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 old, still 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.”