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Art Laboe 1925-2022

The legendary Art Laboe, beloved Los Angeles deejay and founder of Original Sound Records, passed away last Friday at the age of 97. Alec Palao remembers a fascinating figure, and one of the true architects of the reissue business.

From 1960 to 2014, anyone dragging Hollywood’s immortal Sunset Strip from west to east could not have missed the distinctive “Art Laboe-Original Sound Entertainment” sign above a two-storey, roughcast-walled building at Sunset and La Brea. Art Laboe was a titan of the Los Angeles scene, and a constant figure upon the southern California airwaves from the early 1950s on – from the cheeky, nasal-voiced location broadcasts at Scrivner’s Drive-In on KPOP, to a TV show and smoothly-delivered slots on stations like KDAY, and of course his incredibly popular dedication shows of recent decades, a presence so beloved that an enforced retrenchment from a particular network in the 2000s drew the not inconsiderable ire of his listenership. All of this is somewhat familiar from the news reportage of his passing, and indeed most of his public pronouncements and interviews over the years: the avuncular institution familiar to the devoted and now largely Hispanic fan base that pack his “Love Jam” live events, or respond to his radio show with a marked “dedication” of their own. In that way, Art Laboe leaves quite a legacy, but there was a lot more to this fascinating individual than the rote bios would have it.

Born Arthur Egnoian to Armenian parentage, he started his broadcasting career while stationed in San Francisco during World War Two, which was where he first devised a unique audience-participation aspect to radio programming by taking requests and dedications from listeners live on air. This format proved especially popular once he became established in the Los Angeles region, and coupled with Laboe’s frequent championship of the emerging R&B and rock’n’roll market, it made him a powerhouse in local media as the 1950s wore on. An astute businessman, Laboe also invested heavily in property, including the two buildings at 7120 Sunset Boulevard that would become his headquarters for the next half century. He sidestepped officious LA city regulations by throwing huge dances in neighbouring El Monte at a boxing arena known as the Legion Stadium, wildly popular multi-racial affairs that would quickly become legendary. And he established the Original Sound and Starla record labels, initially dabbling in contemporary material that delivered hits like ‘Teen Beat’ by Sandy Nelson and ‘Bongo Rock’ by Preston Epps.

These early singles successes aside, it was with the huge sales of his long-lived multi-volume “Oldies But Goodies” album series, commencing in 1959, that Art not only established Original Sound as a front-runner in the post-rock’n’roll nostalgia market, but also unwittingly invented the basic format of the compilation. To be sure, there had been similar collections of hits prior to OBG – Art would fancifully claim that he came up with the concept so that he wouldn’t have to keep getting up to change 45s on his player whilst entertaining – but the brand quickly became synonymous with the rose-tinted, retrospective predilections of American society that would explode in the 1970s with “American Graffiti”, “Happy Days” and innumerable Dick Clark endeavours. In many ways, Laboe designed the embryonic framework of the entire back catalogue business as it evolved, navigating licensing and marketing frontiers that have since become commonplace. The OBG series’ popularity led to Original Sound establishing their own national distribution network in the decades when physical product ruled and later became an early and prescient adherent of placing catalogue items in movies and TV series.

Interestingly enough for someone who made a considerable fortune from repurposing baby-boomer nostalgia, Laboe was reticent about his own achievements in music. But he was truly a record man, who understood what the public wanted, but also recognized quality and potential longevity when he came across it. He bought the Double Shot catalogue because he knew of the Latino audiences devotion to Brenton Wood. And he acquired the rights to several songs, most significantly the Skyliners’ ‘Since I Don’t Have You’, simply because he loved them and felt they were timeless. Taking a break from regular broadcasting to run the label in the mid-1960s, his invariably commercial mindset saw Laboe dabble in different genres on Original Sound, issuing country, jazz, teen-pop and garage and psychedelic items through the 1960s, the most successful of which was the Music Machine’s ‘Talk Talk’ in 1966, brought to him by producer Brian Ross. However, his true love remained R&B, and the sole artist in whom Laboe invested his own time and emotional energy was Dyke & The Blazers, as producer accurately pegging the street vibe of the idiosyncratic Arlester “Dyke” Christian and the influential ‘Funky Broadway’, and pairing the singer with players that would deliver such instructive proto-funk as ‘We Got More Soul’ and ‘Let A Woman Be A Woman.’

