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.

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.

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    Casey Kasem

    Casey Kasem led radio listeners through the music of the moment as host of "American Top 40" and other countdown shows, and he also provided the voice of Scooby's human pal Shaggy on "Scooby-Doo."

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    Disc jockey, TV personality and actor Casey Kasem, seen here in 1990, counted down the hits for decades thanks to his work on radio shows such as "American Top 40" and "Casey's Countdown." He was also well-known as the voice of Shaggy on "Scooby-Doo."

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    Heads up -

    Kasem also starred in the 1971 sci-fi horror film "The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant," a companion film to the more famed "The Thing With Two Heads."

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    Berry Koeger and Kasem in another scene from "The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant."

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    Host with the most -

    Kasem, shown here in 1994, inaugurated "American Top 40" in 1970 and left in 1988. During the 1990s, he hosted the competing "Casey's Top 40" and variations, returning to "AT40" in 1998.

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    With Rick Springfield -

    Kasem and rock star and "General Hospital" actor Rick Springfield shared a laugh in 1982.

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    Kasem, seen here in 2000, married actress Jean Thompson in 1980, and they had daughter Liberty in 1990. Jean Kasem played Loretta Tortelli on "Cheers" and the spinoff, "The Tortellis."

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    Casey Kasem has three children from his first marriage. Daughter Kerri is seen with him at the 2003 Radio Music Awards in 2003.

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    Casey and Jean Kasem arrive at The Museum of Television & Radio's annual Los Angeles Gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Nov. 10, 2003 in Beverly Hills, California.

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    Shaggy and Scooby -

    Kasem provided the voice of Scooby-Doo's human pal Shaggy from the beginning of "Scooby-Doo" in 1969 until 1997, and then again from 2002 to 2009.

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    Kasem appears on the "American Top 40 Live" show in Los Angeles on April 24, 2005.

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    Kasem and his children Mike and Kerri arrive at the Golden Dads Awards ceremony at the Peterson Automotive Museum on June 15, 2005, in Los Angeles.

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Kasem's voice
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.

Musical trivia
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.

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. 

Kasem himself
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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