It was just a matter of time, really. Casey had been severely ill for some time with something called Lewy body dementia and had contracted a serious infection that had him hospitalized. When a judge ruled that food and nutrients could be withheld (as per wishes Casey had set out in a document years ago), the end was near.
Casey died at 3:23am PT Father’s Day (June 15) at St. Anthony Hospital in the Seattle suburb of Gig Harbor. His family released this statement:
“Early this Father’s Day morning, our dad Casey Kasem passed away surrounded by family and friends. Even though we know he is in a better place and no longer suffering, we are heartbroken. Thank you for all your love, support and prayers. The world will miss Casey Kasem, an incredible talent and humanitarian; we will miss our Dad. With love, Kerri, Mike and Julie.”
For many radio listeners who came of age musically in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Casey’s weekly American Top 40 was mandatory listening. In the age before the Internet, Casey not only told his global audience where their favourite songs and artists finished in the chart horserace, he was also a source of music news, information and history.
Casey was also one of the first international DJ celebrities. Yeah, we were enamoured by the DJs on our local station, but here was a guy who broadcast from–gasp!–Hollywood! And when Casey made the transition to TV, he was one of the first–if not the first–DJs we actually saw.
Kasem began his radio career in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s and for the longest was one of those over-the-top screamin’ Top 40 DJs at stations in San Francisco, Oakland, Cleveland and Buffalo before ended up in LA. It was his general manager at KYA in San Francisco that first suggested he tone down his delivery and instead concentrate on talking about the records he played. Casey resisted that, of course–it just wasn’t how radio was done back then.
Eventually, though, he had a change of heart and developed the warm, friendly, non-threatening style for which he became known.
American Top 40 debuted on July 4, 1970, and was facilitated by Tom Rounds, Casey’s producer. The program was based on the top-selling singles in the US as reported by Billboard magazine. Few in the radio business gave the show much chance of succeeding and only seven stations carried that first episode. For the record, the first #1 song was Three Dog Night’s cover of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”
Despite those early naysayers, the show exploded in popularity, eventually finding client stations across the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, Australia, China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and even the Armed Forced Radio Network. Each weekly program reached millions of people. This made Casey one of the most important and influence exporters of American soft power. Thanks to his program, American culture in the form of the rock, pop and country was spread everywhere. The songs on the American Top 40 list became the de facto Top 40 list for Earth.
Casey and his co-creators sold American Top 40’s parent company, Watermark, to ABC in 1982 for a tidy sum. But after running into contract issues over salary with his new master, he appeared on a final show on August 6, 1988, before leaving to start up the competing Casey’s Top 40 in January 1989. That show ran on Westwood One until 1998.
Casey returned to American Top 40 for a few more years, handing off his hosting duties to Ryan Seacrest while continuing to host his a couple other radio countdown programs as well as producing the occasional special. All that ended with his retirement on July 5, 2009. The last song he played was “Second Chance” by Shinedown.
Casey did more than radio, too. Not only was he a staff announcer for NBC for a while, he also appeared in a series of low-budget movies in the late 60s and early 70s. I remember seeing him in this one from 1971 in the role of a guy named Ken.
He was probably more proud of his cameo in Ghostbusters.
And how many millions of kids heard Casey the voice of Shaggy on Scooby Doo?
And finally, everyone who worked their way up in the radio industry was at one time or another exposed to Casey’s infamous dead dog dedication. (I mean no disrespect here. This leaked excerpt show many, many upcoming DJs that Casey was, in fact, very human.)
There were very few DJs who have managed to ascend to Casey’s level. Maybe only Wolfman Jack and John Peel came close. Read more about Casey’s career at AP and Wikipedia. Here’s also a nice tribute from Radio Ink.