El Amor

Through Oldies And His On-Air Dedications, Art Laboe Has Soundtracked The Love And Heartache Of Millions

Late at night, a lovesick Monica Robles would lay on her bed and stare up at the ceiling, her phone pressed tightly to her ear. Her other hand held her radio up against the receiver so she and the boy on the other end could listen to the voices floating harmoniously through the radio waves, soundtracking the flight of the butterflies in her stomach.

The phone’s cord stretched tightly across the room, making any sort of movement difficult. Her ear would ache and the romance of those moments would be brutally interrupted by her mother’s screams of “Ya deja el teléfono,” but it didn’t matter. The boy who stole her heart was there, and together they sang….

I don’t have plans and schemes / And I don’t have hopes and dreams / I don’t have anything / Since I don’t have you

Then another familiar voice appeared – a voice that’s been a steady presence in Robles’ life since before she can remember.

“Hi everyone! This is Art Laboe, and you’re listening to the Art Laboe Sunday Special.”

Robles knew what was coming, and she hoped with all her heart she’d hear her name.

“We’re gonna send some dedications now. This one is from Green Eyes to Puppet. Smiley says ‘I love you, baby! I miss you and can’t wait to be in your arms.’ We’re gonna play ‘Confessin’ A Feeling’ by Sly, Slick & Wicked for Green Eyes and Puppet. And here it goes!”

For 74 years, Laboe has brought music to the masses as a radio DJ, and is widely considered a legend among Latinos, especially within the Mexican-American/Chicano community.

He coined the phrase “oldies but goodies,” and at 92 years oldstill hosts live concerts and a nightly show that’s syndicated across 12 affiliate radio stations.

The Art Laboe Sunday Special is especially popular, broadcasting classic oldies into the homes, cars, and backyard cookouts of millions, who all tune in to hear the music they grew up with and the famous on-air dedications. Listeners call in to dedicate a song to a loved one and send along a special message that’s broadcasted to millions. Laboe will also read some dedications himself in his warmly weathered voice.

“My voice is pretty pleasant to listen to,” he says.

He ends his dedications with his signature loud smack of a kiss. Muah!

Through his show, Laboe has been the connector, bringing people deep in love or in the midst of heartache together via the songs of a bygone era.

“Those songs, even though they’re so sad, just fixed so many of my broken hearts, just laying there in my bed. Even sometimes just crying a little bit to those songs,” says Robles. “They were going through what I was going through, and those songs were able to speak what I was going through.”

That love of oldies led Robles, also known as Moniloca, to build an enviable collection of oldies vinyl that will help fund her daughter’s college education. She still has a cassette of one of the DJ’s “Dedicated To You” compilations that her mom bought her at a swap meet for her 15th birthday.

“I felt like Art Laboe understood me,” she continues. “He understood heartbreak and he was able to play it on the radio. And when I was in love, he played the songs I wanted to hear. He just knew how to make you feel good.”

Robles pulls from her record shelves to host her podcast “Lowrider Sundays” and pack bars in San Diego, LA, and San Francisco, where she DJs on nights dedicated to oldies, freestyle, cumbias and everything in between as part of the San Diego chapter of the Chulita Vinyl Club. It’s a party where people will inevitably yell out, “This is my Jam!”

“For a variety of reasons, people break up and they both listen to the show and start the ball rolling on making up,” says Laboe, who recorded his very first show in 1943.

“There’s a lot of secrecy, doing songs for someone that they have a pet name for, to let them know that they’re listening and thinking of them,” he adds. “I’ve had people propose marriage over the air. A lot of [couples] have met each other at my concerts.”

Inspired by the path Laboe paved, Robles plays oldies as a way to connect music and culture, keeping its sounds alive during happy moments, tragedies, and Saturday morning cleaning.

That connection is especially vital to a large contingency of Laboe’s fans who are incarcerated.

Perhaps some of his most recognized dedications on his show are the ones sent through prison walls. Those messages are something Manuel Basabe, owner of Mesheeka Cultural Arts Center in Barrio Logan, a historic Chicano neighborhood in San Diego, holds dear. Basabe served time from 2002 to 2005 for his role in a spree of bank robberies and recently curated an art show featuring work by imprisoned artists.

Every Sunday in the day room at the Desert View Modified Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, Calif., Basabe and a group of his fellow inmates would gather around a small radio placed at the center of a communal table.

