Casey Kasem, American Original

Casey Kasem

Image courtesy of Billboard100

Casey Kasem, American Original
| published July 7, 2014 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review Features Editor

Casey Kasem wouldn't claim he created legends, but popular culture would have been a hollow shell of itself if his “American Top 40” radio show hadn't introduced generations of young listeners to the pop soundtrack.

Kasem, 82, passed away June 15, 2014, from sepsis caused by an ulcerated bedsore, according to his doctors. Following a 60-year career in radio, acting, and as the voice of numerous cartoon characters, his life ended amid a family feud over end-of life decisions and who would retain his remains.

An island of calm in a swirl of rock and roll and pop music, Kasem's supposed golden years were considered most bizarre and tragic because he was known otherwise for being loving, caring, inspirational, upbeat, gentle and romantic.

"The world will miss Casey Kasem, an incredible talent and humanitarian," said Kerri, Mike, and Julie—children from his first marriage. "We will miss our dad."

A bitter legal battle erupted—dating back numerous years—which pitted his wife, Jean, against those children, especially as Kasem's health deteriorated. Kasem dominated radio airwaves from 1970 until his retirement in 2009, leaving an incredible and heartwarming legacy which hopefully won't be eclipsed by the horrible squabble engendered by bad blood over healthcare and visitation issues.

Kasem had been incorrectly diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2007, which was later changed to a progressive brain disorder called Lewy body dementia—the most misdiagnosed form of dementia. Like Alzheimer's, LBD is characterized by confusion and memory loss, but includes visual hallucinations, severe sleep disruptions, fluctuating alertness and problems with movement.

During his final days, Kasem's three children said they were complying with their father's wishes to die comfortably and peacefully surrounded by family and friends, but his present wife claimed they ceded care and prematurely ended their father's life.

Kasem was born in Detroit, where he started his radio career, eventually graduating from Wayne State University. The U.S. Army drafted him during the Korean War in 1952, shipping him out to Korea where he served as a disc jockey and announcer on Armed Forces Radio. After the war, Kasem worked his way up the ladder, starting in Flint, Michigan, before progressing to Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland. And then, as it often does to folks with genuine talent, the West Coast beckoned. He was welcomed warmly in San Francisco, but the City of Angels—Los Angeles—is where he became a superstar.

The show that made Kasem's career was “American Top 40,” where his smooth delivery counted down the hits in a soft, homey voice, almost the polar opposite of shock jocks and screaming big-city voices. He pretty much blanketed the nation, broadcasting on approximately 1,000 stations at his peak, anywhere from Connecticut to Kansas, California to Kentucky, and everywhere in between.

He interspersed stories among the songs, mesmerizing his audience with not just music, but anecdotes concerning interactions with fans or gee-whiz tales about stars' lives before they hit it big.

Almost always upbeat in nature, Kasem's listeners seldom heard a discouraging word unless the story finished with the protagonist overcoming hardship--the darkness before dawn. They especially loved his long-distance dedications, where he would let you dedicate a song for a long-lost or distant lover, hoping that a heart would be stirred.

Thousands of listeners winced at numerous hokey song selections, but his encouraging and caring nature melted cynicism as emotion spilled from letters Kasem read. And the show always ended with Kasem's signature sign-off: "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars."

Three Dog Night's “Mama Told Me Not to Come” debuted at No. 1 on his first American top 40 show. Kasem flew through the disco era, followed by punk, new wave, rock and rap, welcoming all comers under Casey's big pop tent. Ryan Seacrest, a huge fan who counted down the hits at home with Casey as a youngster, took over the show's reins in 2004.

Kasem, who was of Lebanese descent, spoke out throughout his life promoting greater understanding and acceptance of Arab-Americans, although it certainly cost him numerous roles and a small fortune. His career progressed as a Los Angeles area DJ, but he found wider recognition through extensive voice work, including his portrayal of Robin in the animated Batman series. Kasem once admitted his work as Scooby-Doo's sidekick, Shaggy, would outlast anything else he did. Pop music aficionados may brag about American Bandstand, Soul Train, Total Request Live and Spotify playlists, but they'll never be able to ignore American Top 40's impact.

And while Kasem is now at peace with the world, hopefully his families will discover ways to move on with their lives. Just let his fans imagine Casey counting down to John Legend, Pharrell Williams and Iggy Azalea.

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