ a Feeling.” Or “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Or something else fast but old. She’ll tell Art to send one like that, a fast one, up to all her boys in Lompoc Federal, where they should hold the wall, stand up and dance, and she’ll be right there with them, dancing in her kitchen. Or her son, Chy, dedicating a slow and sentimental one for him up in there with the rest of those poor boys in Lompoc, doing their time. “You know, for a long time I blamed myself for how he turned out,” she says, talking about Chy now. “You know there’s so many of them in there, what are you supposed to do? You can’t blame all the mothers.” He’s coming home soon, but she’s got others, not her biological sons but she loves them all the same: Bear and Teeth and Squeaky and Chabo. She keeps a whole long list and makes sure when she gets on air to fit them all in, because she knows they’re listening, just waiting for Grandma Proxie to come on and shout them out. 

Or Grandpa Ray, Ray Garcia, a retired supervisor with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, born and raised and still living in Cypress Park. His wife is his main hobby now, and the one thing he’s sure to tune in to every night is Art, the voice he grew up with, the youngest of three, and those oldies, his older brothers’ music, it’s the stuff he’s always admired. He calls in and requests “Sabor a Mí” or “Angel Baby” or “Daddy’s Home,” for his son, Ray Jr., who runs a restaurant downtown, and for his grandson, Grant. He’ll start trying to call at six and if he hasn’t gotten through by eleven he’ll give up. His wife never calls. “I’m not gonna get my voice on there,” she says, even when Art asks if she’d like to say something. They’ve been together thirty-nine years. “When she says she’s not going to do something, she’s not going to do it. I bet the pink slip of my house on it!” Ray says. 

Frank’s another regular. Just Frank. People know him, Art knows him, because of all the different girlfriends, and all the heartache Frank puts on. He’s really some kind of self-appointed ladies’ man, Art says, and claims when he calls in and if they get to talking, well, whatever lady he’s romancing at the moment, the time on the air with Art works some kind of magic, and the relationship just gels. He never puts any of them on the air, these mystery women. No. Frank just asks, “Can you help me, Art?” “Well,” Art replies, “God helps those who help themselves, Frank.” 

People call in who’ve broken up and can’t get back together, so Art plays “Break Up To Make Up” or “I Want You Back,” then the next night they’ll call and say they’re sorry, and maybe they’ll be together again. Maybe they haven’t spoken in weeks or years and this is the first one of them has heard from the other. Maybe they only communicate through the show. He gets parents of runaways calling, asking him to tell their daughter they still love her and to please come home. Sometimes the daughter calls. Sometimes that works. Sometimes the boyfriend comes back. Sometimes the conversation from twenty years ago picks up again. Anything to jump out of the radio and into the world, Art says. 

A lady named Emma calls in and wants a certain record, same record every time: “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” “Are you kissing somebody off or what?” Art asks. “No, I just love that record,” Emma says. “Don’t you get tired of hearing it?” Art says. “No. I’ve taped it, I have it here,” she says. “Why don’t you just play the tape then?” and Emma says, “It just sounds different when you play it, when it comes over the radio.” 

Out in Riverside, Marsha Gonzales calls. Her family is gathered around, her daughters and granddaughters, maybe some are still on the way home from work, so they’ll hear her in the car. Maybe her sister will hear her and remember how it was back in their old ’55 Chevy, growing up in Norwalk, just driving around, listening to Art and the oldies, as if no time has passed at all. If a slow song comes on, she’ll tell her grandkids how she and her husband, Albert, used to dance, close and slow. And when she gets her turn on the air with Art she’ll ask for “Stand By Me,” for her son Danny, a lifer in on a third strike for assault. She was up to see him recently and it broke her heart, what he said to her. He said he wanted to listen the way they used to. But he couldn’t, because Art’s been off the air. 

It’s not that Art is off the air everywhere, just in the heart of it all, throughout Los Angeles and Riverside and the whole broad basin where it all really got going. The main station that carried him—Hot 92.3—changed formats all of a sudden, and Art’s show was dropped in February, right before Valentine’s Day. They replaced the oldies with chart-topping hip-hop, which wouldn’t sting so bad if there weren’t already so many stations exactly like it broadcasting throughout L.A. The new format opened with a month straight of commercial-free songs, no conversation, no DJs, no lovesick strangers calling in. 

He’s still broadcasting, recording at his studios in Palm Springs and L.A. Twice married, twice divorced, he’s been a bachelor since 1964, living alone with some cats he keeps in his Palm Springs home. The only station that plays his entire show six nights a week is the one he owns, KOKO, up in Fresno. KDAY, L.A.’s old-school hip-hop station, announced it would soon be broadcasting The Art Laboe Connection on Sunday nights in its entirety—from 6 p.m. to midnight—starting this summer. A half-dozen other stations throughout the Golden State air segments from his show, too. Driving north out of Los Angeles late one night, I hit Oxnard and, scanning, heard that sweet low baritone come crackling through like sonic comfort food. I remembered what he’d told me about the trick of his voice, what an instructor at Stanford taught him: Always be vital. You don’t have to be loud, you don’t have to be fancy, just have some vitality. He never forgot it, even on days when he was feeling low and cut off from the world, slumping in his studio seat, Art would conjure that word and sit right up. 

The show felt vital to me then. I’d never realized just how perfectly named it was, this show: The Art Laboe Connection. I listened as he did what he’d always done: drawing out his callers, hearing one say how she missed her man who’d been away and hoped he could still listen in; a grandmother who wanted her daughter to know she loved her and would take care of her baby boy while she was working the night shift; a little girl up past her bedtime wanted her daddy to know she was doing good in school. There, wrapped in the warmth of the songs of the past, hurtling alone into the future on that darkening highway, listening to this secret California, I imagined Art, the hub in the great invisible spoke of the state, taking in all our longings, letting us know, no matter who we are, where we came from, that we might be heard. 

“When you call up and dedicate a song, you’re letting the world know you love somebody,” he’d said. “All of a sudden, the telephone in their hand, going all over their city and state and even the world, they realize I’m not just somebody who makes hamburgers or works at the car wash. It’s a powerful feeling.” Then he told me what he tells some of his listeners, the ones struggling to say the right thing—too shy, or too overcome. “Your telephone is your microphone,” he tells them softly. “Go ahead. It’s all yours.” 


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