“The show was one of the highlights of the prison life,” he says, adding, “everything just kind of quiets down for the Art Laboe show. If you’re out of your cell, everybody crowds around the radio and listens to the music and the dedications. It’s just so uplifting, especially when you’re in a dark place in your life. That show does wonders for a lot of people’s spirit.”

There, in their uniforms and surrounded by cinder block and bars, the men would kick up their feet, play cards and dominoes, share their stories, and sing along to the oldies Laboe would play.

“The guys that can’t sing are getting clowned on, and the other guys that can sing, we’d start requesting songs straight to them. ‘Sing this one! Sing this one!'” remembers Basabe. “It totally transports you out of that environment for a few moments, and you forget that you’re there. You just remember better times.”

Basabe had songs like “For the Love of You” by The Isley Brothers and James Brown’s “Try Me” as companions during those years. Prison life is purposefully a solitary one, and the calls and letters inevitably dwindle over time.

The oldies and dedications on those Sunday evenings allowed him to float away from the confines of his cell. He could live vicariously through the messages of love sent through the radio.

“The hard thing that prisoners have to deal with is that they’re stuck in this place and every one else moves on with their lives,” he says. “Girlfriends move on, sometimes wives move on, and the whole world passes you by. It’s heartbreaking for everyone to realize. When the consequences set in, you have to deal with the consequences from your loved ones as well. That’s really a dose of reality.”

Then one Sunday, among the laughter and singing in the Desert View day room, he heard Art Laboe say his name.

“The happiness I felt hearing that dedication was unreal. I can’t remember [the song]. I remember who it was. It was a special someone,” he says.

“When you hear that dedication, it’s like somebody just scooped up all the pieces of your heart and offered it back to you like, ‘here, thinking of you even though we’re apart,” he adds. “Just to hear that song dedication connects you to the outside world. You get this glimmer of hope and happiness. You’re kind of like rejuvenated. I’ll never forget it. It was wonderful.”

For both Robles and Basabe, the on-air dedications elicit a nostalgic type of romance. While an Instagram post hashtagged #bae is still sweet, there’s something special about hearing a song dedicated especially to you on the radio. And for the incarcerated, the medium has the added bonus of being free and easily accessible. As Basabe puts it, “radio waves can go through all that concrete and those bars and steel, and even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Oldies were the soundtrack for heartbreak, the soundtrack for love, and it fits in with the prison life as well. You can set your whole life to the oldies,” he says, adding “I think that a lot of people respect [Laboe] because of what he does, not just the music that he plays, but the dedications that he does. I think it’s a gravitational pull towards one another, the Mexican-American or Chicano community and Art Laboe. They just found each other and it was a match made in heaven. He’s like that crazy grandpa you have that you drink tequila with.”

Laboe himself understands the importance his show holds for those who are incarcerated and their families that miss them. He recalls one caller whose husband went to prison for a 10-year sentence just as she had gotten pregnant. When the baby was two, she called in to make a dedication and asked if the baby could say hello to her dad on the air.

“Years later, when he got out of jail, he came to see me and told me that he broke down and cried,” says Laboe. “This big, rough, tough gambler, mean as hell. He said that just broke him up when she said ‘Hi daddy, I love you.'”

For Robles, seeing the young crowd in their hoops and sneakers dancing alongside ruquitos in their sharp outfits, she knows in her heart she’s doing something right.

“They’re dancing and you see the young kids dancing and it’s nice. You see it going full circle,” she says. “I have faith that the music’s going to continue to live on because of people like Art Laboe. We’re able to make sure that this music doesn’t fade and it’s not just going to end up as a really bad Pandora station. This music’s going to still be out there and still be played for us to enjoy, even after I’m gone.”

READ: If You Grew Up In The ’00s, You Definitely Dedicated One (Or All) Of These Latina Jams To Your Crush

What’s your oldies jam? Leave your dedication in the comments!

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HBO’s Latest Documentary “The Sentence” Sheds Light On How Unjust Mandatory-Minimum Sentences Can Break A Family

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HBO’s Latest Documentary “The Sentence” Sheds Light On How Unjust Mandatory-Minimum Sentences Can Break A Family

The Sentence / Rudy Valdez / HBO

On February 29, 2008, Cindy Shank’s life changed forever. That’s the day the Lansing, Michigan-based Mexican-American was sentenced to 15 years in prison on drug conspiracy charges, forcing her to be a mother, wife, daughter and sister from hundreds of miles away for nonviolent crimes she did not commit. Her story is the subject of “The Sentence,” an award-winning documentary filmed by Shank’s brother, Rudy Valdez, exploring the injustice of mandatory-minimum sentencing. 

