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LOS ANGELES — This letter arrives courtesy of Sunday morning radio listeners across the country, from those millions in bedrooms and kitchens or near car stereos whose first pop music experiences arrived through the voice of one man, a DJ named Casey Kasem.
Kasem, the warm voice of the syndicated show American Top 40 on and off for more than three decades and a seminal figure in Los Angeles music starting in the 1960s through his work on local radio and television, died Sunday at age 82. With his passing, generations of listeners who awakened to his pop music sermons have found themselves without a formative educator.
Each week beginning on July 4, 1970, Kasem counted down America’s “hits from coast to coast.” With a comforting voice that delivered each song with enthusiasm and catch-phrases such as “the hits get bigger and the numbers get smaller,” he paced through the pop, rock, country, and R&B hits that made up the chart. At its peak, American Top 40 aired on more than 1,000 stations (and continues to this day with host Ryan Seacrest).
The result was must-hear radio. Before the Internet shattered the top 40 template by allowing infinite access to volumes of new music regardless of chart position or buzz, American Top 40 was, with television’s American Bandstand, the most prominent and enduring stethoscope monitoring the country’s musical heartbeat.
Just as important for those of us looking for an introduction to the world of music, Kasem and his team delivered streamlined content and history, and they humanized both the artists and the ideas driving their hit songs. As he counted down from 40 to 1 or delivered a “long-distance dedication” to a listener, Kasem offered trivia on chart position and the artists’ place in the pop continuum.
LOS ANGELES — Counting down the top 10 things you might not know about radio personality Casey Kasem, the founding voice of “American Top 40,” who died Sunday:
10. Beginning in 1969, Kasem voiced the character Shaggy for the animated series “Scooby-Doo: Where Are You!” He continued to voice the long-haired hippie in TV, film and video games until 2009. He also gave voice to characters on “Sesame Street” and the 1986 “Transformers” movie, along with voicing Robin on “Super Friends.”
9. Kasem’s work on radio commercials was highly lucrative — and not nearly as easy as it might have seemed for someone so smooth on the air. “The greatest compliment that anyone can pay me is that after I say something, they remember it,” he once said. “I’ll go over a piece of copy until I’ve gotten the essence of what the writer had in mind, every nuance.”
8. In addition to his radio show and voice work, Kasem was the co-host of a teen dance show on Los Angeles television during the 1960s called “Shebang.” He also had a minor hit single during that time, “Letter From Elaina,” and appeared in a few low-budget movies and some network TV series, including “Hawaii Five-O” and “Ironside.”
7. While Kasem seldom appeared onscreen, his second wife, Jean Kasem, was a semi-regular in the sitcom “Cheers” as Loretta Tortelli and a regular in a short-lived spinoff, “The Tortellis.”
6. Kasem gained attention in the 1990s when he blew up because of a staff error on his “American Top 40” show and his taped remarks, swearing and all, made their way into cyberspace. He told The New York Times in 2004 that he didn’t know it had been made public until years later.
5. Kasem was a vegetarian and an activist against factory farming.
4. An Arab-American activist, Kasem called for a fairer balance between heroes and villains in the 1994 Disney Aladdin sequel, “The Return of Jafar.” But he added, “We’re not out there just to be so picky that we become a pain in the neck. We’re there to do what we can to call attention to the sensitivity of not only Arab-Americans, but to any ethnic group.”
3. As host of “American Top 40,” Kasem introduced a romantic segment called Long Distance Dedications. Listeners would send in their dedications, and Kasem would pick a few heartfelt messages to read each week on the air, playing the love song that went with it. The first Long Distance Dedication Kasem played was Neil Diamond’s “Desiree” on Aug. 26, 1978.
