While many pop music fans can trace the spark for their interest to the moptop madness of The Beatles, the riotous anger of punk, or the social realism of early hip-hop, I can largely thank one man: Casey Kasem.
His nationally syndicated, three-hour radio show, the pioneering American Top 40, debuted in the summer of ‘70, just as my 13-year-old self was developing a musical personality. Prior to that, I was happy to absorb whatever was around -- dad’s carefully tended Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cal Tjader albums, my sisters’ stack of shiny black singles in their colorful sleeves -- and hadn’t given it too much thought.
But, in that year, music for me became more than just a background soundtrack for a life of baseball cards, sci-fi novels, and The Brady Bunch. The Guess Who’s American Woman, Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky, The Temptations’ Psychedelic Shack, and especially the Jackson 5’s trio of awesome -- I Want You Back, ABC, and the absolutely glorious The Love You Save -- proved to be siren songs to the shoals of AM radio.
That’s when I stumbled across American Top 40, radio DJ Kasem’s weekly countdown of the country’s 40 most popular songs as compiled by Billboard magazine. Airing Sundays, it proved to be a revelation: he aired tracks that sometimes weren’t getting airplay in LA where I lived and, long before that wellspring of trivia known as the Internet was born, he offered little stories and background about each song.
On the debut show, Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s anti-war Ohio sat comfortably next to Marvin Gaye’s seriously soulful End of Our Road, Mountain’s proto-metal Mississippi Queen, The Moody Blues’ prog-rock Questions, the Impressions’ psychedelic-soul Check Out Your Mind, Miguel Rios’ quasi-classical A Song of Joy, as well as The Beatles’ Long and Winding Road and Elvis Presley’s The Wonder of You. A musical education in three-minute increments, this sonic smorgasbord is impossible to find on today’s equivalent to Top 40 radio.
And knitting it all together with a voice radiating warmth and knowledge was Mr. Kasem who was a weekly connection to a world that seemed both distant and fascinating.
As luck and fate would have it, many years later, I ended up working at Billboard and Watermark, the company that produced American Top 40. While my lowly duties meant rarely crossing paths with Mr. Kasem, just working in the same environment was a rush.
My lasting memento of that time is an autographed copy of the discs containing the very first American Top 40, broadcast on July 4, 1970.
Of course, by the time I got this keepsake, my musical tastes had broadened. I had deserted AM for FM, traded singles for elaborate albums with gatefold sleeves, and would later move on to CDs, downloads and streaming.
But as I sit here, with news of his passing still fresh, listening to that first AT40 with both the famous (Carpenters) and forgotten (Crabby Appleton) ringing in my ears, it takes me back to those lazy post-church Sundays, ears glued to the radio, waiting for the gospel according to Kasem. And the lessons learned are as valuable today as they were 44 years ago.
He would end each show with his trademark slogan: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
Not a bad philosophy for any 13-year-old.