“I don’t think anyone else could have made this film about my family. I don’t think it would have had the same effect,” Valdez, who started shooting videos of his three nieces — Autumn, Annalis and Ava — so that his older sister could watch some of the many moments she missed while away in prison when she returned home, told FIERCE. The home recordings inspired a documentary eight months into Shank’s sentence, when she cried over the phone imagining her oldest daughter dance at an upcoming recital. “I had an opportunity to tell a story you don’t get to hear about: the family, the children left behind and the residual effects of long sentences,” he continued.

That story begins in 2002, when Shank’s then-boyfriend, Alex Humphry, who started selling drugs after they began dating, was murdered.

When police officers arrived at the scene, they found 20 kilograms of cocaine, a kilogram of crack cocaine, 40 pounds of marijuana, $40,000 and guns. While mourning the death of her partner, Shank was indicted for multiple drug crimes. Maintaining her innocence — she alleges she was never a part of her late ex’s drug offenses — she declined a plea deal and, with no evidence against her, was released from jail with her case dismissed.

In the years that followed, Shank moved on with her life: she fell in love again, got married, bought a home and had three daughters. But during an early morning in March 2007, police once again knocked on her door, this time arresting Shank on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

“Conspiracy is knowledge. Any knowledge you have of a crime, you could be charged for that crime,” Shank says in the nearly one hour and thirty minute-long film. “Basically, I lived in the home, so any crimes he committed while we lived together I was charged with.”

Shank, nor her parents, husband or brother, has ever denied guilt for not informing police officers of her boyfriend’s misdeeds. Throughout the documentary, her, and her worried family, take issue with the unfairness of her 15-year prison term. For the family, as well as the litigators and experts interviewed for the film, mandatory-minimum sentencing laws — controversial regulations that encourage strict sentencing rules over judicial discretion — account for one of the greatest failures of the U.S. government. The law, once considered unconstitutional, puts power into the hands of prosecutors, rather than judges, and has been abused in the drug war to punish tens of thousands of low-level, nonviolent state and federal defendants with harsh terms.

In the film, Valdez is one of the biggest opponents of mandatory-minimum sentencing, speaking with media about the wrongfulness of these laws and unceasingly fighting, through failed appeals and a clemency petition, to have her sister released early. His battle comes to a triumphant end in November 2016, eight years into Shank’s term, when then-President Barack Obama commuted his sister’s sentence. Shank was released on December 21, 2016, just in time to surprise her daughters for the holidays.

“The best is the little things: holding my daughters at night, having conversations with them, knowing them from the inside out. I know Ava doesn’t like cheese. I know how much I have to tickle Annalis to get the dimple on her cheek,” Shank, now 45, told FIERCE.

But she’s the first to acknowledge that her long-awaited release hasn’t just brought sunny days.

Shank, whose husband filed for divorce three years into her sentence, is trying to build relationships with daughters, who know her more from five-minute phone conversations and annual prison visits than caring for them at home.

“The hardest is the late-night conversations. Annalis comes to me and asks why were you gone. We are still having these talks and will throughout our lives. Who knows what’s to come? We won’t know the ramifications of all of this until the future. We’ll see it in what lies ahead and the decisions they make,” she added.

Accompanying her pain for lost time is that of the continued years, months, weeks and days of the people who, like she once was, remain behind bars because of unjust mandatory-minimum sentences. Shank was one of more than 35,000 inmates who requested consideration for a commuted or reduced sentence through the non-government affiliated organization the Clemency Project 2014, and she is one of less than 2,000 to receive it.

“When Rudy told me it was just 1,600 people, it crushed me. My heart crushed because I know what that’s like. Every time a list would come out, I would look to see if I was on it — for three years. I know what it’s like to have that hope and to feel defeated every time it lets you down. Hope is hard to have, and yet it’s the hardest to live without,” she said.

For Valdez, this documentary isn’t for his sister, his nieces or his parents. Instead, it’s for the tens of thousands whose names were not listed, for those who continue to be forgotten in the U.S.’ criminal justice system.

“This film is about the larger issue. Her story is emblematic of everyone else, of the people still there and of the children still going through this,” Valdez said. “This is for those who are going to go through this fight in the future and those who have been left behind.”

Check out the trailer below:

Watch “The Sentence” on Monday, October 15 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

Read: Locked Up: How Latinas Became One Of The Fastest-Growing Prison Populations

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