2. When “American Top 40” premiered on July 4, 1970, the top five songs were: Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” The Jackson Five’s “The Love You Save,” The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” ‘‘Ride Captain Ride” by Blues Image and Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold.” When Kasem retired from “AT40” at the end of 2003, the top five tracks were: “Hey Ya” by Outkast, “Here Without You” by 3 Doors Down, “Suga Suga” by Baby Bash, “Perfect” by Simple Plan and Nickelback’s “Someday.”
1. “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” — The radio signoff Kasem used throughout his five-decade career.
“Here’s a smash by the first recording artists we’ve ever known about who’s been officially named poet laureate of any of the 50 states,” he said in a July, 1974, program. Honoring John Denver’s hit Annie’s Song, Kasem said that a proclamation made by Colorado’s governor had named the songwriter “poet laureate of that Rocky Mountain state.” He then offered the dictionary definition of “poet laureate,” a little nugget of education nestled within the fandom.
In his own way, Kasem was passing down the stories that defined pop. Before cueing the Chicano band Tierra’s hit in a show from early 1981, Kasem described its East Los Angeles origins.
“Their main support came from the Latino low rider community clubs, organizations of car enthusiasts who would lower the chassis of their car and cruise the boulevards,” he said. “This week, Tierra cruises up a cool two notches on the survey with Together.”
The knowledge could be fun too. Before playing Prince’s When Doves Cry during a summer 1984 show, Kasem gave trivia on past bird-related hits by Inez Foxx (Mockingbird) and Rufus Thomas (Do the Funky Chicken). He then dubbed the dove “the most named bird in the top 40.” When introducing Carl Douglas’ novelty hit Kung Fu Fighting as the No. 1 song of Dec. 14, 1974, he took a step back to examine kung fu culture.
Such information was usually only a few sentences long, but over the course of the show it accrued, offering boundless avenues of entry into the cast of characters that made up pop music.
In the pre-Internet era, such information was hard to find. As a trade magazine, Billboard wasn’t geared toward your average teen, and it was too expensive anyway. Record store charts varied from town to town. In contrast, American Top 40 under Kasem was the definitive source, and each week as he ran through Billboard’s pop singles chart there was a palpable sense of anticipation. Would Bruce Springsteen unseat Duran Duran for the No. 1 single? How far up the charts could ABBA’s The Winner Takes It All possibly ascend?
Granted, to rebels, Kasem’s preaching felt more like some wicked indoctrination. As pop music expanded and evolved and Kasem’s generation matured, his version of America seemed less relevant, and he became to many a symbol of everything wrong with reductive, market-driven pop music. To a generation channeling anger and frustration through hip-hop and punk, Kasem was someone to rebel against. He was friendly, but he certainly wasn’t cool.
That truth is one reason why an extant recording of Kasem berating an American top 40 producer during a recording session went viral, and was so illuminating. The recording captured Kasem losing his cool during a taping of a long-distance dedication about a recently deceased dog named Snuggles. His tirade shattered the facade, and forever altered the DJ’s carefully crafted nice-guy image. But it also confirmed him as not just an invisible voice flowing from the radio but also as a stubborn perfectionist more than willing to be as demanding as he needed to be.
And then there were those long-distance dedications, when each week, Kasem dipped into the mail bag and read another Kleenex-inducing story of loss or love, then played a request. At times, they were cheesy, designed for maximum treacle — letters from estranged lovers, high school sweethearts looking to reconnect, soldiers stationed abroad listening on the Armed Forces Radio Network.
As overwrought as they sometimes were, though, these dedications confirmed an important truth about the ways in which a pop song can gain meaning not through mere melody but through an exchange of emotions. He taught that a song considered disposable by one could be a lifeline for another, could embody feelings that transcended the constraints of mere melody line, could manifest profound emotion.
It’s similar to what many are feeling with Kasem’s passing. Through peaks and valleys, through soft rock, disco, new wave, rap, grunge, dance-pop, and beyond, the DJ celebrated not the hooks and rhythms that made songs hits, but the underlying spirit that drove them into hearts and minds.
And for that, Casey Kasem earned his rank, and our eternal thanks.