Thursday, 26 June 2014

Casey Kasem's 'American Top 40'

Casey Kasem in Hollywood.

I went to live in the USA in 1971. I made Newark, N.J. my American town and I used to listen to New York City's radio stations. WABC was Brazilians' favourite radio stations but I listened to all of them and preferred FM stations because the sound was clearer. I don't know exactly when but I found out about Casey Kasem's program 'American Top Forties' on a Sunday morning in the 1972 Fall when I was searching the dials for my favourite songs. 

WPIX FM 102 was the radio station in which I listened to 'American Top 40'. I had been a fan of Hit Parades on the radio since I was a kid of 11, when my family moved from a small town to São Paulo. I was extremely happy to find a Hit Parade show on WPIX on the Sunday morning exactly as I was used to do it in the early 1960s in Brazil. 

I used to tape parts of the show to be able to listen to Casey later. My English was not very good and I had to listen to the same thing sometimes up to 10 times to understand what had been said. I could easily say that Casey Kasem was one of my best teachers of English-as-a-foreign language. I still have a cassette tape where Casey Kasem announces the Number One single of the week: 'Baby don't get hooked on me' by Mac Davies. Michael Jackson's 'Ben' was the runner-up. 

When I came back to Brazil, I kept listening to the tapes I had recorded in 1972-1973 so I could keep English in my consciousness. I kept on increasing my understanding of the language through listening to the same tapes over and over. In Brazil there is a law enacted during WWII that bans foreign-language radio programs, so 'American Top 40' was never beamed in our shores.

Next time I listened to Casey Kasem's 'American Top 40' was in mid-1975 when I returned to the USA. Captain & Tenille's 'Love will keep us together' was #1

When I went to live in Sydney, Australia, in 1981, I was surprised to find 'American Top Forties' on 2UE on the Sunday morning too. I was in heaven again, even though I thought the 1980s were not so glamorous as the 1970s. But still, it was so good to be able to listen to Casey and the information he provided about new and old acts in the countdown. Olivia Newton-John was #1 with 'Physical', that went to be the song with most weeks a #1 for the longest time.

I don't remember when I stopped listening to 'American Top 40'. Probably by the late 1980s when I sort of lost my interest for pop music in general.

I'm really sad to know that Casey Kasem passed away on 15 June 2014. I've read a few articles about his death, but I'm more interested in his life than his death. Everyone will die one day, anyway. So here's some facts about the life of such a wonderful guy:

Casey Kasem's 'American Top 40', which first aired in the summer of 1970, was a weekly 4-hour feast of homey sentiment and American optimism that ran headlong into the prevailing spirit of rebellion in the music culture of the day.

At the height of his career, Casey Kasem was among the best-known D.J.'s in the country. His weekly 4-hour show defined middle-of-the-road radio taste in America at the time. The show gave new life to the Top 40 format at a time when the popularity of the 45 rpm record was waning and FM disc-jockeys were experimenting with more personal formats, creating playlists from their favourite long-playing album cuts.

Mr. Kasem, instead, featured only the singles that Billboard magazine had ranked as the country's most popular in the past week, based on its analysis of airplay - a playlist, in effect, based on the national pop consensus.

Building a radio show on the notion that such a consensus existed was considered a risky proposition in the culturally splintered time. As Time magazine put it, 'He embraced corniness as Vietnam-era cynicism peaked.' But the format struck a chord.

Only 5 radio stations carried the debut of 'American Top 40' on 4 July 1970. But within a year more than 100 did, and by the mid-1970s it had reached nearly 1,000 outlets 'coast to coast', as Mr. Kasem liked to say, making him one of the best-known DJs in the country.

He had modeled the show, he later told interviewers, on the old NCB radio program 'Your Hit Parade' (also known as 'The Lucky Strike Hit Parade'). 'I thought we'd be around for at least 20 years,' he said. 'Because I knew the formula worked'.

'American Top 40' became a mainstay of American radio, offering a crowd-pleasing menu of hits seasoned with Mr. Kasem's heartfelt readings of listeners' song dedications, wholesome anecdotes about the lives of the pop stars, and an endless store of solid, if cringe-inducing, pieces of advice, like his touchstone signoff: 'Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars'.

Not all the dedications were necessarily feel-good, however. A pregnant teenager addressed her boyfriend in prison, for example, and a mother begged her runaway daughter to come home.

Mr. Kasem also hosted a syndicated TV version of the show in the 1980s. But his relationship with 'American Top 40' ended in 1988 because of a contract dispute with his syndication company. The next year, 1989, he started 'Casey's Top 40', a competing radio program on another network, bringing most of his old audience there with him.

About 10 years later, 1999, after acquiring the rights to the name, he was again hosting a show with the title 'American Top 40' (for a time he hosted both that and the competing 'Casey's Top 40'). He ended his three-decade run in 2004, handing the hosting duties to Ryan Seacrest, who continues in that role. Mr. Kasem retired in 2009.

Mr. Kasem, who had a financial interest in his shows, had a net worth estimated by several sources at $80 million. Last year he put his house in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles on the market for $42 million.

Rock'n'roll was never Mr. Kasem's passion, he told interviewers. He knew his subject, and kept up with it in a professional way, but when home, he told Billboard, 'I find myself just wanting to sit in my office and make it as quiet as possible'.

