Radio Legend Art Laboe on Doing Business with Bob Hope, Hanging with Elvis and Today's Talk Talent (Q&A)
Art Laboe has been a radio broadcaster for 68 years and is credited as the first disc jockey on the west coast to play rock 'n' roll music over the airwaves. He pioneered the “oldies” format, created the “compilation album” and interviewed the biggest names in music, sometimes from long-gone Scrivner’s Drive-in Restaurant in Los Angeles where he hosted a Saturday show in the 1950s.
On Nov. 10, Laboe will be inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame along with Howard Stern and a handful of other legendary broadcasters. Laboe, who still hosts the syndicated show, The Art Laboe Connection, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his storied career.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you really coin the term, ‘oldies but goodies?’
Art Laboe: I was doing a show at a drive-in restaurant in Hollywood at Sunset and Cahuenga and people requested songs that were five years old. I said they could be old, but they had to be good, so we called them ‘oldies but goodies.’
THR: So an ‘oldie’ is only five years old?
Laboe: My audience was high-school kids, so five years is a long time. In 1958 an oldie was something from the early 50s.
THR: On satellite radio they have channels dedicated to each decade. Would that work on regular radio today?
Laboe: I’m on 16 stations almost every night and talking to people of all ages. I cross over as much as I can, going by sound rather than date. I can cross a Smokey Robinson song that’s two decades old with a more recent Whitney Houston song and people won’t turn me off. But if I played a rap song, it wouldn’t work so well.
THR: And you put the first compilation record together. How did you get the competing labels to agree?
Laboe: I started my own label and went to record companies and leased songs for royalties. The majors wouldn’t lease to us in the beginning, but in a couple of years when the albums become popular, it was to their advantage to be on our oldies-but-goodies albums. We made 15 volumes between 1959 and 1970.
THR: What’s the biggest royalty check you sent to a label for one of your compilation albums?
Laboe: Probably $25,000, but they weren’t one-time payments. We’d send out those royalty checks about every six months.
THR: What’s your favorite music?
Laboe: From my teenage years in the 40s, mostly Big Bands like Les Paul. Also Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson.
THR: Did you know those folks?
Laboe: Yes. The show I did in Hollywood was very popular, and the artists would come by and bring me their latest songs.
THR: Who’d you like most?
Laboe: Well, Elvis was the big thing during that period.
THR: Tell us something about Elvis that people might not know.
Laboe: I spent some time with him, but the stories aren’t short. The last time I saw him was a year before he died and it was interesting that he was into self-realization, influenced by this maharishi on Sunset Boulevard. Elvis was with about 100 people in his suite in Las Vegas showing me this book, and he almost gave me sermon on it. I always knew he was religious, but I was quite surprised he got so into it because it was not his image to be introspective.
THR: What artists did you meet that you did not like?
Laboe: They were all very cordial. Of course, I was doing something for them – playing their records -- so maybe I didn’t see the bad sides of them that you’re asking about.
THR: Did you know the Beatles?
Laboe: A couple of them. George Harrison came to see me when I owned a nightclub on the Sunset Strip. I’d interviewed the stars as they came in and it was a nighttime program that aired on KFWB, which was owned by Warner Bros. then.
THR: You like hip-hop and rap?
Laboe: Some of it. I don’t play it because it doesn’t mix well with the nostalgia I play, and the artists come and go so fast.
THR: What do you think about profanity in today’s music?
Laboe: I don’t pan anybody’s taste. It’s like taste in people or food -- you like some and don’t like others.
THR: What attracted you to radio?
Laboe: The first commercial radio station was KDKA in Pittsburgh in 1920 and I was born in 1925. I got interested in radio when I was 8 and it was so exciting to see a box that talked. I always dreamed of being in that box.
THR: What do you miss most about the early days of rock 'n' roll?
Laboe: The change that occurred around 1955 -- Little Richard said rhythm and blues had a baby and they named it rock 'n' roll. That switch from Big Bands and ballads and the music I like a lot to music wheredrums and guitars were the lead instruments was a very exciting time. I’ve been on the radio continuously since then, and that’s the only time there was real change and something really new in music. Everything else is just a step away from what came before.
THR: How do you stay relevant for so many years on radio?
Laboe: I just do what I’ve always done. I have a lot of autonomy. People call me, I talk to them briefly and play music. I’m on iHeartRadio, which goes all over the country. It keeps it fresh because I get calls from everywhere. I run my show like talk radio, with a screener who helps me put people on air who are interesting. Last week I had a 9 year-old girl who said her grandma wanted to hear a song by Justin Bieber. I convinced her to admit the song was really for her, but I played in anyways, even though I wouldn’t normally play a Justin Bieber song.
THR: You worked with George Lucas?
Laboe: I guess I did, but I don’t want to name-drop people I don’t know too well. He came to our company to get songs for American Graffiti. It happened quite a bit back then. Later, we became agents for placing music in movies and television. We did about 100 different songs for Beverly Hills 90210, but only one song for American Graffiti. But I put them in touch with other record companies, just as a favor.
THR: What was your relationship with Bob Hope?
Laboe: We were in business together at radio station KRLA from 1976-1981, then I sold my interest to him. In those days radio was quite a popular business. He was making movies when taxes were 5 percent and he wasearning $2,000 a week, so he invested it in radio and in land. He was a very nice man, by the way. He had no enemies. We used to say he’s like Santa Claus -- nobody slaps his face. I did most of the work at the radio station because he was busy with other things, like entertaining the troops, so mostly I dealt with his attorney.
THR: You’ve also written some songs?
Laboe: "Teen Beat" and "Bongo Rock," both Top 10 songs at the time.
THR: How much money did you make off of those?
Laboe: I also owned the distribution rights to the songs I wrote. I don’t have an exact figure, but in the thousands. As I progressed, I bought and sold radio stations, so we were in the millions. I only work now because I like to, not because I have to. When I push the ‘on’ button on the microphone, it turns me on, too.
THR: With the Internet and satellite, can terrestrial radio thrive?
Laboe: Everything progresses. In music we went from vinyl 78s to 45s to four-tracks to cassettes to CDs to online. Radio has a way of surviving. It will merge with the digital world, like with iHeartRadio, where anybody in the country can turn me on.
THR: What kind of radio do you listen to?
Laboe: Talk radio. That’s where a lot of the talent is. Rush Limbaugh is good at what he does, but he’s very political and that’s not necessarily what I’m talking about. I like Howard Stern and in Los Angeles I think Bill Handel is very talented and has something to say.
THR: What’s one rule for being successful on radio?
Laboe: Be brief.
Other radio personalities being inducted at Saturday's ceremony, taking place at Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications, include Fresh Air host Terry Gross; WLW, Cincinnati legend Gary Burbank; Ron Chapman, Dallas radio icon; the late Jack L. Cooper, radio’s first black disc jockey; and Luther Masingill, Chattanooga, Tennessee radio great for more than 70 years.