In a pre-podcast world, back in the dim recesses of a 1970s media world that tended to unify rather than atomize, there were a few voices that were the narrators of a generation.
There were Wolfman Jack, Rick Dees (we hated “Disco Duck,” too) and a few others. But I remember Casey Kasem’s baritone. It was a familiar, genial, preternaturally happy voice on radio.
As host of “American Top 40,” a nationally syndicated program that most teenagers listened to then, Kasem dutifully marched us through No. 40 down through the tedium of the upper 20s, right on through down to the Top 10, and, finally, No. 1.
That announcement became a national guessing game among the blow-dried, feathered, baggy, platformed, flared teens of that era.
Kasem started his career in the U.S. Army on the Armed Forces Radio Network in the 1950s, then took a series of disc jockey roles in California and New York. He was also an accomplished voice character actor, most notably the voice of Shaggy on “Scooby-Doo.”
As a Lebanese American, he was active in contributing to the national dialogue on anti-Arab discrimination. But his most notable career achievement was the development of “American Top 40,” which he hosted in some form from 1970 until 2009.
One of his signature riffs was the “long-distance dedication,” where some lovelorn teen would have his romantic dream articulated by this electronic Cyrano.
Perhaps the most popular feature of Kasem’s show was the trivia question immediately before a commercial break, which would invariably sound something like, “This group had four No. 2 songs in the Top 40, but they never hit No. 1.
“We’ll find out who they were right after this.”
A Clearasil ad interrupted, of course.
“That band was Creedence Clearwater Revival. Now back to our countdown.”
How many dates in Dad’s Ford Galaxie 500 or AMC Gremlin, or in my case a 1970 Mustang, did Kasem provide the warm soundtrack? How many teen angst-ridden nights did Kasem provide a friendly voice when all seemed lost?
How many warm evenings at a Midwestern Dairy Queen or a California beach did Kasem count down to that No. 1, which often surprised us? How many Monday morning school conversations started with, “I cannot BELIEVE that ‘Moonlight Feels Right’ was No. 18 and ‘Mamma Mia’ was only No. 39!”
Casey Kasem died on Sunday at age 82. So here’s a long-distance dedication to you, Casey.
And now, on to the countdown.