by Kevin Burton
What became a national obsession, started off as a risky idea 50 years ago.
Casey Kasem signed on for the first time with American Top 40 on July 4, 1970.
If you want to take me back to my 1970s childhood, there is no better way than to play one of those countdowns from back in the day.
But top 40 radio was not exactly the rage in the summer of 1970 as Kasem later reminded NPR.
“You remember at the end of the 60s, top 40 was not the most popular format. And here we were coming along with a show called American Top Forty and people said ‘you must be nuts,’” Kasem recalled.
“AT40 boosted and celebrated AM pop radio just as that format was being seriously challenged by album-oriented FM stations,” reads a 50th anniversary article on http://www.billboard.com.
It was Kasem who made the difference. Anybody can talk about songs. But Kasem made the show.
Adam Reader calls himself the “Professor of Rock” on his podcast. He has a spot-on tribute to Kasem and AT40, articulating the way millions felt and still feel about him.
“He was truly a touchstone of our childhood as the father of the American Top 40 countdown,” Reader said, “the authority for my rock and pop education. One of those consistent positive influences you could count on each week.”
For three hours on Sunday (then beginning in 1978 for four hours) we went to music school, with Casey Kasem presiding.
“Every week when he counted down the hits he would always harken back to the pioneers and he’d honor those legacies, the great artists and songs that inspired what we were hearing at that moment in the present,” Reader said. “He set the standard, the blueprint that is followed to this day. He is undoubtedly the class of the dial.”
The Beatles’ 20th and last US number one hit, “The Long And Winding Road,” reached the top on June 13, 1970. As it started to recede, AT40 was launched. One era was ending, another beginning.
“Here we go with the top 40 hits in the nation this week on American Top 40. The best-selling and most-played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood…”
With those words a tradition began.
The first song he ever counted down was the forgettable “The End of Our Road,” by Marvin Gaye, a song that peaked at number 40. The number one single that week was “Mama Told Me” by Three Dog Night.
AT40 aired on only seven stations at first. Billboard says KDEO in El Cajon, California was the first station to run it. The network grew to more than a thousand stations in 50 countries. Why?
Reader and others speak of the “humanity between the songs,” the fact that Casey had such a warm vibe and was such a good storyteller.
“With his heartfelt long-distance dedications he made the world a lot smaller and much more united,” Reader said.
I wasn’t always thrilled with the dedications, but mine was a minority view. Many loved and looked forward to them.
I was longing to hear him say, “now, on with the countdown.”
Kasem began his radio career as an actor on The Lone Ranger show while a student at Wayne State University in Detroit, according to his bio on the Radio Hall of Fame website.
Kasem was one of four creators of AT40. A seed of the show was planted in 1962 when he picked up a magazine that had facts about recording artists. He had been seeking fresh ideas for his radio show.
That night he began introducing songs using “teasers,” facts about the artists. It’s now standard in the industry and was a huge part of the success of AT40.
Casey Kasem died in 2014. AT40 lives on without him and without me. These days they count down lesser songs that don’t hold my interest.
I finish with the immortal show-closing words of Casey Kasem, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”