Casey Kasem's American Top 40
There's only ONE way to salute radio pioneer extraordinaire Casey Kasem with a Long Distance Dedication.
It goes out not just to Casey, but to his fans...millions of listeners covering at least two generations....people who experienced the enjoyment, the honor and the sheer thrill of hearing perhaps radio's greatest voice ever. With his friendly voice, his human interest stories, trivia and chart pieces, Casey educated us about pop music even though we hardly realized it. He was heard world-wide in over 75 foreign countries.
If Elvis Presley was the King of Rock and Roll and Michael Jackson the King of Pop, then surely Casey was the King of the Countdowns. To paraphrase Carly Simon, nobody did it better. And for nearly 40 years from 1970 to 2009, when he played about 10,000 records and read some 4,000 dedication letters.
Casey Kasem wasn't just a one-in-a-million air talent. One-in-a-Centillion was more like it...a talent you'd be fortunate to hear in your lifetime. And his legacy lives to this day...because "American Top 40," now hosted by Ryan Seacrest, is heard on over 400 radio stations worldwide.
Sadly, Casey was 82 when he died Sunday, June 15, 2014, from complications of Lewy body dementia. He mustn't be remembered for his failing health or the bitter family dispute between his second wife, Jean Kasem, and the children from his first marriage. Instead, he must be remembered for the nearly 40 years he entertained us.
His voice will never be silenced. Two of his past shows are heard on weekends, one from the 70’s and one from the 80’s. If you missed them, you can hear them replayed on the iHeart radio web site. Many stations are rumored to be planning to play Casey marathons. Meanwhile, just do a search under “Casey Kasem” in YouTube. There’s only 52,000-plus items to choose from to hear. If you do a Google search of "Casey Kasem," there's over 4.4 million items to see.
While Casey was featured in over 100 combined movies and TV shows, particularly as the voice of Shaggy in the animated "Scooby Doo" cartoon series, "American Top 40" and his spinoff AC (Adult Contemporary) and Hot AC countdown shows were by far his greatest achievements.
How did Casey do it? Simple. He was being his ever-friendly self...and did something that takes literally years to perfect--talking to that listener. Whether it was his favorite chart piece (the Beatles with all five of the top five songs in April 1964)…
…or whether it was a human interest story (e.g. Al Jarvis, the world's first disc jockey), you swore Casey was sitting next to you while telling it to you.
Many features taken for granted on today's countdown shows have Casey to thank. When you hear a Rick Dees or a Bob Kingsley opening his show with a “hello” and a review the previous week's top 3-5 hits, each has Casey to thank. That feature started by accident with the February 24, 1979 AT40 show, when "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" by Rod Stewart was #1. "American Top 40" had just switched from a three-hour to a four-hour show the first weekend of October, 1978. Thus, there was time to play the previous week's top three. Eventually, there wasn't time to play any of the previous week's top three, but the seed had been planted.
Likewise, Casey revolutionized the idea of teasing a song coming up in his countdowns. His teases were short but highly effective. For example, after back-selling, "Don't Leave Me This Way" by Thelma Houston as the #3 song in the USA on the April 9, 1977 AT40 show, Casey came up with this tease: "You know, there's a world famous foreign group in our countdown, who so far have refused to play concerts in the USA. It's because they've never had a #1 record here. Well, in a few minutes, they can start packing." Then, after the ad break, you heard "Don't Give Up On Us" by David Soul at #2...and then Casey's payoff story and #1, "Dancing Queen" by Abba.
Whenever you hear a countdown DJ mention his show's affiliates, he or she has Casey to thank. Station mentions began on AT40 with KMEN/San Bernardino. That station mention came eight weeks after "American Top 40" made its debut on the Fourth Of July weekend of 1970.
