Remembering Casey Kasem: Regional Hero, National Treasure

Casey Kasem 2003 - P 2014
AP Photo/David G. Massey

Casey Kasem 2003 - P 2014

I first remember hearing the smooth, dulcet tones of Casey Kasem in the summer of 1963 on the Pasadena-based radio station KRLA, where the disc jockey shared the dial with Bob Eubanks, Dave Hull and Jimmy O‘Neill.

During a six-year tenure at the Top 40 powerhouse (1963 - 1969), Casey introduced us to the sounds of Sonny & Cher, the Bobby Fuller Four and Thee Midniters. He was an early advocate of the R&B music coming from East L.A., spinning the Premiers’ “Farmer John” and Cannibal and the Headhunters’ “Land of a 1000 Dances.”

In the ‘60s, I would occasionally see Casey at events in the San Fernando Valley or at the annual Teenage Fair held at the Hollywood Palladium. He was an accessible radio personality who had the rare ability to establish a firm connection to our ears. His vocals were perfectly attuned to our newly acquired transistor radios. Kasem’s approach was not frenetic like many of his peers, but pleasant, conversational and confessional. We trusted him, even when he was reading on-air spots for Coppertone suntan lotion.

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On his afternoon shift, Casey would offer biographical information and anecdotes about each record. He’d mention that those who wrote or recorded the songs were former dishwashers and soldiers, often the guys and gals next door. His narrative glued us to the KRLA button just to hear what hit songs he would play next.

In 1966, I danced on the KTLA television program Shebang!, a live daily afternoon teenage music show from Hollywood hosted by Kasem and produced by fellow DJ-turned-entrepreneur Dick Clark. During breaks off-camera, Casey would discuss current tunes on the Top 40 with the enthralled audience. He told me how he originally wanted to be an actor. I really thought he was cool when I saw him in the 1967 outlaw biker movie The Glory Stompers with Dennis Hopper and Jock Mahoney at the Gilmore Drive-In.    

The Doors, the Beau Brummels, The Seeds, Ian Whitcomb, The Turtles, Rudy Vallee and Brenton Wood all appeared on Shebang! Casey and Dick also introduced us to dancers like Famous Hooks and two-step king Buddy Schwimmer.

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In 1970, Kasem and former KHJ program director Ron Jacobs, along with veteran radio executive Tom Rounds, jointly created the American Top 40 syndicated format, where Casey served as host from 1970 to 1988.

In 1979, working as an A&R exec for MCA Records, I crossed paths with Casey. I was toying with the idea of producing spoken-word albums with Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg. Company executives frowned on the idea, but Casey was encouraging, and informed me about the legendary Caedmon Records label, which released albums by poets Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost. He explained it all in that wonderful story-telling style that can only be compared to another local legend, Vin Scully, the Dodger announcer, describing the action on the baseball diamond. 

Casey Kasem was just as influential a figure in L.A. radio lore, a regional discovery who became a national treasure.

Harvey Kubernik is the author of Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972, published by Santa Monica Press.