Adios, Casey Kasem: Keep Reaching for the Stars
"Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."
It's good advice that was delivered weekly for dozens of years by Casey Kasem. The radio personality, whose American Top 40 countdown was a pop-culture fixture for more than 40 years, passed away on Father's Day at the age of 82.
You may have seen the recent stories about his waning health or the unfortunate infighting occurring within his family. Since this is Rocks Off and not Inside Edition, we'll focus on what made Kasem important to music.
Since word of his death broke, SiriusXM, iHeartRadio and other media outlets have aired some of his old shows in tribute. I listened to iHeartRadio's broadcast Monday, which included about four hours of Kasem counting down the top 100 hits of 1975. It was a perfect episode for me personally, from a time when I was really starting to love music, as a 10-year-old. And it was a reminder of why Kasem was so important to me and many others who have flooded the Internet over the last few days with our condolences and thanks.
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It's odd to consider someone you've never met as critical to your own experience, but Kasem was to mine, for sure. We spent more weekends together than I can count. Saturday mornings, I'd fill up bowl after bowl of Apple Jacks and there he was, as the voice of Norville Rogers -- better known as "Shaggy" -- with his pal, Scooby-Doo. The next morning, there he was again, on the radio, counting down Billboard's biggest hits on American Top 40, a show he co-founded in 1970.
I listened to Casey count 'em down and time traveled to the back seat of my dad's fly-as-hell Mercury-Lincoln Cougar. That's where I heard Kasem lots, on Sunday-morning trips to visit relatives in Galveston. Even if we skipped a Sunday trip to the island, we tuned into Casey on the way to and from church, just to hear which song was No. 1 that week.
If you've ever heard AT40, or Casey's Top 40, another of his radio programs, or you watched him count down the hits on television on America's Top 10, you know he loved music as much as, if not more than, you. He was more than just a DJ introducing songs -- he made every song seem interesting. He was a master of the teaser, setting up the next song so brilliantly you had no choice but listen to the Thunderbolt Transmission or I.W. Marks ad just to hear which song he'd alluded to before the break.
Kasem shared anecdotes about the musicians who made the songs, humanizing the artists for us. In Monday's broadcast -- which was recorded nearly 40 years ago -- Kasem told the story of the applause at the end of the song, "I Can Help," by Billy Swan. According to Kasem, all the clapping was spontaneous, by Swan's band, because the singer was able to flawlessly complete his vocal track while his large, playful German Shepard gnawed at his leg.
When he introduced Leo Sayer's "Long Tall Glasses," he told how Sayer admitted to getting beaten up for singing. He wasn't being bullied. As a teen, if he heard a band being fronted by a poor singer, he'd just jump onstage and take over the song. The bands and singers showed their displeasure with their fists, but Sayer was willing to take an ass-whoopin' if it meant the song sounded better.
Don't forget, in Kasem's heyday there was no World Wide Web. If he told you Freddy Fender was from San Benito, Texas and did three years in a Louisiana prison in the 1960s for possession of marijuana, he knew that because he did the research. Then, he'd say "On with the countdown..." and introduce "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" (No. 4 on Billboard's Top 100 in 1975!)
What he did was educational. It made you, as a listener, want to learn more -- and not just about music. If he told you that the band Tears for Fears took its name from a form of psychotherapy founded by Dr. Arthur Janov, you might go looking for more info about the good doctor. Since he requested Shaggy be written as a vegan in later Scooby-Doo episodes, he must have influenced some cereal-eaters to look into meatless dietary lifestyles.
Kids like me went on to subscribe to Rolling Stone or SPIN because we demanded to know more about the music we loved and the people who made it. Casey Kasem had instilled that in us.
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The broadcasts weren't just for music nerds, either. A staple was the "Long Distance Dedication," where Kasem read on air a song dedication from an AT40 listener to someone he or she wanted to reach. For example, if I wanted to shout out to my kids during one of their music tours, I might send Kasem a letter asking, "Casey, would you please play Motley Crue's 'Home Sweet Home' for my traveling musician kids? And let 'em know their dad misses 'em and loves 'em? Thanks, Jesse." Then Casey would say, "Jesse, here's your long distance dedication," and the Crue's piano would rise up behind Kasem's voice.
That voice was reassuring, like your favorite, laid-back uncle. One Saturday night, after a Galveston visit, we were headed home. Two blocks from my grandparents' house, a speeding car hit us and threw Dad's fly-as-hell Mercury-Lincoln Cougar into a tree. The car was totaled. We were all hurt and frightened. But, the next morning, when my Uncle Richard drove us home, there was Casey, on the radio, reliable as ever, a comfort during a difficult moment.
Elton John, whose name must have been uttered hundreds of times on air over the years by Kasem, dedicated "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" to him during his Sunday-night closing set at Bonnaroo. Those Kasem influenced professionally, like Ryan Seacrest and Carson Daly, honored him on Twitter. Dozens of celebrities have expressed their condolences.
But most of those paying tribute to Kasem are just folks like you and me, who love music and appreciated what he did. I'm grateful he was there to foster my love for music.I hope there's someone like him today to help create new music lovers everywhere.
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