It was the culmination of a 21-year odyssey that began one day in 1949. The young man born Kemal Amin Kasem on April 27, 1932 was 17 years old and working at Detroit's Louis Stolinsky's Beer Store. On the radio at the store was CKLW and a countdown called "Eddie Chase And The Make-Believe Ballroom." As Casey recalled, "Eddie had a one-hour show, and I only heard it once. It always stuck in the back of my head. I said to myself, 'If I ever become a DJ, that's the kind of show I'd want to do--a national countdown’."
When “American Top 40” debuted, there were only seven affiliates. The station count increased to well over 100 a year later…and by 1981, there were over 500 USA affiliates. Along the way in the show’s early years, there were specials like the Top 40 Christmas songs and Casey’s favorite, The Top 40 Disappearing Acts.
Casey's greatest feature, though, was born on the show of August 26, 1978. "Desiree" by Neil Diamond was the first Long Distance Dedication, going out from James to Desiree, who as a member of a military family had just moved from the USA to Germany. "Maybe my Desiree in Germany will hear it," James wrote. Nearly 30 years later, James and Desiree were tracked down by Casey's staff. The best of their interviews were aired on the AT10 and AT20 shows saluting the LDD on Valentine's Day weekend, 2007.
Over a 31-year-period, there were all kinds of Casey dedications. A teenage girl wrote to scold singer-actor Leif Garrett for reading "Playboy" magazine, and Casey played "Does Your Mother Know" by Abba. Another girl dedicated "Babe" to the Raggedy Andy doll she'd had since age two...and told Casey, "I'll make sure he's sitting by the radio." A couple in New Zealand were reunited thanks to the song "You Needed Me" by Anne Murray...and would name their daughter after Casey. A mother wrote to dedicate "Tragedy" because the Bee Gees' song helped her young daughter overcome a fear of thunderstorms.
Perhaps the most unique LDD, though, came in April, 1979. Casey read an LDD from then high school student Barry Barringer, who openly invited actress Cheryl Ladd to his school's prom. Barry sent Ladd an invitation complete with candy. Cheryl couldn't make it--she was married, after all--but did take the time to call Barry to thank him for the thoughtful invitation. In February, 1980, Casey would read a follow-up letter from Barringer about Ladd's call. Casey's staff checked on it to verify that it was, indeed, Ladd who made the phone call.
About 10 and a half years after the first LDD was born came what Casey would label "the most important letter I ever read." It was Casey's first Request And Dedication that aired on his debut "Casey's Top 40" show on the Westwood One network the weekend of January 21, 1989. Then 10-year-old Chelsea wrote, "I'm worried that so many people in this country have no place to go and not enough to eat...At my tenth birthday party, I asked my guests to bring canned food instead of presents...please dedicate 'One Moment In Time' by Whitney Houston to all the homeless." Casey never forgot that letter. Not long after his daughter, Liberty, was born, his family asked friends and relatives to bring canned food and clothing to a birthday party instead of presents. The same thing happened with three Christmas parties.
That first "Casey's Top 40" culminated a change in scenery for Casey that dated back some three years in late 1986. That's when he started trying to negotiate a new contract with ABC, but felt he was being put off. Casey then shopped around his talents and wound up with an offer he couldn't refuse from Norm Pattis, the CEO of Westwood One. After signing with the new network, Casey hosted what everybody figured was his last AT40 show ever on August 6, 1988. Shadoe Stevens replaced him as the show host starting the next weekend. Since his old contract with ABC, worth an estimated $1.2 million, didn't expire until January 17, 1989, Casey was essentially paid by ABC to not count them down for five months.
Still, when "Casey's Top 40" debuted, both the new contract given Casey (five years, $15 million) and the number of stations CT40 debuted with (over 400) were unheard-of unprecedented feats. Westwood One ads featuring Casey were the same as what was shown on the cover of a typical show's vinyl record set...a photo of Casey with the headline "The Original...and Still The Best."
