With a warm, crisp delivery that trumpeted Michael Jackson and Motley Crue with equal reverence, pioneering DJ Casey Kasem owned Sunday mornings in the '70s and '80s. His American Top 40 was one of the most popular — and inclusive — radio shows ever, gathering both kids and parents, a rare feat indeed.
Broadcast over a whopping 450-plus stations at the height of his success, the ever-perky Mr. Kasem spent three to four hours teasing that week's No. 1 song, back when his list, and his No. 1, were the only ones that truly mattered. Would it be Marvin Gaye? Madonna? Duran Duran? Run-D.M.C.? Everyone was invited to Casey's party.
At one point during American Top 40's reign, more than 40 million people — my beach-bound family in our Country Squire station wagon included — were reportedly tuning in every week.
Mr. Kasem, 82, died Sunday from complications related to Lewy body dementia, which is like a combination of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. His final days in Washington state became a gruesome deathwatch that played out publicly. His sparring family — three kids from a first marriage versus a wife and a child from a second — battled over his health and his considerable wealth.
Over the protests of his second wife, actor Jean Kasem, whom Mr. Kasem married in 1980, a Los Angeles County judge gave his daughter, Kerri Kasem, the right to end her father's intake of food, water and medicine.
That we were so invested in these tabloidal goings-on speaks volumes about Mr. Kasem's unique place in pop culture. Much like fellow broadcasters Dick Clark and Walter Cronkite, Mr. Kasem seemed like one of the family. The Detroit native also gave iconic vocal life to Norville "Shaggy" Rogers, the slouched hippie with the perpetual munchies in Scooby-Doo. Zoinks, that's hall-of-fame material on its own.
Born Kemal Amin Kasem to Lebanese immigrant parents, Mr. Kasem had a prolific broadcasting career. He was a journeyman who once spun records on the Armed Forces Radio Korea Network. Among other notable turns, he was later the voice of both the NBC network and Batman's "Boy Wonder" Robin on the animated Super Friends.
But it was American Top 40, launched July 4, 1970 — the last time the Beatles and Elvis Presley were in the Top 10 together — that made Mr. Kasem an icon. (The No. 1 song was Three Dog Night's cover of Randy Newman's Mama Told Me Not to Come.)
Today, lists and radio stations and listeners are divided by genre, by digital, by iTunes and YouTube and social-media diversions. We discover and enjoy music in highly isolated ways. But back then, Mr. Kasem's word was king, and much like his radio predecessors in the earlier 20th century, he had a nation huddled around the dial, perhaps the last time we would collectively do so.
His enunciation was flawless, his cadence smooth, his bubbly catchphrases oft-imitated: "Now, on with the countdown!" "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars!" That he was not really a fan of the tunes he played — "I've never loved listening to music," he told Mother Jones in 1989 — didn't matter. He was also a bit of a control freak and a prude, refusing to say the title of George Michael's hit I Want Your Sex in 1987.
And yet, his unflagging earnestness (and considerable acting skills) was part of his charm, especially those deliciously ripe "long-distance dedications" that would make my mother sob in the front seat. Mr. Kasem read those letters with all the gravitas and sincerity in the world: "Casey, could you kindly play Dan Hill's Sometimes When We Touch for my girlfriend Bess in Appleton, Wisconsin? Signed, Reggie. Okay, Reggie, here's your dedication."
The show became so popular that in 1978 it expanded from three to four hours, making room for more advertising and longer songs. It also incorporated elements that future radio shows would borrow: the "number jingles" ("Number tennnn!"), whatever-happened-to segments, teases before commercial breaks.
Inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, Mr. Kasem left American Top 40 in 1988 over a contract dispute. He would go on to host various iterations of his famous show — Casey's Top 40, Casey's Hot 20, Casey's Countdown — and then return to his original gig, from 1998 to 2004, when he eventually handed the reins to host Ryan Seacrest.
But 1970 to 1988 were the magic years, when Mr. Kasem counted down the hits and kept a nation rapt, all those moms and dads, sons and daughters, listening together, waiting (and waiting) for the No. 1 song in the country. We might have reached for the stars, but we never dared reach to change that radio dial.
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.