Another aspect rarely touched upon is Laboe’s quiet sponsorship of cutting-edge audio technology. His background in radio had made him somewhat adept at electronics, and with the OBG albums a source of regular income, Art decided to establish a recording studio above the Original Sound office. Rather than man it himself, he brought in boffin Paul Buff to run the facility, and Buff outfitted the studio with a unique, one-of-a-kind 10-track tape machine and recording desk of his own design. For several years in the mid-60s Original Sound was popular with those in the know, as it was a “dark” (non-union) studio, and Buff’s expertise brought a parade of eclectic clients such as Frank Zappa (Buff’s former cohort with whom he had collaborated on several early Original Sound singles), Carole King, Lowell George, Captain Beefheart, David Gates, Frank Slay, Marshall Leib, Curt Boettcher and Keith Olsen, alongside a host of fascinating, if more obscure, pop, rock and soul sessions. Major hits cut at Original Sound in those years included the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s ‘Incense & Peppermints’ and Sugarloaf’s ‘Green-Eyed Lady.’ Later on, Laboe also bankrolled Buff’s electronics company Allison Research, famous for the Kepex and other widely-employed bits of studio outboard gear.

Outside of the seemingly never-ending OBG series, Art wound the label down somewhat in the 1970s. He ran an Oldies club on the site of the famous venue Ciro’s, got involved in radio station management at KRLA, and continued to occasionally dabble in record production, the most recent endeavour in that regard being a Latin Hip-Hop label, Viva. Original Sound was kept busy with licensing and, increasingly, live event promotion, as Art’s stature in the community remained ever strong. Eventually, about fifteen years ago, he decided to divest the company’s assets, selling his Sunset Boulevard landmark – which was rapidly razed by the developer – to decamp to Palm Springs, where he could comfortably handle his radio show and occasional in-person appearance from outside the bustle of an ever-changing Hollywood.

I got to know Art a bit when I first started visiting Original Sound in the early 2000s. Ace had licensed select items from their catalogue for many years, but I just knew there was more gold in the vault. Thanks to the good graces of Art’s stalwart sidekicks Dale and Jo-Mo, I was eventually let loose upstairs at 7120 to rummage through the tape room, and found a plethora of undiscovered gems amongst the numerous reels, many of which ended up on releases by the Music Machine, Count Five, Brenton Wood, Dyke & The Blazers and various other places. Art normally came in later in the day to do his early evening show from the offices, so we’d exchange pleasantries, but a little later I had the chance to talk to him at length, when he was floating the idea of a memoir. It was obvious by the deference of the staff at the Chateau Marmont when we met there for lunch that Art was truly royalty in Hollywood. At the other end of the scale, I ran into him at the infamous Rainbow, where he held court in a booth with a couple of chaps that looked like they’d stepped off the set of “The Sopranos”. Art was unfailingly gracious, however, and we would have more in-depth talks once he was domiciled in Palm Springs. He eventually lost interest in the book idea, but I feel fortunate I got a chance to chat to him about aspects of his career that have rarely surfaced in published interviews.

In that regard, I can clearly remember the first time I got a glimmer of the real Art Laboe. It was early one evening upstairs at Original Sound and, having fired up the 10-track, I was auditioning some of the Dyke session tapes. The studio door swung open to reveal Art, curious as to what I was up to. Hearing the music, he started to talk about how much he had admired Dyke, and then went on to share some stories about their relationship with a warm, affectionate tone which made me instantly regret I didn’t have a recorder running to capture them. But as he noticed that the tape I had up was for ‘We Got More Soul’, eventually his commercial side kicked in – “hey why don’t we do some overdubs - we got Dr Dre doing his thing, we got Puff Daddy, Janet Jackson doing their thing . . .” I smiled, for it was indeed a charming moment. It’s also how I will remember Art Laboe, because for all his consideration of commercial success, the man truly loved his music.