When the Current Hit Radio (CHR) format took a huge hit with roughly 600 such stations changing to other formats by 1991, Casey and Westwood One came up with the perfect counteraction. In March 1992, Casey began a second show, counting down the week's top Adult Contemporary hits with "Casey's Countdown." A third show of the week's top Hot AC hits, "Casey's Hot 20," would follow in November, 1994.
Meanwhile, Casey's former show, "American Top 40," struggled mightily. When ABC saw the show as a money loser, AT40 suddenly left the USA airwaves the weekend of July 16, 1994. It was replaced with another show ABC landed, "The Rick Dees Weekly Top 40." Radio Express, which distributed "American Top 40" to foreign countries, continued to do so, but for only about another six months. On the weekend of January 28, 1995, the last AT40 show ever aired. Or so everyone thought.
When the ABC network did nothing with AT40 for two years, by contract the show's ownership reverted back to Casey and co-founder Don Bustany in early 1997. This would prove to be a pivotal move. About a year later in February, 1998, Casey suddenly left the Westwood One Network to sign with the AMFM Network. He took advantage of a contract stipulation that said if advertising profits fell below $6 million, either party had the right to opt out of the contract.
To give you an idea of just how powerful Casey's popularity was, consider this: After Casey's last shows with Westwood One on the weekend of February 21, 1998, the network tried for the next three weeks to have shows that couldn't mention the word "Casey" anywhere. Not even in the title. "Casey's Top 40" became "The Top 40,"; "Casey's Countdown" became "The Countdown"'; and "Casey's Hot 20" became "The Hot 20."
The worst thing, though, was when the substitute hosts couldn't start a dedication letter with the words "Dear Casey." One of them was David Perry, who once on a Casey show said "I'm Casey Kasem." Perry reflected, "I mean, Casey's the one that started the whole thing. I couldn't say 'Dear David.' The first one I did like that in the session taping the show, I just said, 'And here's what she writes: (slight pause) A year ago...' I got about four sentences into this thing and I just stopped and said, 'Man, this is too weird.' And everybody said, 'Yeah, it is'."
The weekend of March 28, 1998 marked an historic and welcomed reunion. "American Top 40," the show that was seemingly gone and left for dead for 38 months, was reborn and hosted by the man who started it 28 years earlier. "Casey's Top 40" went back to being "American Top 40," "Casey's Countdown" became "American Top 20 (AC)" and "Casey's Hot 20" became "American Top 20 (Hot AC)."
Former AT40 host Shadoe Stevens led the way in applauding the reunion. "I think it's terrific," Shadoe said. "It's Casey's franchise. It's a great show--and he should be doing it. He created it. He went through the hardship of getting it on the air. Out of nothing, he created something that was bigger than life." In August, 2000, the AMFM Network was purchased by Premiere Radio Networks, which would handle Casey's shows the rest of his countdown career.
Starting with the second weekend of 2004, Casey handed the AT40 mike over to Ryan Seacrest...and congratulated Ryan via a phone message. Two months later, "American Top 20 (AC)" became "American Top 10."
The last Casey shows aired the weekend of July 4, 2009. His last Long Distance Dedication came to him from a listener named Adam who wrote, "Casey, you've touched a great number of people through your shows and you should be very proud of the impact you've had on our society. The radio airwaves just won't be the same without you."
That LDD's song was "Thank You For Being A Friend" by Andrew Gold. The two shows' last #1's were "Second Chance" (Shinedown) on "American Top 20" and "Love Story" (Taylor Swift) on "American Top 10." Before saying "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars" one last time, Casey noted, "I'd like to share with you something I've learned over the years. Success doesn't happen in a vacuum. You're only as good as the people you work with out and the people you work for. I've been lucky. I worked for and with the very best."
Oh, that reminds me. There's one more song to play...and it's the one for this Long Distance Dedication to Casey. What better song to play than the one popular in the Fall of 1989?
After all, to paraphrase Tina Turner, when it came to radio voices, Casey was...
"Simply the best."
By ROB DURKEE
Author, "American Top 40: The Countdown Of The Century"