Casey Kasem’s biggest problem was that he was such a squeaky-clean nice guy, always well-groomed, smiling perpetually, with a clear Midwestern voice that betrayed none of his Arab heritage. Casey Kasem was, by definition, a rock n’ roll lightweight. The guy was a DJ in Cleveland in the ‘50s and didn’t get tangled up in the payola scandal—how nerdy is that?
Kasem was also the voice of the late baby boomers, much as James Earl Jones will be the voice of the millennial generation. Once you start looking, you’ll find out his voice was everywhere the ‘70’s, most memorably (and brilliantly) as the stutteringly bemused Shaggy in the high-water mark of Hanna-Barbara cartoonery, Scooby-Doo. Kasem’s genius, and his chief aggravation, was that he always sounded like your dad trying to be hip.
We wouldn’t be talking about Kasem though had it not been for American Top 40, where week after week from July 4, 1970 onward Kasem counted down the most popular songs in the country like a third grade science teacher on bennies. Kasem was nobody’s hero—not his listeners, and oddly though understandably not the musicians who’s music he played: What would be the point, American Top 40 was an entirely democratic operation. There are no pictures of Led Zeppelin with Casey Kasem.
The importance of American Top 40 cannot be understated. We listened to it religiously (on WABB-AM, Saturday afternoons), memorized where our favorite songs ranked from week to week, and wondered what new #1 would be played at the end of each show. It should be stated firmly that Kasem’s show was the first inkling many of us had for the demented obsession with musical list-making. Much more importantly yet with no way of really knowing for sure, I think that American Top 40 kept AM radio honest—even in Mobile Alabama, a radio station couldn’t avoid playing Al Green if “Let’s Stay Together” was Casey Kasem’s #1.
And it wasn’t really Casey Kasem’s #1 either, all Kasem did was run down the Billboard rankings. But somehow he got through our front door. So welcome to rock n’ roll heaven sir.