'If I were doing a real rock show,' he told The New York Times in 1990, 'then it would matter to know how I felt about what I was playing'. But, he added, 'I'm just counting them down as they appear on the chart, 1 through 40. What really matters is what I say between the songs'.

Between the songs Mr. Kasem managed to herald the newest of the new with a broadcast style that felt comfortingly old. He set the tone with a neighbourly but precise 1940s-style diction, honed to amiable perfection in a second career as a voice-over artist. With plain-spoken warmth and a partiality to sentiments and phrases ('coast-to-coast' and 'sweetheart' were his favourites, hands down), his delivery evoked another time.

'Hello again, everybody', he said to open most of his shows. 'I'm Casey Kasem, and welcome to 'American Top 40'. I'm all set to count down the 40 most popular songs in the U.S.A.'

When he used biographical teasers to introduce songs ('a high school dropout and a runaway, with a mother who was married six times - coming up,' referring to Cher), Mr. Kasem echoed Paul Harvey on his folksy, long running news broadcasts. But he told NYT that the technique harked back to his childhood in the Middle Eastern immigrant neighbourhood of Detroit.

'I was drawing on the Arabic tradition of storytelling one-upmanship,' he said. 'When I was a kid, men would gather in my parents' living room and tell tales and try to outdo each other. I couldn't understand the language, but I was fascinated.'

Kemal Amen Kasem was born in Detroit on 27 April 1932. His parents Amin and Helen Kasem, were Lebanese immigrants who owned a grocery store.

After graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit, he worked in local radio, produced broadcasts for the Armed Forces Network during a stint in the Army and landed in Los Angeles, at KRLA, where he developed his trademark of introducing records with historical tidbits about the artists and their songs. For a time he also had a local television dance show.

In 1970, along with Don Bustany, a Hollywood movie producer and childhood friend, Mr. Kasem came up with the idea of a countdown radio show modeled after 'Your Hit Parade' and proposed it to the syndication company Watermark Inc., which was later bought by ABC Radio Networks. Mr. Kasem had always wanted to be a movie star, he told interviewers, but never had much success beyond cameo roles in films like 'New York, New York' (1977), in which he played a 1940s disc jockey, and 'Ghostbusters' (1984), in which he played himself.

Casey Kasem's biggest role off the radio was in the TV cartoon series 'Scooby-Doo, Where Are you!' as the voice of Shaggy, the canine hero's goofy companion. In the 1970s and 80s his voice was heard on TV commercials for Sears, Ford, Chevron, Oscar Mayer and Heinz.

Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Mr. Kasem, whose parents belonged to the Druze sect in Lebanon, an offshoot of Islam, became a vocal advocate for Middle East peace and Arab-American causes. In later years he was active in promoting Arab-Israeli dialogue, making personal appearances at mosques and synagogues around the country.

Mr. Kasem, with an audience of 10 million listeners in his heyday, made politeness and decorum hallmarks of his broadcast. His courtly voice seemed capable of rendering the most raunchy song titles in appropriate-sounding phonemes, and when not able, to swerve around the problem effortlessly.

He would no say 'I want your sex' when that was the title of a 1987 hit song, for instance. Instead, Mr. Kasem introduced that one as 'George Michael's latest'.

Given the audicence he imagined for himself, Mr. Kasem could hardly do otherwise. 'I picture people in a car, with Mom and Dad in the front seat, a couple of kids in the back seat, and a grandparent as well,' he told Billboard.

In another interview, he said: 'I feel good that you can be going to synagogue, mosque or church and listen to me, and nobody is going to be embarrased by the language that I use, the innuendo. Quite frankly, I think we're good for America'.

Casey Kassem compering TV show 'Shebang' in the 1960s. 

Casey Kasem, wholesome voice o pop radio, dies at 82.

by Paul Vitello for The New York Times
15 June 2014.

Casey Kasem, a disc jockey who never claimed to love rock'n'roll but who built a long and lucrative career from it, creating and hosting one of radio's most popular syndicated pop music shows, 'American Top 40', died on Sunday, 15 June 2014, in a hospital in Gig Harbor, Washington. He was 82.

His death was announced by Danny Deraney, a spokesman for Mr. Kasem's daughter Kerri. Mr. Kasem had Lewdy body dementia, a progressive disease of the body's neurological and muscel cells.

In addition to his wife, who played the tall, blong, dimwitted character Loretta Tortelli on the sitcom 'Cheers', and their daughter, Liberty, his survivors include his 3 children from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce: Julie, Michael and Kerri Kasem.

In 2007, after he learned he had Lewdy body dementia, Mr. Kasem gave his 3 oldest children legal authority to act as his health care proxy at whatever point he became unable to make decisions himself. The agreement stipulated that he did not want to be kept alive with 'any form of life-sustaining procedures, including nutrition and hydration', if he lost all cognitive function and was given no hope of recovery. Differences between the 3 older children and Mr. Kasem's wife played out in increasingly bitter courtroom clashes in the final months.

In his final months, Mr. Kasem, who had lived in Beverly Hills, California, was at the centre of a family legal battle over the terms of his death, pitting his wife, the actress Jean Kasem, against his 3 adult children from a previous marriage. Ms. Kasem removed her husband from a Santa Monica nursing home on 7 May 2014 and took him to stay with friends in Washington State. By courd order, he was moved to the hospital on 1 June.

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