For me, there’s a sad symmetry about Casey Kasem dying on a Sunday, because for a period in my teens, I devoted three hours of every Sunday listening to him.
This would have been approximately 1975-1976, when I’d insert a sheet of paper into a typewriter and listen to Kasem’s American Top 40 radio show, typing the title of each song on one side of the page and the artist on the other, in reverse order, as Kasem counted them down from No. 40 to No. 1 as tabulated on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
As a budding music geek, I came to the show -- which Kasem had been doing for several years at that point -- for the songs, rooting for the ones I wanted to hit No. 1 (go, Elton John!) and sneering at No. 1s I didn’t like (Johnnie Taylor’s mindless disco hit Disco Lady at the top three weeks in a row? Gag.).
But between those songs, there was that voice, that calm, affable voice, granting long-distance dedications to separated loved ones, playing “extras” that were often past (and sometimes forgotten) chart hits, dispensing facts about the artists and trivia about songs and chart history.
Although rock-n-roll music existed before 1955, I came to think of “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era” beginning that year, because Kasem frequently reiterated that statement, based on the fact that Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock became the first rock-and-roll song to hit No. 1 that year. Because of Kasem and his show, I still think of 1955 as the beginning that way, even though it would take several years -- even in Elvis Presley’s prime -- for rock music to become such a dominant force on the charts that old-style crooners became chart rarities instead of mainstays.
Kasem wasn’t just a radio personality -- he was also a well-known vegetarian (and eventually vegan), and outspoken about Arab-American rights (he was born Kernal Amin Kasem in 1932 in Detroit). He was also the voice of Shaggy on Scooby-Doo, using a scratchy-squeaky tone that was miles away from his smooth radio cadences. But it’s for radio, and a particularly music-oriented type of radio, that we remember him. Even during the peak years AT40, “Top 40” radio was starting to become something of a misnomer, as contemporary-hit radio rotations tightened to more like Top 30 or even Top 20 formats, but a lot of us still think of making the Billboard Top 40 as the standard for a hit, even in a more digitally oriented time.
I can’t really recall why I drifted away from AT40, not following as Kasem did countdown shows in various forms into the 21st century . Maybe it was because the El Paso station airing it dropped or moved the show (which can still be heard in repeats on Sirius XM’s ‘70s channel), or maybe it was because by the end of ’76, my tastes were drifting more toward what was then known as “album-oriented rock” -- although a lot of the biggest classic-rock albums of the era (Boston’s debut album, the Eagles’ Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) would generate plenty of Top 40 hits.
But I remain a Top 40 obsessive -- at least about past Top 40s. Several years ago, I bought a collection of Billboard chart books, a volume for each decade, the ’50s through the ’90s. I’ve used them to make year-based iTunes playlists (I haven’t even gotten close to my AT40 listening days) and to post key songs from my past on my Facebook page.
I think Kasem had a lot to do with me developing this somewhat eccentric hobby. And I’d rather not dwell on all the infighting among his family members that preceded his final days. He ended every show by saying, “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” I’d like to think that he has just reached those stars.