Casey Kasem 1932 – 2014

Casey Kasem is partly to blame for my lifelong obsession with music.

It goes back to the late 70s and early 80s, when my older sisters listened to the radio and caught the countdowns. They were nowhere near obsessive about it as I was, but it was my eldest sister who would sometimes tape songs off the radio, creating her own mixtapes, a habit I would pick up in the early 80s myself. We’d listen to the American Top 40 on weekends, catching the countdowns during our roadtrips to Keene or Leominster, or I’d catch them while scanning the dial looking for something to listen to while I did my homework.

Kasem was the co-creator of the long-running American Top 40 radio show we all know and love. His version of the countdown was a flashier, glossier version of the old AM Top 40 announcer of the 50s and 60s, ready with a soundbite or a PSA or an emotional Long Distance Dedication. Sure, it was scripted and flashy and aimed to excite the listeners, move them emotionally somehow, and it worked. Kasem delivered it with panache, sometimes corny and sometimes ridiculous in its earnestness, but you could tell he meant every single word of it. The whole point was to say “Hey–listen to these great songs.” The countdown itself was originally pulled straight from Billboard (and later Radio and Records, and now Mediabase) so you understood that it was about sales and popularity, but that was part of the game–what song was going to hit Number 1 this week? Who was it going to unseat from that top spot? What new songs would debut? Kasem understood this game, and played it perfectly.

He was also one of the deejays with a distinctive voice: Wolfman Jack’s growl, Howard Stern’s bassy, nasal chatter, the homey drawl of Garrison Keillor…the showbiz flash of Casey Kasem. It was also the voice of Scooby Doo‘s Shaggy of course, forever regaling us with the classic flustering “Zoinks!”, but for many of us, especially those of us who tuned in every week, it was the friendly voice of our best friend the music geek, giving us the most obscure and left-field music trivia about our favorite songs. He’d even throw a fascinating 12-inch remix in there if he could. It was great fun.

I wasn’t a constant listener to AT40, but for a while there in the mid-80s, from around 1984 to 1987, I listened enough to pick up on all the latest and greatest. A lot of my mixtapes from then were songs culled from those countdowns. Those mixtapes would in turn inspire my ‘compilation’ mixtapes, and his countdowns would inspire my end-of-year countdowns over the years. He was a showman and quite an inspiration to me.

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