Just a big kid, still listening to American Top 40

Musically, Casey was as close to being all things to all people as you could find. He appeared just as excited to bring us the Beatles as he was the Osmonds.

Posted on June 17, 2014 at 5:10 p.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Place Where You Live is a regular column from a variety of writers in Elkhart County.

The ever-patient Mrs. Turner simply shakes her head and smiles as she walks into the room on any given Saturday afternoon. She catches me again. Here I sit, her allegedly full-grown husband with pen in hand, dutifully scratching down the No. 29 song from this week in 1974. The Sirius XM replay of American Top 40 may very well be four decades old, but to me the songs are as fresh as the day Casey Kasem first counted ‘em down.

I was raised on radio. Gary Owens, Robert W. Morgan and Wink Martindale helped this kid burn through a whole bunch of 9-volt batteries back in southern California. Vin Scully, Dick Enberg and Chick Hearn made sports come alive. Then when our family moved to the Midwest, it was Lujak, Winston, Landecker, Brickhouse and Harwell who helped smooth the transition.

Yet as velvet as those voices may have been, none captured me like Casey Kasem. There were many Saturdays in the 70’s when I found myself trying explain why catching Casey and making a list of those 40 songs was more important than finishing the teen chores. Today, a full two generations later, the “honey-do” list is often postponed for the same reason. This boy needs no new toys. He has Casey.

Casey Kasem died on Father’s Day. Now I think I know how Don McLean felt. You know … a long, long time ago, when music used to make him smile. American Top 40 is my American Pie.

“You could say I owe something to Elvis and the Beatles,” Kasem told me in a 1983 interview for The Elkhart Truth. I was on the sports desk at the time but Lifestyle editor Marcia Fulmer knew of my obsession with American Top 40 and all things radio. She tossed an irresistible temptation my way when the popular host made himself available for a nationwide round of interviews to promote the show. “Those and others like them helped make radio a giant force in the Sixties. And, of course, radio then made a big difference in my life.”

Musically, Casey was as close to being all things to all people as you could find. He appeared just as excited to bring us the Beatles as he was the Osmonds. He was diverse before diversity was cool and he had a seemingly endless supply of stories behind every artist and every song. As specialized formats and a crisper sound lured many of us to the FM dial during the 70's, Kasem brought us back to the AM side for at least three hours a week.

“Music is the key,” Kasem explained. “We never lose sight of the fact that American Top 40 is a DJ show. I’m a DJ, not a narrator. While I give out information and tell stories, first and foremost I play records. Total up the time I actually talk in an hour, not counting the time I talk over the records. If you take all the time I talk when there is no music behind me, it would come out to approximately six minutes.”

I challenged my hero on the rather modest review of his own talents. American Top 40 is/was more than an average disc jockey counting down the week’s best selling records. His unique feel for the curiosity inside every music fan, coupled with a flair for the dramatic, kept the program several paces ahead of countless imitators.

“That’s the point,” Casey replied. “While playing hit records, I’m also informing people about the business, human interest stories, statistics and facts they probably haven’t heard before. The little hook I use, giving the listener a clue about what's coming up and always providing a legitimate payoff, has worked well. I always felt if we kept the integrity of the show and had a strong technical quality we could make it last."

Casey had five radio stations in the fold when American Top 40 debuted in the summer of 1970. A year later there were 100 and by the middle of the decade, he was coast to coast on more than 1,000 places on the dial. The ubiquitous countdown even cracked the Armed Forces Radio Network, becoming one of the government-run entity’s first concessions to the rising tide of a changing culture.

It was a time when Kasem’s one-of-a-kind tone seemed to be everywhere. He is the voice of Shaggy in the Scooby Doo cartoon series. He did commercials for Dairy Queen, Ford, Heinz, Century 21, Rice-a-Roni, Friskies and many, many more. He was the studio voice of the NBC television network for nearly a decade.

Still, the countdown remains the gold standard of an iconic career.

"Growing up with people like Elvis and the Beatles makes me feel as though I was born into music," Casey said. "I have a feeling about radio and popular music that those just getting into the business don't have. I was there when music was changing almost day-by-day and I guess that has made me a part of it all."

“I guess I’ll always be known as a disc jockey,” he confessed as I reluctantly brought our conversation to a close, “but I find nothing wrong with that. I’ve played a billion dollars’ worth of music and I have a billion dollars’ worth of memories.”

Vince Turner is regional manager at MutualBank. He is a former Elkhart Truth sportswriter and WTRC-AM sports director.


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