Casey Kasem's 'American Top 40' reached for the stars
America's radio show was born on America's birthday. Casey Kasem, who died Sunday — Father's Day — at 82, kicked off "American Top 40" on July 4, 1970, his velvet voice leading listeners through a march of popular music that ended with the No. 1 tune, Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come." To mark the loss of Kasem, on June 21-22, "American Top 40" will dedicate the program to him, featuring long-distance dedications and other highlights from his decades of hosting.
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It seemed such a simple concept: playing the most popular songs in the country in order of ascending popularity. And it had been done before — the GI Generation grew up with "Your Hit Parade." Kasem was different, though, and from that first broadcast on, he showed the rest of radio how it was done. Here's why America was so keen on his countdowns.
With a purring voice as warm and cozy as a knitted afghan, Kasem could sell snow in McMurdo Station, Antarctica — one of the many places "AT40" was heard. He could be a dentist ordering you to have a root canal, and you'd agree to the procedure just to keep him talking. Thankfully, his scripts lived up to the high quality of his vocal tones. Kasem's language was always respectful, he strived to pronounce reader names as properly as if they were his own relatives, and groups such as Alvin and the Chipmunks received the same polite and attentive treatment as Janis Joplin.
An unparalleled storyteller, Kasem loved to drop a teasing question about a song or a band, then cut to commercial, making his trivia so tantalizing that listeners just had to stay tuned to find out the answer. Which artist's career began with a busted television set? (Michael Jackson — when it broke he started singing with his brothers.) Who had the most No. 1 albums without a Top 40 single? (Comic and mood-music expert Jackie Gleason, at least at the time.) Good luck turning off the radio when Kasem still had the answer hanging out there.
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Long Distance Dedications
Who can forget the tear-jerking Long Distance Dedications, where Kasem would read a letter asking him to play a song for a loved one, then deliver the requested tune? They were like mini reality shows. The first, in 1978, sought Neil Diamond's "Desiree" for a girlfriend moving to Germany. Others cried out to lost siblings, praised favorite teachers, comforted hospitalized children. And some dedications were to the famous — the crew of the Challenger was memorialized with "Come Sail Away" by Styx. Above all, the dedications were real letters from real people, and by putting them on the air, Kasem honored all our griefs and losses.
Perhaps the most beloved element of "American Top 40" was Kasem's passion for music. He didn't take the stage and sing, but he did just about everything else to support performers, introducing even the most far-out acts as if they were his own children, cheering when a new band cracked the countdown, excusing those who had fallen out of fashion, and welcoming some back to the fold. Say it was just a radio program if you like, but to the millions who tuned in via car radios, driveway transistors, expensive stereos or beachside boomboxes, it was a small slice of American culture that was at once both national and personal. The man who gave voice to it will be missed.
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