“The day the music died,” according to Don McLean’s legendary 1971 hit “American Pie,” was February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) perished in a plane crash while touring. Fifty years later came another day that rock music sustained a mortal blow—July 4, 2009, when the famed disc jockey Casey Kasem retired. The American Top 40 brand he co-created continues, with Ryan Seacrest as host, but no one can argue that it isn’t the same without his flagship personality.
The program debuted almost 30 years earlier, on July 4, 1970. AT40 was the culmination of a career spent mostly over the airwaves, with a sideline in voiceover work and the occasional film and TV appearance. Born on April 27, 1932, in Detroit, Michigan, the Lebanese-American Kasem found his calling early. “I started in radio in 1950 on The Lone Ranger program, which emanated from Detroit,” he recalled. “I was 18 years old and just beginning college.”
Upon graduating from Wayne State University, Kasem was drafted into the US Army, where he acted as a DJ/announcer for the Armed Forces Radio Korea Network. Back in the United States, California beckoned, and in the early 1960s he deejayed at KYA in San Francisco and KEWB in Oakland, where he began to hone a persona that mixed platter spinning with trivia about the tunes. Kasem would go on to deejay in Cleveland, OH, Buffalo, NY, and Los Angeles.
“This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood, and in the next three hours, we'll count down the 40 most popular hits in the United States this week,” began the inaugural broadcast of AT40 (which started with Marvin Gaye’s “The End of Our Road” at No. 40 and concluded with Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” at No. 1, and was the last time Elvis Presley and The Beatles had Top 10 songs simultaneously on the charts). After a slow but steady start, AT40 was heard on 520 stations across the US and in 50 countries worldwide by the early 1980s, making it the most listened-to radio program in history.
Format changes spurred the show's growth, notably one adopted in 1978, when it expanded to four hours as singles became longer in length. “We tell stories. We talk about statistics,” Kasem recalled. “And we added an element of the show that gave it its heartbeat: the long-distance dedication.” Neil Diamond’s “Desiree” was the first song dedicated by one listener to a far-flung loved one (in that case a woman who was moving to an American air base in Germany with her family). From then on, Kasem recorded two dedications per broadcast.
Listeners tuned in for the dedications and the stories behind the songs, and American Top 40 generated trivia of its own. It never banned songs, which led to Chuck Berry’s only No. 1 hit, “My Ding-a-Ling” (1972), being edited out of the broadcast by some affiliate stations offended by its purported innuendo. (Stations were still removing that song from rerun broadcasts as late as 2008.) Other tunes that pricked up censors’ ears included “Roxanne” by The Police and Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” and Kasem himself refused to call George Michael’s chart-topping “I Want Your Sex” by name in 1987. The biggest Top 40 hits of the Kasem era? In the 1970s, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”; in the 1980s, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”; in the 1990s, Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever,” and in the 2000s, Usher’s “Yeah!”
Kasem had other sideline gigs, most famously voicing the hipster Shaggy on the Scooby-Doo cartoon (and Shaggy’s father for a 2010 reprise). But through a history of format permutations, spin-offs, and a hiatus or two, American Top 40 is his enduring legacy. He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1992.
Ill with Lewy body disease, a form of progressive dementia, and away from the microphone, Kasem's last years were marred by public infighting by the children of his first marriage with his second wife, Jean Kasem, over visitation rights. (Jean, who was married to Kasem for 34 years, was a Cheers cast member known for her flamboyant attire and towering over her husband in photos.)
Kasem died from complications of Lewy body disease at a hospital in Gig Harbor, Washington, this morning. It’s only fitting that a remembrance gives him the final say, the sign-off with which he closed every AT40 broadcast: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
Read Casey Kasem's full bio.